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The Ultimate Guide to Protein for Runners

There’s a lot of information around about protein for runners. How much we should be ingesting, when and what source should we be getting it from? We wanted a definitive guide about how to use protein to maximise your running performance and recovery. Step forward Tim Lawson, Director and Founder of Secret Training Ltd BSc(Hons) Sport Science, MSc Sport and Exercise Physiology, with over 30 years experience working in sports nutrition.

Why is protein so important for runners?

In the past we have tended to think of protein as just for building muscle, and rationalised that runners don’t need big muscles, meaning there is less need for protein. What this line of thought overlooks is that mitochondria (the power stations of the muscle) are protein structures too, so if you want more mitochondria then you need to provide the building blocks for mitogenesis, not just provide extra amino acids for repairing damaged muscle fibres.

Is the recovery window a myth or essential for runners?

The recovery window was first based around research on muscle glycogen resynthesis. Studies had shown that performance can suffer after progressive days of training/racing due to progressive muscle glycogen depletion, upon which scientists started looking for ways to enhance the speed of recovery so that more high quality training could be completed. It was shown that the enzymes responsible for replacing the body’s carbohydrate stores are most active in the immediate period post activity and that by providing readily available carbohydrate during this period would result in more rapid muscle glycogen resynthesis and increase the chances of being fully fuelled on subsequent days.

Whilst this can still be very important when there is a short time period between competitions more recent research has shown that it is possible to replace sufficient carbohydrate energy over 24 hours if this window is missed.

Rehydration and protein may be more important in this window (as in the sooner the better) since dehydration may impair adaptation and protein provides the building blacks for adaptation – so you took the time to get the stimulus for adaptation -its probably best to provide the building blocks for adaptation when the stimulus is at its highest.

Secret Training Protein Gels
Protein gels are a quick and easy way to get some protein post-exercise

What does protein do?

It can provide some energy for exercise, in particular Branched Chain Amino Acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are oxidised directly, especially if carbohydrate supply is compromised. The amino acids in proteins are much more important than as building blocks for muscle fibres they are also building blacks for mitochondria and important chemical messengers for the body. The amino acid leucine for instance is an important signal for mitogenesis.

Should runners eat protein before, during or after their run? (or all three?) and why?

In priority:

After – for muscle repair and adaptation and there is some evidence that combining protein with carbohydrate can enhance muscle glycogen resynthesis.

Before – it’s good to start with a reasonable protein pool but not at the expense of being sufficiently fuelled to complete training objectives. This, and during may become more important if people are completing low carbohydrate training. Performance may suffer by being low in carbohydrate but ‘fasted or low carb training’ can result in enhanced adaptation for future competition. For performance it is probably best to prioritise carbohydrate feeding.

What’s the best source of protein for runners?

Good quality protein can come from many sources – for regular food I’d look at beef from grass fed cows, arctic salmon, North Atlantic prawns, turkey (both good sources of beta alanine,) organic free range eggs, nuts.

Whey protein can be a convenient protein boost and is a great ingredient. It is possibly over-hyped since if the dairies cannot persuade us to use it as a supplement they have to pay for its disposal as a by-product of cheese manufacture. In studies in adult populations collagen based protein supplements have been more successful at protecting muscle mass on low calorie diets possibly due to the higher nitrogen density. Post exercise it is probably a good target to consume sufficient protein to provide 2g of the amino acid leucine. Most good supplements are fortified with this amino acid.

Are supplements a good option?

The best supplements make it easy to take a relevant dose of food at the right time so for sure they work – I’m always surprised people don’t rely more on eggs, there’s about 9g of protein per egg (7 if you just eat the white) and its usually possible to source good quality locally so you know where they come from. Quality is important in supplements too, one white protein powder may look pretty much like another but there may be a big difference in the amount of Advanced Glycation end Products (AGE’s), not just damaged proteins but damaging proteins, for instance.

Spirulina can be a great source of protein for vegetarians.

What about protein drinks, vitamins etc?

Possibly, but read the ingredients, can be really useful for appetite control. It is important to balance things like Magnesium and vitamin B6 with protein consumption. Excessive sulphur amino acids in the absence of B6 can cause problems for instance.

How much protein do we need? What’s the best way to work out how much we need?

How much to you need to live, or for optimal performance? The difference may explain some of the different figures banded around – you can live off 1/2g per kg bodyweight but adaptation/weight control probably better upwards of 2g/kg bodyweight per day. Completing a nutrition diary is probably a good exercise for a whole lot of reasons but may also give some answers about protein consumption levels.

What’s the benefit of whey versus vegan protein?

Whey protein is a complete protein that is relatively high in the amino acid leucine without any fortification. There is also a lot of different whey protein ingredients from concentrates with high fat and lactose levels to specific whey protein fractions with specific properties. Lots of scientific studies have been well funded by the dairies looking for applications for excess whey.

Vegan proteins tend to be incomplete (lacking certain amino acids to be used as a sole source of protein) so they need to be combined. There’s concern over increased use of glycosates in soy production (and GMO, but often no one asks what have the cows been eating?).

Green proteins can be really good to reduce the net acid load compared to whey protein but tend to have an earthy taste, which isn’t for everyone.

There is also an increased interest in methionine restriction especially in the anti ageing community, which favours vegan proteins over whey because whey is also very high in methionine.

Secret Training Vegan Recovery Drink
Secret Training’s Vegan Recovery Drink

Is there such thing as having too much protein?

In theory but it is a struggle to find any evidence of excessive protein consumption causing harm other then to those with preexisting kidney problems for instance.

Remember though that protein is not a quick fix.

It is a reasonable expectation that the right protein at the right time may improve performance over time but the best you may notice in the short term is possibly less muscle soreness. In the long term it may have a more profound effect on your success, though your immediate performance is usually governed by carbohydrate availability, which paradoxically overuse of may actually be detrimental to future performance.

See Tim Lawson’s guide to why we get cramp and how to avoid it.

Find out more about Secret Training products.

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