Ask the Running Nerd: Protein Power

Beans and lentils are packed with protein, but low in fat. Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com

Beans and lentils are packed with protein, but low in fat.

You’ve got questions. I’ll find the answers. “Ask the Running Nerd” is back.

Question:

What is the protein requirement for runners post running? I run marathons in about 3 hours and am looking into my nutrition a bit now to try and improve a little.

—Sean, Ireland

Answer:

Thanks for a great question, Sean. My running could certainly benefit from better nutrition, and as we head into fall marathon season it’s more important than ever.

Protein is crucial to muscle recovery after a workout. It repairs muscle damage, diminishes the effects of cortisol—the so-called “stress” hormone that breaks down muscle—and, when taken with carbohydrates, speeds your body’s ability to replenish its glycogen stores, your all-important energy source for those long runs during marathon season. If you’ve ever “hit the wall” or “bonked” in a marathon, you know what it feels like to deplete your glycogen reserves.

To gain the full benefits of protein’s power, most sports dieticians and nutritionists recommend getting 10-20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of finishing a run, and some say even sooner—that’s when your muscles are the most receptive to a helping hand.

The amount of protein you eat matters; 10 grams is a baseline and 20 grams is optimal, according to Deborah Shulman, who holds a doctorate in physiology. Much more protein than that won’t do you any good. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that consuming more than 30 grams of protein in a single sitting didn’t help muscles any further than more moderate amounts. Call it the 30/30 Rule: eat less than 30 grams of protein in less than 30 minutes post-run.

What kind of protein is best? The folks at the Harvard School of Public Health recommend fish, poultry and beans. Sure, a big juicy steak will do the trick, but it comes with a price: loads of saturated fat. A 3-ounce serving of salmon (about the size of a deck of cards or a woman’s palm) gives you 17 grams of protein and only 2 grams of saturated fat. Beans do fish one better: a cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of fat. Don’t have the time or inclination to cook up a meal? Many athletes fuel post-run with a smoothie or protein shake. Just be sure to watch those protein amounts—some shakes carry a wallop. According to dietician Matthew Kadey, excess protein, like excess everything else, can be converted into fat.

Be sure to hydrate and eat plenty of carbs too. Remember, carbs and protein work together to replenish your glycogen stores more efficiently. The jury is still out on the ideal ratio of carbs to protein, but most sports nutritionists say to aim for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio for your post-run meal, especially when you’ve run for an hour or longer.

Here’s a handy formula from Running Times magazine to figure out how many carbs you should be eating at mealtime: divide your weight in half. That’s your magic carb number. You can extrapolate your protein intake from there by dividing that number by three or four.

For a 125-pound runner:

63 grams of carbs, 21 grams of protein in a 3:1 ratio

63 grams of carbs, 16 grams of protein in a 4:1 ratio

And when in doubt, just remember the 30/30 Rule: eat less than 30 grams of protein in less than 30 minutes after a run.

Happy trails,

The Running Nerd

Do you have a question? I’ll find answer. Let my fingers to the walking, or running, for you. Contact me here: Contact Karla Bruning or post below.

Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed three marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning. To listen to an interview with Karla, check out The Marathon Show, available for streaming or download on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes.

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com
The content provided is intended for general informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for informed medical advice or treatment that may have been prescribed by your physician or other health care provider. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or injuries without consulting your doctor, and in no way will Run, Karla, Run be responsible for any kind of injuries or health problems that might occur due to the use of this website or the advice contained in it. Always consult a physician before starting any new exercise or running regimen.
Karla Bruning

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Karla Bruning hosts On The Run for New York Road Runners. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now she freelances as a running reporter. She's run 7 marathons, 15 halves, 4 triathlons, sings in an '80s cover band, spoils her dog and travels compulsively.

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09

08 2010

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. 1

    Realization: As a vegetarian it’s even more critical that I’m getting protein right after my work-outs (because the meal may not be protein-packed). This will assist with recovery for the morning after and the run the following evening.

    Thanks, Karla!
    Matty

    • Karla Bruning
      Karla #
      2

      You said it. Realization:I eat too many avocado and veggie sandwiches. Yummy, but not enough protein. And there are so many good non-meat protein sources: eggs, beans, nut butters, cottage cheese, hummus, etc. I’m going to get better about my post-run meals and make sure they’ve got enough protein!

  2. 3

    Great post, Karla. I like the 30/30 suggestion. I’ve recently taken to drinking low-fat chocolate milk after a long run after reading about its benefits (http://bit.ly/bX4N0k). That, and I just love chocolate milk. :)

  3. Karla Bruning
    Karla #
    4

    Thanks, Drew. I love chocolate milk too. I did a post about it as a recovery drink back in January:

    http://www.runkarlarun.com/2010/01/22/the-perfect-recovery-drink/

    And yet it still feels like a guilty pleasure :)



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