Pack Protein into Your Fueling Routine

How and why you should get more protein into your daily diet

Among recent food trends du jour, I’ve often found myself defending one macronutrient or another to my running clients and friends. Two of them, fat and carbohydrates, sit at the center of many of these debates. But then there’s protein — the macronutrient that doesn’t get a bad rap but also doesn’t get as much attention or praise as it deserves.

Even when we do talk about protein, it’s often in the shadow of one of the other “macros”—for example, the 4:1 carb to protein ratio in a recovery meal, or the emphasis on “lean” proteins on a lower-fat menu.

So let’s take a moment to give protein the spotlight. I’m not suggesting you go on a high-protein diet (or any diet, for that matter). I’m not saying anyone should consider trying to be more protein-adapted (that’s not a thing). I’m not recommending cutting back on carbs or fat. I’m simply saying protein is important for our running (and overall) health. And it often gets either overdosed or overlooked.

As nutrients go, protein is pretty fascinating. It helps us maintain bone, muscle, and tissue health. It keeps everything from our hair and nails to our immune and digestive systems healthy. A higher protein meal is more satiating and often more satisfying than the alternative. And despite its association with meat and other animal products, protein is found in a variety of foods! In fact, it’s harder to find foods that don’t have protein than it is to find foods that do.

Protein sources include:

  • Meat, poultry, eggs, and fish
  • Nuts and seeds (cashews, chia seeds, almonds, pumpkin seeds)
  • Legumes (beans, edamame, lentils, peanuts, and peas)
  • Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Grains (rice, oats, barley, rye)
  • Vegetables (lentils, black beans, wild rice, chickpeas, spinach)

Daily protein intake recommendations for active people range from 1-1.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (per day). Since Americans aren’t well-versed in kilograms, here’s a simple equation: divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. For example: a 180-pound woman weighs about 82 kilograms, and would therefore aim to eat anywhere from 80-115 grams of protein per day. An easier way to add it up? Protein should account for about 15 percent of your daily calories.

How to get ~100g of protein in your daily diet:

  • 2-egg scramble with 1/2 avocado, 1 slice buttered toast, and chopped peppers (~25g)
  • Greek yogurt snack, topped with fruit and almonds (20-25g)
  • Roasted chicken salad with chopped veggies, ~1/4 cup quinoa, and dressing (30-35g)
  • Trail mix snack with a piece of fruit (~10g)
  • White bean soup with brown rice and vegetables, topped with toasted pepitas, 1 slice whole wheat buttered toast (~15g)

If you’re consuming enough food to maintain weight, it’s likely you’re meeting your protein needs. But if you glanced at that list of foods above and thought, “Huh, I don’t eat many of those,” it may be a good time to consult a sports dietitian. A nutrition professional can help assess whether you’re eating enough (protein, and energy) to support your training goals and overall health.

Be careful of extremely high or low daily protein intake.

Given the list above, and America’s cultural eating habits, it’s not uncommon for people to exceed their protein needs. And if you’re far over—say, routinely eating two or three times as much protein as you need—that can backfire. “A high-protein diet will cause an increase in the excretion of calcium in the urine,” notes Nikky Hindle, RD CPT of NOVA Sports Nutrition. This could lead to weakened bones, and increased risk of injury, she adds. Not ideal for anyone, much less a runner in training!

Alternatively, skimping on your protein intake may result in delayed recovery from workouts, and reduced immune system strength. A chronically low protein intake may put you at risk for injury and illness, not to mention difficulty gaining strength or endurance.

Spread out your protein intake every day.

Unless you’ve been advised by a dietitian or medical professional to significantly increase your protein intake, it’s probably unnecessary to use protein supplements or powders daily. Remember, the ideal range for highly active individuals is 1-1.4 g per kg body weight, per day. It’s OK if, on any given day you fall on the lower end or the higher end of the range.

The key is to balance it out. Balance each meal and snack with a variety of nutrients–carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each “macro” plays an important role in fueling, digestion, and helping the body absorb and process other nutrients. (Also, if you try to get close to 100 g of protein in one meal, you may not feel so hot after that.)

Recover with protein after your workout, and throughout the day.

We hear sometimes about the need for protein post-workout — and it’s true, but that’s not the only time that protein can be used to optimize recovery. “Runners will suffer from prolonged muscle recovery and a decreased opportunity to build strength and endurance when {daily} protein needs are insufficient,” warns Rebecca Mohning, MS RD CSSD. Don’t isolate your protein intake to recovery smoothies or post-run energy bars. Add various sources of protein to your meals and snacks throughout the day, using the list above, and the tips below, for ideas.

5 ways to increase, and add variety to, your daily protein intake:

  1. Enhance your bowl of oatmeal or cereal. Get creative with things like PB2 powder, Bolthouse Farms Plant Milk, or toppings like greek yogurt and chopped nuts.
  2. Bulk up your sauces and salsas. Hindle recommends adding black beans, or any legume of choice, to salsas and sauces using a blender.
  3. Spruce up salads with a variety of toppers. My salads are always topped with one or more of the following: grilled chicken or steak, hard boiled eggs, beans, smoked salmon, or canned tuna. I also add in some chopped nuts or seeds for extra crunch.
  4. Sprinkle in some yeast. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, nutritional yeast can be a great supplement, and flavor adder, to a variety of meals and snacks. (If you’ve never had it, it tastes kind of like cheese.) Mohning recommends it as seasoning on popcorn.
  5. Blend it all together. Smoothies are a common recovery snack for runners–a simple way to combine a variety of foods and “eat” something, even if your appetite hasn’t caught up to you yet. Adding yogurt or a dairy alternative like soy milk or Plant Milk, nut butters, and even beans or grains can be a great way to blend protein into your smoothie.

Unlike its fellow macronutrients, protein isn’t instigating any dietary fights. Whatever else you’re eating (and I support eating everything!), protein will always have a place on your plate. There’s no reason to skimp, and there’s no reason to overdo it. Just tap into a variety of protein sources at a variety of meals and snacks, and you’ll be giving your body what it needs to rebuild, refuel, and get you ready for the next run.  

Heather Caplan, RDN
Heather Caplan is a registered dietitian with a private practice based out of Washington DC. She writes about running and nutrition for various publications, and on her own Real Talk RD blog at heathercaplan.com.