How Much Protein do Runners Need?

Getting enough protein is critical to strength, endurance and race-day performance. Here’s how to hit your needs.

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.

"We used to think about protein needs as differing between strength and endurance athletes, but now we realize that protein needs between athletes vary largely based on intensity and time spent training," said Pamela Nisevich Bede, RD, a sports dietitian, member of Abbott's nutrition scientific and medical affairs team and a 24-time marathoner.

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. Nisevich Bede recommends runners consume between 0.5 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. For a runner weighing about 150 pounds, that's 75 to 150 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," Nisevich Bede said.

To determine your exact protein needs, Nisevich Bede recommends a loosely calculated approach: "Keep track of what you're eating on a typical day, and calculate the total protein content as your baseline," she said. "Do a gut check on how you're feeling. Are you sore all of the time? Fatigued? If so, build on your protein intake bit by bit. Every day for a week, try eating an additional serving of protein and check back in with yourself."

How to Support Your Running with Protein

Regularly eating whole foods is the foundation of a healthy protein strategy, according to Nisevich Bede. 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, 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 sirloin steak contains 23 grams of protein and a cup of Greek yogurt packs 20 grams).

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, Nisevich Bede 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 calories 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, Nisevich Bede 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," Nisevich Bede said. "Think about your food working for you and make every calorie, in every bite count."

Learn more about fueling your body for your best race and how to stay fit for years to come.

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, Virgin Money London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon. Click here to learn more.