What’s Missing From the Runner’s Diet Plan?
Athletes need to realize that their body is a temple. No, I’m not talking like a guru who in-between chanting tells you about the importance of a colon cleanse but more as a strength coach who wants you to recognize the ability to excel in your sport. Perhaps rather than say “temple” I should have said car – treat your body likes it’s a brand new Ferrari and you’ll likely reach the top of your game.
When it comes to the average runner’s diet I see an ongoing trend. This dietary practice, or lack of, is stopping most runners from making the transition from tortoise to gazelle. While most diet logs I analyze have a reasonable grasp of the use of carbohydrates, the typical runner’s diet plan tends to neglect protein.
Yep, that thing that strength athletes have been touting since the dawn of days is just as important to runners. No, you don’t need to turn into a caveman and go hunt down a grizzly bear for a protein surplus, but an adequate protein intake is just as important to your performance as refueling with carbs is. One isn’t necessarily superior to the other as they like to work hand in hand.
Performance is the key word here. As a runner, we’re concerned with pace, distance and training volume – not necessarily weight loss. If you’re using running to lose weight, then you should consider another, superior, training plan than distance running. The diet needed to maintain a high weekly mileage on the road is not the same diet beneficial to losing bodyfat (notice that I said bodyfat and not just weight…but all of this weight loss talk is a conversation for another day).
Part of your performance is dependent on recovery. See, after you train, your body has to figure out how to repair tissues, and a huge component of that relationship is protein. If you don’t eat adequate protein, even if you’re not lifting weights, your body falls into what we call a “negative muscle protein balance” (1) after a workout. This means your body is doing more work tearing itself down than actually building itself back up. In fact, running has been shown to breakdown amino acids responsible for maintaining muscle mass (2).
Keep in mind that you don’t want to just repair muscle tissue: you need to take care of your bones, tendons, ligaments, and even things you wouldn’t normally consider, like your skin and hair. You might not notice it at first, but on a long enough time line, you can gain weight, lose strength, experience achy joints, and even effect the health of your immune system. In my career I’ve come across a lot of runners with bad knees and weight gain issues because they won’t tweak their diet. It’s frightening that their solution is to try and run even more.
Sports scientists are starting to come around as well. The recommended protein intake for endurance athletes has steadily increased over time; now some scientists recommend around 1.4 g/kg/bw (2). So for a 150 pound athlete, this would mean 95 grams of protein per day. That’s not actually a lot in the grand scheme of things, but for a runner who hasn’t considered their protein intake, it seems like a mountain of food. Yes it’s more food, and yes it increases your calorie intake, but it’s needed to recover from exercise. Unless you drop your weekly training volume, you’re not going to gain weight.
So, the next time you’re at the grocery store to stock up carbs, don’t forget to leave some room in the cart for proteins. You’ll notice a difference in you running performance in no time; in fact, you might even start feeling like a gazelle. Or a Ferrari.
1. Van Loon, L.J.C. “Is There a Need for Protein Ingestion During Exercise?” (2013) Sports Science Exchange 26;109. 1-6
2. Phillips, Stuart M. “Dietary Protein for Atheltes: From Requirements to Metabolic Advantage” (2006) Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.31. 647-654