Marathon Training Protein Tip #20

Registered Dietitian Jan Dowell discusses how to choose healthy peanut butter for marathon training protein.

In marathon training protein is required to renew our well-worked muscles. In fact, people who participate in endurance sports need almost double the protein in a day compared our less active friends. Vince Lombardi once said, “The will to win…the will to achieve goes dry and arid without continuous renewal”. Read on to see if you are you doing all you can to renew your muscles.

What is the best marathon training protein?

There is no magic marathon training protein. Protein is found in nuts, seeds, beans, milk, cheese, egg whites, chicken, fish, beef, and pork, nutrition bars and protein supplements. Lower fat versions of these foods are suggested since too much fat may slow digestion, fat adds extra calories and too much fat is not good for your heart (there is life beyond the marathon). If you prefer the vegetarian proteins, be sure to get a variety of them during the day. Unless you need additional propulsion on your run, skip the beans and other higher fiber plant proteins before a run.

There is some interesting research that supports eating carbs and protein at the same time. This is based on carb-based hormonal changes that actually help the body limit protein breakdown. Carbs also help provide enough calories to the body so protein calories are not used for fuel. This is less complicated than you think since many foods we eat contain both carb and protein. Chocolate milk is a great example of an excellent balance of carbs and protein, as is cheese with crackers or a peanut butter sandwich.

How much protein does a marathon runner need?

In general, endurance athletes need more protein than sedentary people. Some protein ends up getting used for energy at the end of long runs, so more protein overall is needed so there is enough left for repairing muscles and keeping the immune system strong. The good news is that marathoners usually increase their calorie intake during training, so protein automatically increases with more food eaten.

Estimated Protein Needs of Marathon Runners:
100 pound marathoner: 60 gms protein
150 pound marathoner: 89* gms protein
200 pound marathoner: 118 gms protein

Contact me if you want to know how these protein needs were calculated.

*What does 89 grams of protein look like?
Eating all of the following foods within a day would be approximately 89 grams of protein:
2 cups nonfat milk, 3 Tablespoons peanut butter on 2 slices of whole grain bread, 4 ounce grilled chicken breast with a cup of steamed vegetables, and ½ cup refried beans with 1 ounce melted cheese and baked tortilla chips. You can figure out other combinations by reading food labels and checking out the general protein content of food groups.

Nutrition bars and recovery drinks can be used to attain your goal marathon training protein intake. They are convenient, but not always necessary if you’re eating balanced during the day.

When is the best time for a marathon runner to eat or drink protein?

Keep in mind that carbohydrates are your main fuel. Protein is for building/repair and only a last resort energy source. Before a run, concentrate on hydration and carbs. If you’re headed out for a long run, you can try adding protein to your carb (melted cheese on a bagel or a smoothie). Some sports drinks now have protein added. This is your call. If you tolerate it…fine, but what will be available during the marathon? Do you really want to carry your own beverage choice for 26.2 miles? Some gels have protein added. Like anything, train with the drink/gel you’ll be using during the marathon.

The most important time for marathon training protein intake is for recovery after running. Carbs replenish your glycogen stores, whereas protein starts the repair of muscles and production of enzymes that process your fuel.

After you’re a long run or strenuous workout a snack or recovery drink that includes both carbs and protein should be taken within 30 minutes (or as soon as possible). One example is a PowerBar Recovery Shake with 40 gms carb and 13 gms protein For a short run or light training session you should focus on hydration, but you can wait until your next meal to get your nutrition.

Does protein impact the runner’s immune system?
Williams, in Nutrition for Health, Fitness and Sport (McGraw Hill) explains that overtraining has been associated with a decrease in plasma amino acids (the base of protein). It makes sense then to maintain a healthy protein intake as well as train smart (i.e., rest on rest days and follow the mileage guidelines). Many proteins are also good sources of iron. Low body iron stores can leave you feeling “run down” and put you at higher risk of infection. Carbs may also impact our immune system. Eating enough carbs suppresses some hormones that could otherwise have a negative effect on immunity. A balanced diet, plenty of rest and a reasonable training schedule all contribute to a healthy immune system.

Don’t forget that continuous renewal also refers to renewing our brains. If you’re in the midst of heavy duty mileage right now you may be struggling to balance your time out on the road with life requirements. Today I decided to watch the video of the race course for an upcoming marathon. Talk about renewal! So, go grab a healthy snack and find a way to get renewed!

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