How Much Protein Do Runners Really Need?

Woman ProteinThe Athlete’s Kitchen
Copyright: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD  May 2015

Muscles fibers sustain damage during hard training. Repairing and building muscle is a critical component to successful training and gaining strength. Prevailing beliefs are:

1) The more protein you eat, the more muscle you will build.
2) Protein supplements are more effective than food.

Let’s take a look at what the research* says.

    • The amount of protein needed to build muscles ranges between 0.6 to 0.8 grams protein/lb body weight (1.2 to 1.7 g /kg). If you are starting a strength building program, target the higher amount to support the growth of new muscles. Experienced lifters do fine with the lower amount.

    • Evenly distributing your protein intake throughout the day is important to optimize your body’s ability to build muscle. Instead of skipping breakfast, eating a light lunch, and chowing down on a huge dinner with 90 grams of protein, the better bet is to consume about 25-30 grams of protein at each meal (a standard serving of meat, fish, chicken; a generous portion of plant protein) and 10 to 15 grams at afternoon and evening snacks.
    • Food can naturally provide the 95 to 135 g protein needed by a 120-lb (55 kg) female or 170-lb (77 kg) male runner.
    • While consuming 30 grams of protein at dinner is simple (a small chicken breast), boosting protein intake at breakfast and lunch protein can be more of a challenge if you eat on the run. Protein-rich breakfast foods that add 20 to 30 g protein include:
      1-cup cottage cheese (with banana and whole wheat toast)
      3-egg omelet with a handful of shredded low-fat cheese
      2 hard boiled eggs (pre-cooked) and a tall latte
      1 cup Greek yogurt with granola + a handful of slivered almonds
    • Dieting runners need more protein: about 1 gram per pound body weight (2 g/kg), when calorie intake is limited. During an energy deficit, you will burn protein for fuel, not use it for building muscles. That’s why it’s hard to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. To lose undesired body fat, chip away at fat-loss by knocking off only 200 to 500 calories in the evening, to create a small deficit.
    • Consuming more than 0.6 to 0.8 grams protein per pound of body weight (1.2 to 1.7 g pro/kg) is not better. Your body can use just so much protein to build and repair muscles. Excess protein does not get stored as bulging muscles; rather, it gets burned for fuel. Excess calories from unused protein get stored as body fat.
    • Muscles are most receptive to using amino acids (the building blocks of protein) within the 30 to 60 minutes after you exercise. Yet, muscles continue to utilize the amino acids (at a slower rate) over the course of the next 24 hours. The supplement industry urges you to consume their (conveniently available) recovery products ASAP, so you don’t miss the “anabolic window of opportunity.” That window doesn’t completely close!
    • Leucine, an essential amino acid (EAA), triggers muscles to grow bigger and stronger. The recommended post-exercise dose of leucine is about 2 to 3 grams. That is the amount in a scoop of most whey protein powders. But you don’t have to buy whey protein to get leucine. Leucine is an all protein-rich foods, with animal proteins offering more than plant proteins. Drinking 16 ounces of chocolate milk gives a hefty leucine dose and is far tastier than many recovery protein shakes!
    • If you consume whey, your muscles quickly get the leucine they need for growth and repair. But if you consume a variety of proteins from natural foods, you’ll get a variety of quickly available and longer-lasting EAAs that support continual growth and repair over a longer period of time. Twenty-percent of the protein in milk is from whey (fast acting) and 80% is from casein (slow acting). They work in synergy.
    • Protein powders can be convenient for making protein shakes, but a less expensive option is instant (dried) milk. To boost the protein in your breakfast shake, simply blend 1 cup milk (dairy or soy, not rice or almond!) + 1/3 cup instant milk + 2 Tbsp peanut butter + a banana. Voila, 25 grams of balanced protein from natural, yummy, standard foods!
    • The benefits of using powdered milk instead of a protein powder include: it is a nutrient-rich “real food” that offers more than just protein. It is rich in calcium (for bones), riboflavin (to convert food into energy), vitamin D (to boost the immune system), and a multitude of other life-sustaining nutrients. I consider protein powders to be highly refined engineered products that lack natural goodness.
    • When you use “real food” such as (instant) milk, you know you are getting the nutrients you paid for. But if you buy whey protein, you might be getting cheated. Whey has become very expensive. It is not uncommon for companies to “dilute” whey with less expensive protein sources or fillers (talcum powder!). Buyer beware…

 

Summary

By eating a protein-rich food at each meal and snack, you will get the protein, essential amino acids, and leucine needed to support your muscle-building training program. Be sure to also consume some grains, fruits, and vegetables (carbohydrates) along with the protein to fuel your muscles so they can perform hard lifting sessions. The goal is three times more calories from carbs than from protein, such as eggs + bagel; nuts + dried fruit; milk + chocolate flavoring; chicken + rice.

With hard work and optimal fueling, you should see changes in your physique. But take note: The amazingly buff bodies in muscle magazines can be deceptively photo-shopped. Muscles do have a genetic limit and you cannot completely redesign your body (without steroids or plastic surgery, that is).

P.S. Few people can achieve the “perfectly buff” body while enjoying a normal lifestyle. I encourage you to strive for an excellent body. Excellence is way more attainable then perfection. The high price of looking buff often interferes with meaningful relationships with people who likely could care less about how you look. Your best friends should love you from the inside out, not because of your looks.

* The information is from Nancy Rodriguez PhD of the University of Connecticut and Stuart Phillips PhD of McMaster University. They are both well-respected protein researchers who shared their knowledge at SCAN’s Annual Conference in Colorado Springs, May 2015. SCAN is the 7,000-member Sports and Cardiovascular Nutrition practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. SCAN’s referral network (www.SCANdpg.org) can help you find a local Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels active people at her private practice in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). For more information, enjoy reading her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners, soccer players, and cyclists. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Also see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com for online education.

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