While many typically associate protein powder with bodybuilders, many runners use this popular supplement. While it is not necessary – you can get enough protein without a protein powder – many runners appreciate the convenience of protein powder. This article will delve into protein needs for runners, how to choose a protein powder, and a review of the best protein powders for runners.
As always, please consult a registered sports dietitian for individual needs! I am an ISSN-certified sports nutritionist with a master’s degree in exercise science (including practicums in nutrition), but I am not a registered dietitian. Certain medical conditions such as kidney disease may warrant special considerations.
How Much Protein Do Runners Need?
Endurance athletes – including runners – need significantly more dietary protein than the general population. Endurance training repeatedly breaks down the muscle fibers. Protein also contributes a small amount to energy production during long runs and high-volume training. To recover fully from training sessions, runners need to eat more protein to repair the damaged muscle proteins.
Depending on your training load, protein needs for runners range from 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. A 2016 study in PLoS One simulated the training of endurance runners (who averaged 45-130 km/week or 28-80 miles per week) and found that their amino acid breakdown during exercise meant that their daily protein needs were closer to 1.6-1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. Ultra-runners may need even more, due to increased muscle breakdown from high volume and prolonged bouts of downhill running.
Certain demographics may need more protein than they can receive from dietary intake. Athletes over age 40 have diminished protein uptake rates, which means masters athletes need more protein for muscle protein synthesis. According to a 2012 study in the British Journal of Nutrition, up to 40 grams (vs 20-30 grams) may be necessary for older athletes to trigger optimal muscle protein synthesis.
Likewise, plant-based athletes may need to increase their overall protein intake. Plant-based proteins often have lower bioavailability and may not provide enough amino acids. A 2019 study in Nutrients compared competitive endurance athletes with vegetarian or omnivore diets. They concluded that, to reach the recommended goals for athletes, vegetarian athletes needed to consume at least an additional 10-22 grams of protein. For some athletes, a plant-based protein powder can fill this gap and provide additional leucine (that may be lacking in a plant-based diet). (If you are a plant-based athlete over 40, protein is even more of a priority and you may benefit from working with a registered sports dietitian.)
Why Would Runners Use a Protein Powder?
Protein powder is not a necessity for runners. You can have a well-rounded, performance-oriented diet without protein powder. Protein abundantly occurs in foods including meat, poultry, fish, legumes, and dairy products.
Some runners struggle to consume enough protein to support their needs – especially given how high protein needs are for endurance athletes. Protein powder supplies an extra serving of protein each day to help reach that goal. Since liquids do not register the same amount of fullness as solid food, you may find it easier to eat enough protein when ingesting some in liquid form.
Protein powder is also convenient. You can stash it in your car or gym bag to have immediately after a run, without worrying about spoilage. You can quickly grab it when rushing from your run to the next activity during a busy day.
Protein Powder for Post-Run Recovery
Protein powder for runners also aids in recovery nutrition. After completing a run (particularly a hard workout or long run), the recommendation is to consume 20-30 grams of protein plus carbohydrates. When ingested within an hour of finishing a run, certain amino acids signal muscle repair and start the recovery process.
Protein ingestion may enhance glycogen synthesis if it adds overall calories to your post-run meal. A 2021 meta-analysis published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that protein enhanced muscle glycogen synthesis when added to adequate carbohydrates. If protein replaced any of the carbohydrates, it did not improve glycogen synthesis.
So if you use a protein powder after a run, you want to ensure you are getting in carbohydrates as well. You can mix protein powder with a smoothie or carb-rich milk alternative (such as oat milk), or pair it with a bagel or other easily-digestible carbohydrate.
When to Use a Protein Powder
You may only need a protein powder during certain phases of training. During a recovery or off-season phase, your training volume is lower – and therefore your protein needs are lower. You may find you are able to meet all of your dietary protein intake with whole foods. There is nothing wrong with taking a protein powder during this time – just know you do not need to take it.
During higher training loads, such as half marathon, marathon, or ultra training, you may find that protein powder is a helpful dietary supplement. You may take it after long runs and hard workouts, or even daily. If you devote a training season to developing strength and lifting more often, a protein powder may help encourage muscle growth.
Protein powder is best used for recovery after a run or lift, or later in the day for an extra protein serving. Due to the slower digestion of protein and the lack of carbohydrates, protein powder does not function well as a pre-run food.
Different Types of Protein Powders for Runners
Protein powder is an umbrella term for a supplemental form of protein that is processed into a powder. This powder can be mixed with any liquid, such as water, milk, or a milk alternative. Protein powder is typically made from either whey or a plant-based source, such as pea, rice, or soy. Unlike food, the protein is typically isolated and processed via hydrolysis or a similar process.
