Strength athletes have long hailed the benefits of protein. But endurance runners, not so much.
As it turns out though, protein is just as important for distance runners as it is for weightlifters — aiding in tissue repair, exercise recovery, injury prevention, immune function and the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
"Runners definitely need to consider their protein needs, and we've learned a lot over the last few years," said Ashley Ludlow, MS, RD, a member of Abbott's nutrition sales team as well as a Road Runners Club of America certified running coach, and triathlete and marathoner. "Rather than label someone a 'strength' or an 'endurance' athlete, we now realize that protein needs between athletes vary largely based on intensity and time spent training."
How Much Protein Do Runners Need?
More than you probably think.
While the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, research shows that's too low for many adults — especially athletes. Ludlow recommends runners consume between 0.5 to .9 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. For a runner weighing about 150 pounds, that's 75 to 135 grams of protein a day.
Short-distance runners can likely get by with eating half their weight in grams of protein per day. But those running more than a few hours a week — which includes most endurance runners and marathoners — likely need to consume closer to their body weight in grams of protein.
"The more energy you burn off in exercise, the more protein you need to ensure that your body doesn't break down your muscles to fuel your workouts," Ludlow said.
To determine your exact protein needs, a registered dietitian can help, Ludlow said, adding that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a searchable database of nutrition experts. Enter your zip code to find a list of registered dietitians in your area.
How to Support Your Running with Protein
Regularly eating whole foods is the foundation of a healthy protein strategy, according to Ludlow. Spacing protein throughout the day keeps your body stocked with an ample pool of amino acids, the building blocks of both protein and your body's cellular structure. Plus, filling each meal with whole foods affords your body not just protein, but a wealth of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that further aid exercise recovery, help reduce injury risk and support stronger running performances.
The most energy-efficient sources of protein include lean meats, low-fat dairy and eggs. Calorie for calorie, animal-based foods contain a full spectrum of amino acids and the highest amounts of protein. (For instance, a 3-ounce broiled sirloin steak with the fat trimmed off contains 24.6 grams of protein and 186 kilocalories and a cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt packs 17.3 grams of protein and 100 kilocalories).
In comparison, most plant-based protein sources, such as nuts, seeds, quinoa and dark, leafy greens are less protein-dense and don't contain all essential amino acids in the proportions needed to support the body's needs. That's why it's important to enjoy a variety of protein sources throughout the day, effectively consuming a blend of amino acids that meets your health needs and supports performance goals, Ludlow said.
Whatever your dietary preference, getting enough protein can be challenging. That's where protein supplementation, such as Ensure Max Protein, can help. (One serving of Ensure Max Protein packs 30 grams of protein and 150 kilocalories to help fuel your body.) The nutrition shakes are easy to drink while you’re on the go and can be in your car waiting for you at the end of a trail run, Ludlow said.
She recommends that within an hour of finishing a workout, runners feed their bodies 15 to 30 grams of protein and ample fluids.
"Keep it simple," Ludlow said. "Remember that with every bite, you're preparing for your best race."
Abbott is the title sponsor of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon, TCS London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon. Click here to learn more.
This story was originally published on August 12, 2020. It was updated on June 28, 2021 and on August 9, 2022.