By Larry Carroll
Ever since the first caveman hit a saber tooth tiger over its head with a club, mankind has known that when it comes time to fuel ourselves protein is a necessity. As the years have passed, however, our intrinsic hunter-gatherer tendencies have evolved. These days, we’re more likely to gather salads than saber tooths — but protein is still an imperative, particularly for the ultra-athlete.
So, how important is protein for trail runners? And what are the best sources for those with vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets?
Nutritionists recommend a daily intake of 46 grams of protein for a healthy adult woman, and 56 grams for a man. In those parts of the world grappling with malnutrition, that’s a serious issue. But in developed countries including the United States, it is estimated that most people eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 grams of protein every day — and even vegans are above the threshold, using beans, nuts, whole grains and other sources to get an estimated 60 – 80 grams per day.
Of course, those numbers include all Americans, regardless of physical activity or level of fitness. So, where does that leave folks who spend their days training for marathons rather than sitting in a cubicle?
Although carbs have long been viewed as the rockstars of the running community, all those pre-run plates of pasta won’t cut it alone. Protein makes you feel fuller longer, helps manage your blood sugar, and assists runners with building and repairing vital tissues.
RunnersConnect breaks down the athlete’s intake needs with a simple equation: 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kg of body weight (in contrast to non-athletes, who need about .8 grams of protein). In order to build and maintain lean muscle mass, divide your current weight in pounds by 2.2 — for example, a 180-pound man would require about 82 grams of protein, while a 135-pound woman needs about 62 grams. As you’ll recall, both numbers fall well below the amount of protein intake for the average American.
So instead of hitting a certain number, perhaps ultra-runners need to act like a journalist and consider the source.
Some runners swear by chocolate milk, channeling their inner 8-year-olds while claiming it’s all in the interest of good health. But before you mix in that Nesquik, consider this: A glass of garden-variety reduced-fat chocolate milk will get you 7 grams of protein, along with 24 grams of sugar. Instead, it is more sensible to make your own shake with ingredients like protein powder, fruits and almond milk and focus on adding something into your diet like L-glutamine, which will help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness.
Other great sources of protein for runners include: Albacore tuna (low calorie, high in B12), grass-fed beef (leaner than grain-fed), eggs (17 grams of protein each) and skinless chicken (easily prepared in many different ways to keep your taste buds interested). For those aiming to maintain a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, stock up on canned black beans (low glycemic index, meaning they steadily release energy to the body), raw almonds (lowers cholesterol and improves heart health), sweet potatoes (manganese and copper maintain healthy muscles) and anything whole grain because the fiber/protein mix will deliver a boost to your overall diet.
“With every footstrike, a runner carries two to seven times his or her body weight,” Dr. Douglas Kalman, a researcher on the effects of protein in athletes, told Runner’s World . “Protein is what keeps your body healthy under all that strain.” According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, athletes who don’t fuel their workouts with enough protein put themselves at a higher risk for injury.
So be smart with your sources and channel your inner caveman — even if you’re using your proverbial club only to gather a handful of almonds.