Food for Thought: The Importance of Protein for Endurance Athletes

by Jim Gazzale

This is the fourth article in a series where we discuss proper nutrition for endurance athletes. This month focuses on the importance of protein in the endurance athlete’s diet.

 Meat, more meat, powdered shakes, and even more meat! Of course, I’m talking about protein. We’re going to ignore the “bro science,” though, and as you’ll see below, meat and protein shakes aren’t the only way to maximize this essential macronutrient.

In general, protein intake for athletes should be higher than for the average non-athlete. That means, in general, athletes should be consuming 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. That’s a great place to start. and progress from there.

The Importance of Protein

Your current health and athletic goals will play a key role in determining the best macronutrient manipulation for you. For example, a bodybuilder will require more protein and fewer carbohydrates than a long-distance triathlete or runner. Because endurance training is oxidative, protein intake is lower than it would be for athletes in other sports where fast twitch muscles and explosive power is required. However, marathoners (and other athletes liking to go long) should still consume more protein than the average non-athlete. I believe having 15-20% of daily calories come from protein is the proper target range for endurance athletes.

How much protein do I need?

To arrive at the total calories and grams of protein per day (depending on the level of activity) I take my total calories for the day, multiplied that by .15 and then divided that by 4 because there are four calories per gram of protein. The breakdown looks like this:

Training days: 514 calories of protein, 128g

Recovery days: 463 calories, 115g

Competition days: 708 calories, 177g

(Example calculation: 3,425 / .15 = 513.75, rounded up to 514. 514 / 4 = 128)

What should I eat?

The food used to ensure adequate protein intake will consist of mainly whole food sources such as poultry, lean meats, fresh and canned fish, beans and lentils, along with a daily whey protein supplement post-workout on training and competition days.

Is a protein supplement necessary?

There is often debate over whether or not protein shakes are even necessary. My personal opinion is that they are necessary in two particular instances:

  1. You struggle with consuming the daily recommended amount of protein (1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day). Adding in a protein shake will give you an easily digested 20-30g boost to your daily intake. Many protein supplements won’t fill you up, allowing you to consume a traditional whole food meal at your normal eating times.
  2. You won’t be able to eat a traditional meal within 90 minutes to two hours after a workout. Protein is essential for muscle growth, repair, and recovery. If you’re unable to eat within that two hour window, a protein shake can help bridge the gap to your next meal. It’s not so much about your “metabolic window,” but more so allowing your muscles ample time to recover before your next training session.

If neither of these situations is applicable, then a protein shake might not be necessary. You can get just as much benefit, if not more, by refueling your body with a traditional meal based around whole foods following your workout.

Guide to protein sources: Precision Nutrition

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Food for Thought Archive

The Importance of Carbohydrates for Endurance Athletes

The Importance of Dietary Fat for Endurance Athletes

Eat the Right Amount for Your Goals

Your New Year Resolution Will Fail. Here's What To Do Instead

Great Cookbooks As Holiday Gifts

The Stress-free Guide to Eating Well During the Holidays

Exercise Alone Does Not Guarantee Weight Loss


                        Jim and his family

Want to be a better fueled athlete? 
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