Definitive guide to protein powders and how to consume them as runners

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We all know that protein helps runners recover from hard runs, but sometimes we struggle to get enough nutritionally complete amounts into our system as we rush between workouts and workplaces.

Powders and shakes can be an easy, convenient option - but they are also historically chalky, gas-inducing, super-sweet and goopy. No one would blame you if you’ve sworn off the stuff, but if you haven’t tried it in a while, it might be time to give protein powder another look. Today there are lots of options, which taste, dissolve and digest much better than they used to - great news for the time-crunched athlete.

So how do you negotiate the frankly bamboozling process of picking one, and how do you use it most effectively? Here’s a quick guide to using protein powder to help you meet your goals.

First: How much do you actually need?

It's always been a general rule of thumb that recreational athletes need about 0.8 to 1 gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight a day to maintain muscle mass. So, if you weigh 77kg , you’ll want about 77 grams daily. However, if you’re a masters athlete or you exercise intensely for 10 or more hours a week, you probably need more to help repair and build your muscles. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends around 1.2 to 2 grams of protein/kg of body weight for serious athletes.

A new study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looking into resistance training and the maximum amount of protein that can be utilized for lean tissue-building purposes in a single meal, suggests that "to maximize anabolism one should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/day. Using the upper daily intake of 2.2 g/kg/day spread out over the same four meals would necessitate a maximum of 0.55 g/kg/meal."

What does that mean? Well, the study looked at athletes ingesting a total of 80g of whey in one of the following three conditions: 8 servings of 10 g every 1.5 h; 4 servings of 20 g every 3 h; or 2 servings of 40 g every 6 h. Results showed that MPS (muscle protein synthesis) was greatest in those who consumed 4 servings of 20 g of protein, suggesting no additional benefit, and actually a lower rise in MPS when consuming the higher dosage (40 g) under the conditions imposed in the study. 

What are the best sources?

Once you know how much you need, the big question is how to take it in. Lori Nedescu, (MS RDN LD and founder of The Cadence Kitchen) warns that not all sources are created equally. “While all protein is made up of amino acids that are either essential (you have to obtain from an outside food source) or non-essential (your body creates enough), the similarities stop there.”

Related: The Best Protein Products For Runners

Concentrates and isolate powders typically prioritise one of two milk derivatives: whey or casein. Or they can use a plant-based amino acid source, such as soy or peanuts. Different ratios of amino acids can affect your body differently, so whether you just want a quick recovery drink, or to build some serious sprinting muscle, check the ingredients to make sure they align with your goals.

That being said, a recent study on synthesis using whey, casein and soy concluded that "simulation of MPS in young men is greater after whey hydrolysate or soy protein consumption than casein both at rest and after resistance exercise [unilateral leg resistance exercise]; moreover, despite both being fast proteins, whey hydrolysate stimulated MPS to a greater degree than soy after resistance exercise". 

Fast or slow?

An omlette is a great source of slow release protein for runners

Whey is a “fast-acting” protein; its absorption rate has been estimated at ~ 10 g per hour. At this rate, it would take just 2 h to fully absorb a 20g dose of whey. While the rapid availability of AA (amino acids) will tend to spike MPS, earlier research examining whole body kinetics showed that concomitant oxidation of some of the AA may result in a lower net protein balance when compared to a source that is absorbed at a slower rate. 

For example, cooked egg has an absorption rate of ~ 3 g per hour, meaning complete absorption of an omelette containing the same 20g of protein (about three large eggs) would take approximately seven hours, which may help attenuate oxidation of AA and thus promote greater whole-body positive protein balance.

What’s best for immediate recovery?

Whey is easily digestible and rapidly absorbed and makes up about 20 percent of milk’s protein content. It is obtained as a by-product of the cheese-making process (curds and whey anyone?), and will send a fast burst of amino acids to your muscles for recovery. Whey also contains a high proportion of leucine, the amino acid thought to be the most important in boosting recovery and performance

How about longer term rebuilding?

Aside from the above mentioned omlette and eating other sources, casein makes up the other 80 percent of milk protein. The difference between casein and whey is that casein takes hours to absorb and has been championed for long term muscle building. Nedescu adds that casein can be difficult to digest. She says that “If your powder is causing you gastro-intestinal disruptions, try a goat's milk-based powder - these have roughly 89 percent less casein than cow’s, but still deliver excellent nutrition.”

When do you use plant proteins?

Plant proteins can provide plenty of amino acids and help with immune function and recovery. As this study concluded, soy is the next best thing to milk-based powders when it comes to MPS. It has also been shown to be a 99 percent complete source and contributes to muscle growth only slightly less than milk-based products.

Nedescu is a fan of pea protein, especially for those with soy intolerances. However, plant-based powders also tend to have some strong flavours that are often masked with artificial or natural sweeteners. If you’re trying to limit your sugar or sweetener intake, check the ingredient and nutrition information.

What to know about additives

Lots of brands will add ingredients to products to further help recovery. Some of these are simply enhanced concentrations of the amino acids already present in the ingredients, such as glutamine or leucine. Other powders add creatine, which actually hasn’t been proven to be of much use to endurance athletes. Finally, in most powders you’ll also likely find a significant carbohydrate content. A three-to-one to four-to-one ratio of carbohydrate to protein has been shown to optimise recovery, but also adds calories. If you don’t want to load up on sugar, stick to straight protein and add your carbs by blending with a banana, some oats, berries and other natural carb sources. 

Related: Should you drink that post-run beer?

One of the major factors when deciding on a protein powder is safety. Many products and brands have been shown to contain illegal-for-sport substances (and even pharmaceutical drugs!). Arnold suggests that athletes look for products with the ‘NSF Certified for Sport’ or ‘GMP Good Manufacturing Practices’ tag to make sure they are getting a protein that is properly sourced and free of banned substances.

The WADA list of prohibited substances is a good place to start too. 


 

The article Your Definitive Guide to Protein Powder originally appeared on Bicycling.