By Kelly Aleman, RD/LD

Brought to you by Florida East Coast Runners

Protein has been one of the hottest topics in sports nutrition for the past few years. Protein proponents have been saying that it, not carbohydrate, is the real key to everything from weight control to race performance. Athletes have been advised that they need more carbohydrates to fuel their muscles optimally and excess protein displaces the carbohydrates from the diet. However, many athletes take this advice to the extreme and they do not get an adequate balance of carbohydrates and protein in their diet. Many endurance athletes get stuck in the carbohydrate-overload syndrome. There is some possibility that eating more protein may well improve your running and overall health if you are an athlete that mainly focuses on carbohydrates. So the questions arise: How much protein should I be getting? Do runners need more in their diet? Are non-meat protein sources just as good as meat sources?

Protein is one of the body's most versatile constituents and it accounts for about one-fifth of our weight. Proteins are used to repair worn-out body tissue, to build new tissue, it can be used as a source of energy, transports other substances and helps fight off invading bacteria and viruses. For all this protein machinery to run properly, our body must manufacture millions of new proteins daily. We must take in around 25 percent of the total protein our body manufactures each day. This amounts to approximately 50-100 grams or roughly 15 percent of total calories. If you fall short of this consistently, your body's protein supply will begin to dwindle and your health will suffer. Nagging respiratory infections, injuries that don't heal, blotchy facial complexion, grayish coloring, hair loss or splitting fingernails are all signs of insufficient protein.

Any kind of habitual exercise has been shown to boost protein needs. Exercise alters the protein recycling balance which can boost protein needs by 25 percent or more. Muscle damage caused by a tough workout or race also increases protein needs. And if you do any strength training, you'll need to take in more protein to support increased muscle bulk. So how do we properly balance protein into our sports diet? Here are some tips to alleviate the confusion.

Protein needs vary person to person to person, depending on whether you are building muscle, dieting (a calorie deficit increases protein needs), growing (such as teenage athletes), or doing exhaustive exercise. Protein needs for athletes should be calculated according to appropriate body weight, not by percent of calories. Appropriate protein targets are:


Grams Protein per pound body wt

Current RDA for sedentary adult


Recreational exerciser, adult


Competitive athlete, adult


Growing teenage athlete


Adult building muscle mass


Athlete restricting calories


Maximum usable amount by adults


Example: If you weigh 160 pounds and are a competitive adult athlete that is also building muscle mass you should strive for 0.8-0.9 grams protein per pound of body weight which translates to 128-144 g protein ( an amount you can consume from 1 quart of skim milk, 1 can of tuna, and 8 ounces of chicken breast).

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies can make 12 of these amino acids but we need to get 8 essential amino acids through our diet. It's easier to get this from animal protein sources, since milk, eggs, chicken, beef and fish supply all 8 essential amino acids. Vegetarians can get all 8 essential amino acids from tofu, soymilk, soybeans, soy burgers or any other soy product. Also, they can eat a variety of plant sources (beans, lentils, nuts, sunflower seeds, grains) that will offer complimentary amino acids.

Very few athletes need to spend money on a protein supplement. Commercial protein supplements are mainly useful in medical situations such as malnourished patients with AIDS or cancer. Advertisements that try to convince athletes more is better have no scientific research to prove their claims. Remember the maximum useable amount for adults is 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. Our bodies do not store extra protein as protein it is stored as fat. However, if you believe you need more protein than your recommended then strive to get it from lean whole food sources (like tuna, skim milk) that provide you with other nutrients besides protein and to avoid excess artery-clogging saturated fat.

Following is a quick reference guide for tallying up your daily protein intake:

That, in a nutshell, is the word on protein. To sum up the information on protein follow these fairly simple guidelines. First, as a runner you need more protein than a sedentary person. If you run high mileage (over 40 miles a week) and you also do some strength training, you likely need 50 percent more than the RDA. Second, you will get adequate protein if you include a variety of quality, low-fat sources at each meal. This also goes for vegetarians. If you are a runner that is stuck in the "carbo-overload" syndrome, a trademark of many endurance athletes, then you need to learn how to incorporate a protein source with each meal because you are likely dangerously low in protein. For example, have extra milk with your cereal at breakfast or put cheese or peanut butter on your toast or bagel. For lunch, cover that baked potato with beans, cottage cheese or some tuna. For dinner, mix in some tofu, seafood, or chicken with your pasta. Enriching your meals with these kinds of protein rich foods will help you meet your protein needs that contribute to overall health and well-being.

We are fortunate to have someone with Kelly's credentials and experience willing to donate her time to help educate us on the important subject of nutrition. She is a registered and licensed dietician in private practice in Melbourne. Her primary counseling focus is to provide personalized exercise nutrition consultation for athletes of all abilities, regardless of their sport. Kelly is available for individual counseling by appointment at 728-7782.

Copyright 2009 by Florida East Coast Runners and Kelly Aleman. Reproduction or reprinting without written permission is illegal.

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