Runners are often conditioned to pay attention solely to carbs. However, while you are pigging out on the penne before a crucial event or during training, have you stopped to analyze if you are getting enough protein? But, you might ask, “Isn’t protein the domain of bodybuilders who want to gain lean muscle? Do I really need to pay special attention to protein as a runner?” The answer is ‘Yes’, however, bear with us while we make the case for it.
Firstly, let’s get the basics out of the way. What is protein?
Protein is essentially a string of amino acids, which are the basic building molecules for our cells, enzymes, and everything else that keeps the body chugging along smoothly. Protein is what makes up our muscle fibre – which means that without protein, we wouldn’t be able to, quite literally, move a muscle.
So, protein is essential in the day-to-day functions of every human being, but how is it especially relevant to athletes and their performance? As an endurance athlete, your body is in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair – day in and day out. Protein is essential to this process of rebuilding your body from scratch. The strength of your immune system, blood and oxygen flow to your muscles, injury prevention, and recovery times also depend a great deal on protein. Let’s explore these in further depth.
Recovery is the end of one training session, and the start of another one. The success of your new training session depends a great deal on how well you have recovered from the previous one. Protein is central to the muscle recovery process, as your body goes into overdrive to repair muscle damage, reduce free-radical damage, and to fight soreness and fatigue. When taken within 20-45 minutes after exercise, a combination of carbohydrate and protein is readily absorbed by the body to kick-start the recovery process.
Ever feel like you are getting flu-like symptoms after a long run or an event? Even with training, long distance running can batter your body. In this vulnerable state, your immune system is temporarily weakened, exposing your body to opportunistic infections. Protein ensures that your immune system can withstand the impact of high endurance exercise. It activates white blood cells in the body, which protect against respiratory tract infections and other pathogens. If you don’t want to miss out 3 days of training to a cold – protein it up!
Lean muscle mass
Many of you likely complement your running with cross-training in the gym for strength training. Whether you are trying to pack some muscle in your legs, or attaining a strong core – you need protein to build lean muscle and maintain it. Even the best strength training session in the gym isn’t going to result in much if it isn’t followed up with a carbohydrate and protein source like a recovery drink. After workouts, the body is an anabolic state – which means the conditions in the muscle are favourable for the building of new muscle. When protein is supplied to the body in the anabolic state, the repair mechanism promotes the growth of new, lean muscle. So, if you want to bulk up the right way, get your protein fix.
With every stride, your legs experience an impact of up to 5-7 times your body weight- that’s opening yourself up to the risk of injury. Protein helps maintain integrity of muscle, and makes your connective tissue sufficiently reinforced to take a pounding on the road. Injury prevention also depends on the strength of your core and your overall running form. Optimal protein intake helps you get the best out of core workouts, thus helping you build a strong core foundation for your performance.
Think only carbohydrates were important from an energy perspective? Think again. During high endurance activities, your body starts running low on glycogen, which is the first choice of fuel. In the absence of glycogen, your body starts looking for an alternate source of energy by breaking down muscle (muscle cannibalization). Over long periods of training, this can significantly weaken muscle. Adequate protein intake gives your body a steady supply of energy-generating amino acids like leucine, isoleucine and valine- which means that the body’s energy needs are met without your muscle mass being broken down.
Chronic protein deficiency is also known to cause lethargy, anaemia, slower recovery times, muscle weakness, and severe system fatigue. Athletes who display signs of overtraining are often protein deficient. So, the bottom line- as a runner, you need to be mindful of your protein needs.
Expert opinions vary on this. Protein intake depends largely on the person’s activity level. The more intense one’s exercise, the more protein they need. However, the formula below is a good measure for the protein requirements of a moderately active individual – i.e. someone who engages in some form of moderate to heavy exercise at least 3 times a week.
Weight in kilograms x 1.2 = ___ grams of protein per day
For e.g., a 70 kg runner would need 84 grams of protein per day during training.
With a bit of strategic planning, a regular Indian diet can be transformed into a powerhouse of protein. Below, we list some of the best plant-based sources of this vital macronutrient. Along with protein, these foods also give you a healthy supply of vitamins, minerals, and fibre to maintain optimum training fitness and a fortified immune system. Not to mention, they are easily accessible, and easy to incorporate within an Indian diet.
Protein content (per 100 gms)
1. Black beans (cooked)
2. Soy (cooked)
3. Soy milk
4. Peanut butter (smooth)
5. Lentils (boiled)
6. Walnuts (raw)
11. Pumpkin seeds (dry roasted)
12. Sunflower seeds
It might not always be possible to meet your recommended daily protein allowance solely from food sources. To avoid this, top-up your meal plan with an additional protein like a vegan protein supplement to help you hit your protein target for the day. Choose your protein supplement wisely – you don’t want to be adding junk ingredients, preservatives, and sugar to your finely-tuned diet!
So, now that we have made our case, it’s time for you to raid your pantry and assess the quality of your diet. All it takes is ensuring that with every meal, you include some form of protein. Soon, you will be seeing tangible gains in your running. Happy training!
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