WE OFTEN SPEND a lot of time focused on carbohydrates as runners. And rightfully so. It’s carbohydrates that are most useful for short-term and immediate use. They metabolise quickly in our body, topping off our glycogen stores and giving us energy.
Carbs shouldn’t be the only shining star in your diet’s cast of nutrients, though. Protein also plays an important supporting role. Our body is made up of protein and it is responsible for a number of processes in our body including reconstructing body tissues, and our cells rely on proteins for structure, function and regulation of body tissues and organs.
The Science of Proteins
Proteins are made up of smaller units referred to as amino acids. These are often known as the “building blocks” of protein. Some amino acids are essential, meaning you must obtain them from the diet, while others are non-essential, meaning your body produces them itself. And a food that contains all essential amino acids is, not surprisingly, referred to as a complete protein or complete amino acid profile.
Complete proteins are what are required of the body to meet our dietary needs. The good news is that nearly all foods contain amino acids in some level, so whether you’re eating a food with a high enough level of amino acids for the body, or you’re combining foods to reach that ideal level, following a balanced diet will provide your body with all the amino acids it needs.
How Much Do You Need?
There’s a way to calculate exactly the amount of protein required by your body, based on your weight and activity level. However, research suggests that the average diet should contain 15% – 20% protein and that everyone would be fine with approximately 60 grams per day.
The best sports diets contain adequate, but not excessive, protein to repair and rebuild muscles, support hormones, protect your immune system, and more.
To determine your exact protein requirements, check your activity level in the chart above.
For example. Multiply your weight by 1.3 if you’re a female running 30+ miles a week with high intensity integrated in.
63 x 1.3 = ~71 grams of protein per day.
Take your number and divide it among the number of meals and snacks you have to find approximately how much protein you should be having with each meal.
To give you some context in that, 82 grams might look like one 170g container greek yogurt for breakfast, 1 hardboiled egg as a morning snack, a spinach salad with ½ cup quinoa & 30g nuts for lunch, ¼ cup hummus with veggies for an afternoon snack, and a 140g piece of salmon, sweet potato and kale for dinner.
Integrating into Everyday Eating
While it’s good to have a frame of reference around protein needs, I am not an advocate of kilojoule counting, and I’m not an advocate of constantly weighing and calculating each serving of protein per meal. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you’re including protein at each meal, paying more careful attention to how much, and quality, in the hours after a hard workout.
If you are ramping up your mileage and trying to maintain or even lose weight, a protein shake 1 hr post run can be a good option, to help rebuild muscle and control hunger levels.
Make sure you choose high quality protein sources. If you are eating meat and eggs choose organic, for fish, wild caught, and don’t overlook many plant based food that offer good quality protein, including quinoa, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds.