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The New Rules of Protein

Boost your runs and health with our guide to the mighty macro. Here are the new rules of protein.

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Protein is the current darling among nutrients. If you’ve noticed the influx of high-protein pasta and Paleo-worthy crispy chicken chips (yes, that is a thing) on the market, it seems we can’t get enough of the stuff. With carbohydrates and, to a lesser extent, fat continually coming under criticism, it leaves protein as the star macro. 

While collectively the fitness world has become a little obsessed with this macronutrient, it can also be said that runners often remain guilty of taking protein intake too lightly. More of an afterthought in the pursuit of the necessary carbs to power PR pursuits. Sure, it won’t provide much fuel for your runs, but protein is of particular importance to runners, who need it to optimize performance and recovery. Consider protein vital for pretty much every cellular function including moving oxygen throughout your body, bolstering immunity and forming new muscle, which is literally made from the stuff. 

If you’re wondering how much is enough and what the best sources are, start with these protein eating rules to make it work better for you.

Rule 1: Aim High

White meat on a grill, high protein meal.
Photo: Unsplash

As a runner, you likely don’t need to stuff in as much protein as Arnold Schwarzenegger during his bodybuilding hey-day, but you certainly require more than the sedentary population. And modern research has gotten closer to nailing down just how much should be on your daily menu.  

Researchers from the University of Toronto concluded that on training days runners should aim to consume 1.6 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. A separate report in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism stresses that track and field athletes would be wise to take in 1.6 grams of protein for each kilo of body weight for optimal training adaptations. These numbers are about twice the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein recommended to the general population. This is enough to make-up for any protein that is burned up for energy needs during exercise and, more importantly, to support the repair and anabolism (growth) of muscular tissue — a key aspect in helping your run faster and injury-free. You won’t be able to run your best in the future unless you recover properly from today’s run and you need sufficient protein to get the job done. Taking in sufficient amounts of protein may also help runners increase their VO2max — the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise and a key part of performance capacity. 

Protein needs for women runners may change throughout the menstrual cycle, but science needs to play catch-up to nail down women’s specific sport nutrition needs. Some data suggests that female athletes are more likely to fail to reach their protein and overall nutrition needs to support training. And if you are following any of the popular low-carb diets take heed of a Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study which discovered that running on low carbohydrate availability increases the amount of protein that needs to be consumed since the burn rate for amino acids during a workout is higher when muscles need to rely less on carb stores. 

Using the chart at the end of this article, you’ll see that you don’t need to gnaw on Flintstone-sized steaks and guzzle milk by the gallon to nail your heightened protein goal. You just need to be consistent about getting adequate amounts of protein at each of your meals and snacks as part of a well-balanced diet that also includes quality carbs and healthy fats. It appears that there is little benefit concerning muscle recovery and strength to taking in more protein than the upper range suggested by the aforementioned research.

Rule 2: Protein Helps Stabilize Hunger

The benefit of protein goes beyond your muscles. Since it dulls hunger via a multitude of factors including hormone responses a meal or snack with sufficient protein should help make you feel full, a key part in squashing the random snacking and poor portion control that can contribute to unwanted weight creeping up.

In addition, protein helps stabilize blood sugar levels which is another factor in controlling hunger. If you feel like you’re constantly thinking about raiding the fridge, adding more protein to your diet might help mellow things out. You should also know that the “thermic effect” (i.e. the energy required to digest and process food) is higher for protein than for carbs and fat. Because of this, higher metabolic burn rate a lower percentage of protein’s calories will be available for fat storage in the body. A study published in the journal JAMA found that people who obtained 25% of their daily calories from protein burned 227 more calories a day than those who only ate 5% of their calories from protein. So if one of your fitness goals is to shed a few pounds, be sure to prioritize protein in addition to putting in the miles.

Rule 3: Don’t Wait

Because protein is necessary to help with the restoration and repair of that hill-crushing muscle tissue and for making enzymes that allow you to better adapt to training, it makes sense that it’s a required part of your recovery nutrition protocol after pounding the pavement.

