Protein For Runners: How Much Protein Do Runners Need?

Plus, should runners supplement with protein powder?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients—alongside fats and carbohydrates—and arguably the one that is least controversial in terms of how necessary it is for overall health and the beneficial role it can play in weight loss diets. 

Essentially, protein is sort of the Switzerland of the macronutrients, with nearly everyone suggesting that getting enough protein is not only crucial for overall health, but can also help increase satiety and thus support weight loss.1Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Lemmens, S. G., & Westerterp, K. R. (2012). Dietary Protein – Its Role in satiety, energetics, Weight Loss and Health. British Journal of Nutrition108(S2), S105–S112. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007114512002589

‌Therefore, it is probably not surprising that many of the most popular weight loss diets or dietary approaches for muscle building or general health are high-protein diets.

But, aside from the potential for this macro to support a healthy body weight, getting enough protein is essential for runners and endurance athletes to support muscle repair and recovery from workouts.

In this protein for runners nutrition guide, we will discuss why runners need protein, how much protein runners need, the benefits of protein after running, whether runners should have protein supplements, and ideas for protein-rich foods for runners.

A runner drinking a protein shake.

How Much Protein Do Runners Need?

Getting enough protein is important for overall health as well as post-run recovery, repairing muscle damage, forming enzymes, and supporting metabolism.

A runner’s protein requirements depend on body size, activity levels, and weight loss vs muscle growth goals.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average adult should eat 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day to support general health.2PROTEIN INTAKE FOR OPTIMAL MUSCLE MAINTENANCE. (n.d.). https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf?sfvrsn=688d8896_2

‌The protein requirements for athletes are much higher because protein helps rebuild and repair muscle damage after workouts, along with repairing other cells and tissues, and aids glycogen storage after endurance exercise.

A review of 11 studies evaluated the recovery benefits of post-workout protein alongside post-workout carbs after a bout of cycling versus ingesting carbohydrates alone.3Stearns, R. L., Emmanuel, H., Volek, J. S., & Casa, D. J. (2010). Effects of Ingesting Protein in Combination With Carbohydrate During Exercise on Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(8), 2192–2202. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfacf

‌Results indicated that eating protein in the post-workout snack increased performance (defined as both time to exhaustion and time trial performance) in the subsequent endurance workout by an average of 9% compared to consuming just carbohydrates after exercise.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that endurance athletes consume at least 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.4ACSM Certification Blog and Articles. (n.d.). ACSM_CMS. https://www.acsm.org/all-blog-posts/certification-blog/acsm-certified-blog/2021/01/25/nutrient-ratios-for-strength-training

Protein rich foods.

For example, a runner weighing 154 pounds (70 kg) should have a protein intake of at least 84-140 grams of protein per day.

Since there are 4 kcals per gram of protein, this protein recommendation equates to 336-560 calories of protein per day.

Most registered dietitians who specialize in sports nutrition recommend distance runners aim for a protein intake of 20-30% of their daily caloric intake.

However, registered dietitians and nutrition experts advise against over-consuming protein above the recommended daily amount.5Santesso, N., Akl, E. A., Bianchi, M., Mente, A., Mustafa, R., Heels-Ansdell, D., & Schünemann, H. J. (2012). Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition66(7), 780–788. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2012.37

‌Much like exceeding the recommended amount of any nutrient on a chronic basis, habitually overconsuming protein can cause adverse health effects.

For example, studies show that chronic high-protein intake that exceeds 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for adults may cause digestive, renal, and vascular dysfunction and should be avoided.6Wu, G. (2016). Dietary Protein Intake and Human Health. Food & Function7(3), 1251–1265. https://doi.org/10.1039/c5fo01530h

Excessive protein intake, most notably, can cause kidney strain and can be deleterious to bone health.7Cuenca-Sánchez, M., Navas-Carrillo, D., & Orenes-Piñero, E. (2015). Controversies Surrounding High-Protein Diet Intake: Satiating Effect and Kidney and Bone Health. Advances in Nutrition6(3), 260–266. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.114.007716

A scoop of protein powder.

How Much Protein Do Runners Need After Running?

Studies8Protein Supplementation During or Following a Marathon Run Influences Post-Exercise Recovery. (2018). Nutrients10(3), 333. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10030333 have found that the best post-run refueling strategy is to combine carbohydrates with protein, as this mix of nutrients helps facilitate muscle repair and recovery and glycogen resynthesis.9Stearns, R. L., Emmanuel, H., Volek, J. S., & Casa, D. J. (2010). Effects of Ingesting Protein in Combination With Carbohydrate During Exercise on Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(8), 2192–2202. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfacf

‌The body only has a limited ability to absorb protein at one time for use in repairing muscle damage. 

Therefore, in addition to getting enough protein in your diet, it is also important to work on protein timing. 

