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On the list of top five questions I’m asked as a personal trainer and running coach, “How much protein do I really need?” ranks somewhere between “will strength training make me bulky?” and “does this ever get any easier?”
(the answers to the last two are “no” and “yes”, respectively.)
In the fitness industry, it seems you cannot have a conversation about reaching goals and/or weight loss without having a conversation about protein intake. Protein and fitness do indeed go hand in hand, and for good reason: protein is literally the building blocks of muscle. Protein aids in recovery, and is a necessary macronutrient for mere human survival. However, the fitness industry as a whole has put, in my opinion, and unnecessary over-emphasis on the need for protein, to the point that many people are confused about how protein works, and more so, how much protein they actually need.
The most common misconceptions I see are:
- The assumption that simply consuming an abundance of protein is how we build muscle, and
- That most of us do not consume enough protein.
The reality is that not only is protein deficiency incredibly rare in adults in our society, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans as a whole tend to consume too much protein. That said, there are valid reasons why athletes should concern themselves, at least somewhat, with protein intake. Not just bodybuilders in the gym, but endurance athletes too.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Protein is essential nutrient found in animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy, nuts, beans, vegetables, seeds, and grains. Yes, even plants contain protein! (Check out this great list of plant based protein sources.) Protein is comprised of amino acids which are essentially the building blocks of our body. Because our bodies are made from these amino acids, it only makes sense that we need protein to help our bodies grow and repair.
WHAT DOES PROTEIN DO?
When we do something physically taxing on our muscles, such as strength training or a good, hard run, the microscopic fibers that make up our muscles actually tear. In theory, we then rest allowing our body to rebuild those fibers, and voila, we have muscular growth. But what do we need to assist in that repair and contribute to new cells and rebuilding old cells?
Amino acids. Which come from…
That is an incredibly simplified version of what actually goes on inside of our bodies, but now you get the general idea of why protein consumption is essential for everyone, but even more so for active people and athletes.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO RUNNERS NEED?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition, the average adult requires approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That’s kilogram, not pound, a common oversight. (To convert to kilograms, take your current weight in pounds, and divide it by 2.2.)
An endurance athlete, however, needs approximately 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kg of body weight. The added protein will help with the extra repair needed after all of the stress we put our bodies through training. Again, these numbers can vary based upon training volume and other activities, but they serve as a good rule of thumb. (For comparison purposes, strength and power athletes need anywhere from 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.)
Keep in mind, these numbers can vary slightly from person to person, based on training load or other non running medical conditions that may change protein intake needs. When in doubt, consult your physician or a registered dietician to find what works for you.
So what does this look like, in real world, non scientific speak?
Simple: a 150 lb non athletic female requires about 54.5 grams of protein a day. A 150 lb female who also happens to be a runner requires anywhere from 81.8- 95.5 grams of protein per day. The difference between non athletic and athletic is around 34 grams of protein…or the equivalent of about 4 ounces of grilled chicken (about half a chicken breast.)
As you can see, that’s really not a huge difference.
So, don’t fall victim to all of the hype and advertising that says you NEED tons of protein in order to be a good athlete. Eat well rounded meals, be aware of your protein intake, but save your money on those bulking supplements, and spend them on a new pair of sneakers instead.
WHEN SHOULD YOU REFUEL WITH PROTEIN?
For a long time, athletes believed that the “anabolic window”, or the time frame when protein synthesis was occurring after a workout, was around 30 minutes post exercise. Therefore, it is often still touted that you MUST consume protein within that 30 minute window in order to help speed up post workout recovery. However some research suggests that the window is closer to 4 to 6 hours, so there is no need to immediately slam a protein shake or eat a piece of chicken the moment you stop running.
This window is believed to decrease, and is far more imperative, if you exercise in a fasted state.
(Read more about real food endurance fuel alternatives)
For runners and endurance athletes, a post workout snack consisting of a 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is thought to be ideal for promoting recovery, as you are both replenishing depleted glycogen stores AND synthesizing protein for muscle damage repair. The 3:1 or 4:1 ratio helps your body best synthesize both glycogen and protein.
Anabolic window aside, all research suggests that the most important factor is ensuring that your protein and carbohydrate intake is adequate throughout the entire day to ensure proper recovery. Nutrient timing can make a difference, however, for most non-elites, simply making sure you are eating a well balanced diet is key.
Chances are, you are already eating enough protein. When in doubt, track your food for a few days using an app such as My Fitness Pal to double check your intake. Again, if you are unsure of your very specific protein and nutrient needs, consider reaching out to a registered dietician that specializes in sports nutrition.