Four Myths about Protein for Runners

How much protein do runners need? Read the full article to learn about protein for runners.

Protein is stereotypically perceived as a bodybuilder’s food. However, runners need protein – and more protein than many realize. While you might not guzzle a protein shake mid-run to improve performance, under-eating protein could impact your recovery and health. This article explores protein for runners, including questions of how much protein do runners need and common myths around protein. 

Do Runners Need Protein?

Is protein good for runners? Yes – for both general health and for training adaptations. 

Dietary protein is nutritionally essential. Your body synthesizes the amino acids from dietary protein into various proteins in the body. These proteins are found throughout your whole body: in your muscles, organs, and blood. Proteins form enzymes, DNA messengers, structural elements of your muscles, fluid balancers, immunoproteins, and transporters (including oxygen transporters). 

Your body constantly turns over proteins. Exercise increases this breakdown, as you literally break down the contractile proteins in your muscles. As a result, if you run long distances, lift weights, or both, your body needs more dietary protein to adapt your muscles to your training. 

Runners need protein to support their training. Protein allows the body to repair from the oxidative and mechanical stress of training. This repair may reduce the risk of soft tissue injury. Protein also supports metabolic pathways and lean muscle mass, which are vital for performance. Finally, protein improves immune function and overall physiological function – keeping you healthy during high training loads. 

Common Protein + Running Myths

Myths abound regarding protein: it makes you bulky, it’s bad for your kidneys, and more. So let’s dive into what the most recent research says: 

Myth #1: Protein Will Make You Bulky

Yes, bodybuilders adhere to high-protein diets. However, eating enough protein to support your training will not make you bulky. Typically, bodybuilding is the result of the combination of a very high-protein diet, minimal to no endurance training, and a heavy resistance training program with a focus on muscle hypertrophy. (And sometimes banned supplements.) Even if you lift weights as a runner and eat adequate protein, your running volume does not support bodybuilding levels of muscle mass gain. 

Myth #2: Protein is Bad for Your Kidneys

It was once believed that protein intake above the RDA could lead to kidney damage. The theory was that high-protein diets increased metabolic strain on the kidneys. However, the evidence simply does not support this claim for healthy individuals (as outlined in the 2017 consensus from the International Society for Sport Nutrition). Unless you have a diagnosed kidney disease such as renal insufficiency, protein will not harm your kidneys. 

Myth #3: Plant Protein is the Same as Animal Protein

You do not need to eat meat to meet your protein requirements. However, you may need to increase your protein intake with a vegetarian or vegan diet, due to the decreased bioavailability of plant-based protein sources. A 2019 comparative study in Nutrients concluded that an additional 22 grams of protein were needed for plant-based athletes to meet the protein requirements for athletes. 

Additionally, plant-based runners may need to be intentional about a wide variety of protein sources in their diets. Another 2019 review in Nutrients suggests that blending several plant protein sources promotes adequate intake of all the amino acids. 

Myth #4: Protein Timing Doesn’t Matter

While the anabolic window for muscle protein synthesis doesn’t close after exercise, there is evidence to suggest that post-run protein ingestion is beneficial. 

Your body experiences a hormonal response after exercise that primes the body for protein synthesis. While the anabolic window remains open for 24 hours, protein ingestion within 30-60 min of exercise supports recovery. A 2018 review in Current Sports Medicine Reports recommends 0.25-0.3 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight for recovery within ~30 min after exercise. In addition to supporting protein synthesis, combining carbohydrates with protein after running also supports glycogen resynthesis. 

The 2017 ISSN stance concludes that protein ingestion after endurance exercise (such as running) reduces muscle soreness and suppresses biomarkers of muscle damage (including creatine kinase). If you are in a high-volume training period (such as marathon training), you want to minimize soreness as much as possible to complete your next training session. 

Related: The Guide to Run Recovery Nutrition

How Much Protein Do Runners Need?

It was once believed that runners did not need more protein than the general population (0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight). Over the years, the recommendations have increased. Endurance exercise (such as running) increases the oxidation of proteins, particularly the branched-chain amino acids, for energy production. Additionally, long-distance running leads to increased muscle breakdown, thus requiring more protein for muscle repair. 

A 2016 study in PLOS One used the indicator amino acid oxidation method to determine the protein needs of runners training 25 miles (40 km) per week or more. Their results estimated that endurance runners require 1.65-1.83 grams of protein per day. For a 65-kg (143-lb) runner, that is daily protein intake of 107 to 118 grams. 

Just how much protein should runners eat? Runners generally need 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per day, depending on their training load. Ideally, this should be spread throughout the day. Protein should come from varied sources to ensure they get the full range of amino acids, including leucine (a key BCAA that contributes to cellular signaling for muscle protein synthesis). 

Best Protein Powder For Runners

Protein powder is not necessary – but many runners do find it beneficial for getting enough protein after running. A protein powder is typically easy to consume after exercise, even if appetite is suppressed. 

You can get either whey protein powder or a plant-based protein powder. Importantly, protein powder should contain leucine to signal protein synthesis. (Read this article for more guidance on choosing the best protein powder for runners.) 

Popular brands of protein powder for runners include:

  • Momentous
  • Ascent
  • Gnarly Nutrition 
  • Gu Roctane
  • Neversecond 

Fuel Smart and Improve Run Times

Protein is not a direct ergogenic aid like carbohydrates – you won’t see significant improvement in your race times by pounding a protein powder mid-race. However, protein is an essential part of a runner’s diet for recovery, adaptation, and health. It’s worth assessing your protein intake to ensure you consume enough to support your training goals. 

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