Sports nutrition professionals recommend that it is best to spread out protein intake so that you have about 20 to 25 grams of protein every four hours rather than to consume a super high-protein meal and then have very little protein the rest of the day.10Layman, D. K., Anthony, T. G., Rasmussen, B. B., Adams, S. H., Lynch, C. J., Brinkworth, G. D., & Davis, T. A. (2015). Defining meal requirements for protein to optimize metabolic roles of amino acids. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition101(6), 1330S1338S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084053

‌For this reason, studies have demonstrated that the best post-workout protein intake strategy for endurance athletes to increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis (the process for muscle growth and repair) is to eat 20 grams of protein immediately post-run and then 20 grams of protein every three hours for the next 12 hours.

This is much more effective as opposed to eating more protein less frequently (for example, 40 grams every six hours).

A variety of high protein foods for runners.

What Are the Best Foods High In Protein for Runners?

Some of the best protein foods to help you meet your requirements are high-quality whole foods like lean meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy, or soy.

For example, a serving of chicken breast provides about 31 grams of protein. 

Tuna fish provides about 19 grams of protein per serving. 

Low-fat Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are also great high-protein foods, each providing about 24 grams per cup.

For vegan endurance athletes who only eat plant-based foods, good protein sources include seitan (vital wheat gluten) and legumes like lentils, beans, chickpeas, and soy (tofu). 

Some whole grains are also good post-run protein foods because they have carbohydrates and plant-based protein.

For example, quinoa provides about 8 grams of protein per cup, and you’ll also be getting about 24 grams of carbohydrates to start replenishing glycogen.

A scoop of protein powder.

Do Runners Need Protein Powder?

In general, most runners should be able to meet their protein intake requirements through whole foods sources.

The foods highest in protein include poultry like chicken and turkey, beef, lamb, bison, pork, veal, venison, and other animal proteins, eggs, low-fat dairy products, legumes like lentils, soy and beans, certain nuts and seeds, and some vegetables.

Animal proteins tend to be considered high-quality protein foods because they are complete proteins, which means these sources of protein contain all nine essential amino acids. 

Most plant-based protein sources (aside from soy, nutritional yeast, spirulina, and hemp protein) are incomplete protein foods because they lack at least one essential amino acid.

This is why vegans, vegetarians, or those following a plant-based diet must be mindful of eating a wide range of plant-based proteins.

Although protein-rich foods are often ideal for overall health, many marathon runners and endurance athletes prefer to eat a protein bar right after running or as a post-workout refueling option because most protein bars provide a good balance of carbs and protein, and are often easier to stomach than protein-rich whole foods.

The convenience of protein bars and protein shakes can also be appealing in addition to the palatability when you don’t have much appetite after running.

Protein powder can be added to smoothies with other whole foods like fruits and vegetables.

Someone mixing a protein shake.

What Is the Best Protein Powder for Runners?

There are different types of protein supplements for endurance athletes, namely different types of protein powders and protein bars.

Soy protein powder is a plant-based protein powder made from soybeans that have been ground into a meal, defatted, and then further processed into soy isolate, which is about 90-95% protein by weight.

Whey protein powder is made from cow’s milk. Like soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate is about 90 to 95% protein by weight and is also a source of complete protein with all nine essential amino acids.

However, the amino acid profiles in whey protein powder vs soy protein powder are different.

Whey protein powder provides more branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) than soy protein or other plant-based protein powder options, which is why whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate are often considered to be superior to soy protein powder for sports nutrition, muscle growth, and weight loss.

BCAAs include leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Whey protein powder also has the highest biological value (BV) of any of the common protein sources used in protein powders.11Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine3(3), 118–130. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/

A scoop of protein powder.

‌The BV of whey is 104, whereas the BV of soy protein is 74. 

The higher biological value of whey vs. soy protein means that your body is able to make use of the protein found in whey protein powders more quickly and effectively after ingestion.

Studies also suggest that the rate of muscle protein synthesis after having whey protein isolate is greater than that of other protein powder supplements.

For example, one study comparing the rate of muscle protein synthesis between whey protein vs soy protein vs casein protein found that muscle protein synthesis was greatest in whey protein, followed by soy protein, followed by the casein protein.12Tang, J. E., Moore, D. R., Kujbida, G. W., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2009). Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology107(3), 987–992. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00076.2009

The researchers concluded that whey protein is more effective than other protein powders at stimulating muscle growth.

Another study essentially corroborated these results and found that post-workout whey protein supplements indeed resulted in greater gains in muscle mass, muscle recovery, and strength adaptations than consuming soy protein.13Volek, J. S., Volk, B. M., Gómez, A. L., Kunces, L. J., Kupchak, B. R., Freidenreich, D. J., Aristizabal, J. C., Saenz, C., Dunn-Lewis, C., Ballard, K. D., Quann, E. E., Kawiecki, D. L., Flanagan, S. D., Comstock, B. A., Fragala, M. S., Earp, J. E., Fernandez, M. L., Bruno, R. S., Ptolemy, A. S., & Kellogg, M. D. (2013). Whey Protein Supplementation During Resistance Training Augments Lean Body Mass. Journal of the American College of Nutrition32(2), 122–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2013.793580

‌After nine months, the subjects who had consumed whey protein gained almost twice as much lean body mass as those consuming soy, with an average increase of 3.3 kg of lean body mass for those consuming whey protein versus an increase of 1.8 kg of lean body mass with soy protein.

