The best protein powders for runners, and when to take them

What are the best protein powders for runners?

Consumed by everyone from heavy-lifting bodybuilders to long-distance runners, nutrition-packed protein shakes have become a post-exercise staple for athletes of all shapes and sizes.

Related: The definitive guide to protein powders for runners 

“Their main advantage is convenience,” says Renee McGregor, a performance and clinical dietician. “They are portable and useful in situations where food availability is limited or when an individual struggles to consume real food before or after a workout.”

When should runners reach for a protein shake?

There’s no need to reach for a shake after every run. “The only time I would recommend them is if there is going to be a substantial gap between finishing your run and eating your next meal, or if you’re planning on a further training session within 12 hours,” says McGregor.

If you are having a shake, try to consume it within 30 minutes of finishing your run. During this ‘magic window’, the body takes up the nutrients at a quicker rate to kick-start your postrun repair and recovery.

What are the best protein shakes on the market?

Here’s a look at the various protein shakes and their respective strengths and weaknesses:

1. Casein

best protein powders for runners - casein

What is it? Casein is the insoluble component of milk, whereas whey is soluble. For this reason, it is slower to digest than whey protein and, says McGregor, can encourage repair for a more prolonged period of time. “For this reason, it has been suggested that casein-based drinks should be consumed prior to bedtime,” says McGregor. However, she adds that you could, arguably, drink milk for a similar impact.

Which is the best powder to buy? Neat Slow-Release Protein, £34 for 1kg, neat-nutrition.com 

2. Whey

best protein powders for runners - whey

What is it? The go-to protein powder for the masses, whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process. “Why is the most tested [of the protein shakes] and the benefits of it are that it’s quickly absorbed into the body and so can stimulate muscle-protein synthesis quickly,” says McGregor. When choosing which protein powder to buy, try to opt for one with a lower sugar content – some whey shakes are full of the sweet stuff.

Which is the best powder to buy? ViFit Recovery Shake, £19.95 for 875g, shop.vifitsport.com 

3. Pea

best protein powder for runners - pea

What is it? Pea protein is dairy-free, so it’s a good choice for those with lactose intolerance. It’s also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids (those that can’t be made by the body and so must come from diet). “Pea protein is a good alternative for those individuals who are avoiding animal-based proteins,” says McGregor. “It is as close as you are going to get with regards to branched-chain amino acids found in whey.”

Which is the best powder to buy? Neat Vegan Protein, £34 for 1kg, neat-nutrition.com 

4. Brown rice

best protein powder for runners - brown rice

What is it? Another option for vegans, or those with dairy allergies, is brown rice protein. Some studies have shown it to be very effective in building muscle and aiding recovery, as well as providing fibre. But it is more slowly digested than whey protein. “Rice itself is not hugely high in protein and lacks some of the essential amino acids,” says McGregor. “If I had to make a suggestion for a plant-based alternative, I would suggest pea.”

Which is the best powder to buy? Pulsin, £26.99 for 1kg, pulsin.co.uk 

5. Spirulina

best protein powders for runners - spirulina

What is it? Spirulina contains sources of all nine essential amino acids and is highly absorbable. In its dry-weight form, spirulina is 60-70 per cent protein – a lot – but in terms of the amount you ingest from a supplement, it’s only about two grams. “You would have to take on a huge serving to get the same protein benefits of some of the others on this list,” says McGregor. However, thanks to spirulina’s phycocyanin content, it does have powerful antioxidant qualities.

Which is the best powder to buy? MyVitamins Spirulina, £11.69 for 500g, myvitamins.com