One recent study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pinpointed 30 grams as enough post-workout protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis following a bout of endurance exercise. You’ll want to consume this much protein within two hours after a spirited run to trigger the most robust recovery.

When you work out, your muscles are primed to respond to a fresh supply of the amino acids that make up protein. Protein powder whizzed into a post-run smoothie is a convenient way to get what you need, but you can also hit that 30-gram mark with a cup of cottage cheese, a small chicken breast, or a cup of each beans and quinoa. Just remember there’s only a certain amount of protein that your muscles can absorb in one sitting (likely no more than 40 grams), so more isn’t always better. And you’ll want to pair up this protein with some carbs since this will aid in shuttling those recovery amino acids into your muscles. 

Rule 4: Eat More Plants

Top view of leguminous seeds on rustic wood table. These are great plant-based protein sources.
Photo: Getty Images

If you want to be a runner for decades to come it’s a good idea to trade in beef for beans more often. Research papers are starting to pile up demonstrating that eating more plant-based proteins can help lower the risk for early death from many of today’s biggest killers like heart disease. Case in point: A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found replacing animal proteins, such as meat and eggs, with plant-based proteins may reduce the risk of premature death overall and death from cardiovascular disease. Plant proteins including legumes and nuts come with a cocktail of disease-fighting fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you won’t get from most meats. The good news is that research shows that you need not eschew animal-sourced protein all together to reap the health-hiking benefits of noshing on more plants for protein.

And don’t fret about coming up short in terms of exercise recovery and positive training adaptations if you serve up tofu for dinner. Two separate studies from research teams in the United States and Brazil found that as long as we get enough total protein to meet bodily needs such as building lean body mass it does not matter very much where it comes from, be it chicken or chickpeas. But it can be a smart idea to consume multiple plant protein sources throughout the day to achieve a more balanced profile of the essential amino acids (the ones your body can’t make) necessary for the preservation and growth of muscle mass. Animal products like poultry and dairy typically have a higher concentration of essential amino acids so are considered more “complete.” 

Rule 5: Spread It Out

Think about it: When do you eat most of your protein? If you’re like most Americans, probably at dinner. Unfortunately, this common scenario can leave you adequately maintaining and building muscle for only a few hours a day. Not to mention, not taking full advantage of the appetite-stabilizing powers of protein throughout the day.

Instead, science suggests you should spread out your protein intake among all your meals and snacks, including breakfast, which is a typically carb-centric meal full of crunchy cereal and jam-smeared toast. So instead of eating 10 grams of protein at breakfast, 20 grams at lunch and 60 grams at dinner, you’re better served by being less erratic with your intake and eating 30 grams at each meal.

Rule 6: Eat More Real Foods

A plate with grilled chicken, which is high in protein.

Protein powders and bars can be a convenient way to help nail your protein goals. As a rule, however, aim to get most of your daily protein from whole food sources — animal or plant. For one, real food — say, a piece of fish or cup of lentils — contains an arsenal of health-enhancing nutrients and antioxidants typically lacking in supplements. And eating a sugary protein bar for a mid-afternoon snack may wedge out an opportunity to consume a more nutritious source of protein, say a bowl of Greek yogurt with nuts and berries. Be wary of protein-enhanced packaged foods like oatmeal and pancakes — just because protein has been added doesn’t necessarily make the product good-for-you. You have to look at the whole nutritional package.

Sample Daily Protein Plan

It’s really not that hard to hit your daily allotment of protein, and you don’t need to spike your morning oatmeal with beef powder. These foods add up to 111 grams of protein, enough to meet the needs of a 140-pound runner.

Food Protein (g) 
3/4 cup Greek yogurt 16
2 eggs 12
4 ounces salmon 24
1 cup black beans 15
2 tablespoons almonds
4 ounces chicken breast 26
3/4 cup quinoa 6
2 tablespoons peanut butter