Whey protein powder is one of the most popular protein powders on the market. This protein is an isolate made from part of the milk left over after processing. Whey protein is high in essential amino acids, including leucine. Leucine is important since it signals the mTOR pathway to activate and trigger muscle protein synthesis. Compared to other protein isolates (including casein, which also comes from milk), whey is higher in leucine and encourages greater muscle protein synthesis.
However, many athletes choose to avoid whey protein powder, either due to negative gastrointestinal responses or personal ethical beliefs. These athletes may opt for plant-based protein powders, which use proteins derived from vegan sources such as rice, pea, or soy.
Some data (such as this 2019 study in Sports) suggests that pea protein supplements may provide similar essential amino acids – and therefore similar adaptations as whey protein isolate. Many brands now choose a combination of pea and rice protein for plant-based protein supplements that contain enough leucine and function similarly to whey protein.
In comparison, the ISSN stance on protein and exercise claims that soy protein supplements do not have the same efficacy as whey protein isolate. Soy protein supplements contain a lower amount of leucine and fewer amino acids overall. To be effective, soy protein should be blended with other plant proteins, such as rice or pea.
How to Choose a Protein Powder
The guidelines for choosing a protein powder follow those for choosing any other supplement. Yes, protein powder is a supplement. Some protein powders are high-quality and safe, others are not worth purchasing.
- Safety: Are the ingredients safe for consumption? Has it possibly been tainted by any heavy metals or banned substances? You can never be sure, unless the supplement has been third-party tested. NSF-certifications ensure supplements are safe and comply with the standards of all sport governing bodies.
- Purity: Does the supplement contain the ingredients it claims? As with safety, the simplest approach is to choose a NSF-certified or third-party tested protein powder.
- Efficacy: Does this product do what it claims to do? Always check the ingredients and nutrition facts on a protein powder. A protein powder for runners should include some form of leucine. Leucine is an amino acid that signals cellular pathways for muscle resynthesis. Additionally, an effective protein powder provides adequate protein. Look for at least 20 grams; skip protein powders with low amounts.
Some runners choose a protein powder that also contains carbohydrates. Companies often label these mixes as “recovery blends”. Some athletes may prefer these, if they want quick carbs and protein after long, hard efforts.
A reminder: collagen powder is not a complete protein, and therefore not a substitute for protein powder! While collagen has benefits for runners, it does not promote muscle protein synthesis.
The Best Protein Powders for Runners
Protein powder is a product where it’s worth paying more money. Unfortunately, many cheaper protein powders may contain heavy metals or other substances that you do not want to ingest. The supplement industry is not regulated, and that lack of regulation is particularly bad with protein powders.
These protein powders are all tested to ensure they do not contain toxic metals, steroids, or other questionable or dangerous ingredients.
Previnex Nourify (buy here – and use code LNR15 for 15% off your first order)
Previnex Nourify is available in chocolate and vanilla flavors. This protein powder is a full recovery mix, with 21 grams of protein and 21 grams of carbs per 2-scoop serving. Previnex commits to clinically effective supplements and offers a money-back guarantee. The powder also contains probiotics, digestive enzymes, and micronutrients such as iron and vitamin B12.
Momentous (available in plant-based and whey, both in chocolate and vanilla chai)
Momentous protein powder is expensive – there’s no denying that. However, for the cost, you get a protein powder that actually tastes good, and is certified safe for sport. Both powders provide 20 grams of protein. Momentous blends smoothly – even the plant protein is smooth in water or milks. The plant based protein uses a blend of pea and rice protein to offer a complete protein and effective amounts of leucine.
Gnarly Nutrition (buy whey here and plant-based here)
Gnarly Nutrition’s whey protein powder packs a whopping 25 grams of protein per serving. Similar to Momentous, Gnarly is NSF-certified safe for sport. The powder also contains 12 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fat (including omega-3s), plus a blend of pre- and probiotics to promote digestion.
Ascent Protein (whey and plant-based available)
Ascent is another NSF-certified brand. Their blends do not contain soy, gluten, or artificial sweeteners. Both their whey protein and plant blend provide 25 grams of protein. Their plant protein powder contains a unique blend of pea, sunflower, and pumpkin seed proteins.
Remember that everyone’s palate differs! Vega protein tasted bad to me, but I know some people who love it. If you are searching for a new protein powder, most companies provide single-serve packets so you can sample the product.
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