How to plan your protein for optimal muscle recovery

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Each time Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan sits down for post-run bison meatballs, she’s doing her body a big favour. Protein, made up of amino acids, is so important to muscle repair, recovery and building that runners should have a greater portion of the nutrient after their workouts than at any other time of day, according to new research from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Dietitians of Canada.

And instead of looking at general intake guidelines, runners should plan their protein consumption around workouts – and adjust intake on days when they aren’t exercising. This, researchers say, will help your muscles become stronger and more adaptable to training.

‘Protein helps you rebuild damaged muscles to prevent injury and make you stronger,’ says Tara Collingwood, sports dietitian and official nutritionist for RunDisney. ‘Stronger equals more speed and more endurance.’

According to this research, which focused on how much protein athletes need and when they need it, you should consume 0.54-0.91g per pound of body weight daily. So a woman weighing 10st 10lbs (150lbs), for example, needs 81-137g. These recommendations are well above the Recommended Dietary Allowances (55g for men, 45g for women). ‘There is good evidence that this increased protein helps athletes maximise metabolic adaptation to training,’ says Alissa Rumsey, a spokesperson for the Academy.

The paper looked at a range of athletes and their protein requirements. Runners who log a few miles a day fall on the lower end of the spectrum (0.54-0.68g per pound of body weight). Those clocking longer, harder mileage (at least 25-30 miles weekly) should aim for 0.68-0.82g per pound, while those serious about lifting weights need the most protein, at 0.91g per pound.

Of course, as a runner, you still need a side of carbohydrates with your protein. On easy run days, aim for 2.3-3.2g of carbs per pound; for higher-intensity workouts, like intervals or a long run, have 2.7-4.5g per pound. ‘If you don’t refuel with carbs, the body will break down protein to replenish depleted glycogen stores,’ says Collingwood. ‘You may not have enough protein left for muscle recovery.’

These are protein options for a 10st 10lb (150lb) female runner. Depending on when you run, choose a meal or snack for fuel and recovery. On hard days, have a postrun snack with more protein. If you’re running long or doing speedwork, also aim to have the higher amount of protein in your meal or snack; for easier runs, the lower amount. On rest days, divide your daily total protein intake evenly among meals and snacks.

Pre-run meal or pre-run snack

Meal

Two to three hours before: 25-40g

Eat: 140-170g grilled chicken or salmon on two slices of wholegrain bread with lettuce, tomato, and ¼ avocado.

Why? ‘Protein prior to a workout makes amino acids available for your muscles to use during exercise,’ says Rumsey.

Snack

One hour before: 5-10g

Eat: Hardboiled egg with a slice of toast.

Why? A little protein makes amino acids available so your body doesn’t break down muscle protein. Limit intake to 10g – the nutrient slows digestion, which could lead to GI troubles.

Post-hard-run snack OR post-easy-run snack

Hard run

Within 30 minutes: 17-20g

Eat: Wholewheat pitta with 75g peanut butter or 350ml chocolate milk blended with a banana and a tablespoon of peanut butter.

Why? ‘Your muscles are “thirsty” post-workout and take in more protein and carbs for up to 24 hours after your workout,’ says Rumsey

Easy run

Within 30 minutes: 10g

Eat: 150g Greek yoghurt, with a piece of fruit and honey for carbs.

Why? You still need protein on easy days (about three miles) or rest days. Lower your intake to 0.54-0.68g per pound of body weight. ‘On easy days, you don’t need as many calories or as much protein,’ says Rumsey.

Rest of the day

Every three to five hours: 61-101g, across remaining meals and snacks

Eat: 85-115g lean beef, 95g quinoa, ¼ avocado and 175g broccoli; 85-115g grilled chicken topped with 10 olives, 100g brown rice and side salad; 170g tofu, 100g brown rice, ¼ avocado and sautéed veg in 2 tsp of olive oil

Why? You want to spread the rest of your protein intake across remaining meals and snacks to ensure your body is able to absorb all the amino acids that build and repair muscles, says Collingwood. Pairing protein with fat and carbs further nourishes your body and sustains your workouts.