However, other studies14Babault, N., Païzis, C., Deley, G., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Saniez, M.-H., Lefranc-Millot, C., & Allaert, F. A. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition12(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5 have found that as long as the protein powders provide a similar number of grams of total protein and BCAAs per serving, whey and soy protein powders are equally effective at building muscle or promoting muscle hypertrophy.15Lynch, H. M., Buman, M. P., Dickinson, J. M., Ransdell, L. B., Johnston, C. S., & Wharton, C. M. (2020). No Significant Differences in Muscle Growth and Strength Development When Consuming Soy and Whey Protein Supplements Matched for Leucine Following a 12 Week Resistance Training Program in Men and Women: A Randomized Trial. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(11), 3871. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17113871

Protein shakes and powders.

Evidence also suggests that strength gains can be similar when consuming soy protein or whey protein powders as long as the protein powders provide a similar amino acid profile.16Messina, M., Lynch, H., Dickinson, J. M., & Reed, K. E. (2018). No Difference Between the Effects of Supplementing With Soy Protein Versus Animal Protein on Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Response to Resistance Exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(6), 674–685. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0071

‌While protein powder and protein shakes are processed foods and may not be as ideal as whole food protein foods, there’s nothing wrong with using these protein supplements as post-run refueling options.

They provide a good amount of protein (including high-quality vegan protein options) and the protein content is clearly labeled, which can help you stay on top of your protein needs.

However, look for high-quality protein powders that do not have artificial sweeteners, fillers, or other chemical ingredients.

The best option for protein for runners will be to try to opt for real foods where possible rather than relying on protein supplements.

If you are looking for a list of high protein foods, check out our next guide.

References

  • 1
    Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Lemmens, S. G., & Westerterp, K. R. (2012). Dietary Protein – Its Role in satiety, energetics, Weight Loss and Health. British Journal of Nutrition108(S2), S105–S112. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007114512002589
  • 2
  • 3
    Stearns, R. L., Emmanuel, H., Volek, J. S., & Casa, D. J. (2010). Effects of Ingesting Protein in Combination With Carbohydrate During Exercise on Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(8), 2192–2202. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfacf
  • 4
  • 5
    Santesso, N., Akl, E. A., Bianchi, M., Mente, A., Mustafa, R., Heels-Ansdell, D., & Schünemann, H. J. (2012). Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition66(7), 780–788. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2012.37
  • 6
    Wu, G. (2016). Dietary Protein Intake and Human Health. Food & Function7(3), 1251–1265. https://doi.org/10.1039/c5fo01530h
  • 7
    Cuenca-Sánchez, M., Navas-Carrillo, D., & Orenes-Piñero, E. (2015). Controversies Surrounding High-Protein Diet Intake: Satiating Effect and Kidney and Bone Health. Advances in Nutrition6(3), 260–266. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.114.007716
  • 8
    Protein Supplementation During or Following a Marathon Run Influences Post-Exercise Recovery. (2018). Nutrients10(3), 333. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10030333
  • 9
    Stearns, R. L., Emmanuel, H., Volek, J. S., & Casa, D. J. (2010). Effects of Ingesting Protein in Combination With Carbohydrate During Exercise on Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(8), 2192–2202. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181ddfacf
  • 10
    Layman, D. K., Anthony, T. G., Rasmussen, B. B., Adams, S. H., Lynch, C. J., Brinkworth, G. D., & Davis, T. A. (2015). Defining meal requirements for protein to optimize metabolic roles of amino acids. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition101(6), 1330S1338S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084053
  • 11
    Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine3(3), 118–130. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
  • 12
    Tang, J. E., Moore, D. R., Kujbida, G. W., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2009). Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology107(3), 987–992. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00076.2009
  • 13
    Volek, J. S., Volk, B. M., Gómez, A. L., Kunces, L. J., Kupchak, B. R., Freidenreich, D. J., Aristizabal, J. C., Saenz, C., Dunn-Lewis, C., Ballard, K. D., Quann, E. E., Kawiecki, D. L., Flanagan, S. D., Comstock, B. A., Fragala, M. S., Earp, J. E., Fernandez, M. L., Bruno, R. S., Ptolemy, A. S., & Kellogg, M. D. (2013). Whey Protein Supplementation During Resistance Training Augments Lean Body Mass. Journal of the American College of Nutrition32(2), 122–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2013.793580
  • 14
    Babault, N., Païzis, C., Deley, G., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Saniez, M.-H., Lefranc-Millot, C., & Allaert, F. A. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition12(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5
  • 15
    Lynch, H. M., Buman, M. P., Dickinson, J. M., Ransdell, L. B., Johnston, C. S., & Wharton, C. M. (2020). No Significant Differences in Muscle Growth and Strength Development When Consuming Soy and Whey Protein Supplements Matched for Leucine Following a 12 Week Resistance Training Program in Men and Women: A Randomized Trial. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(11), 3871. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17113871
  • 16
    Messina, M., Lynch, H., Dickinson, J. M., & Reed, K. E. (2018). No Difference Between the Effects of Supplementing With Soy Protein Versus Animal Protein on Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Response to Resistance Exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(6), 674–685. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0071
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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