Protein is an essential nutrient needed by the body for growth and maintenance. It is key in building strong muscles and repairing damaged ones so it’s not surprising that athletes are always debating how much they need and what type to eat.

Whilst protein can be used as a fuel source, the preferred fuel for working muscles is carbohydrate. The best way to build muscle is to do exercises that use muscle strength, and the best way to repair them and keep them healthy and strong is to consume protein post-workout.

However, having more protein than our body needs doesn’t mean we store it for later. In fact, any excess protein we eat will be stored as fat and the excess amino acids will need to be excreted by the body. So there’s no need to go overboard with adding in extra protein foods.

But…How much protein do I really need?

15-25% of our diet should be protein.  The rest should be carbohydrates and fat.

The recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein for women aged 19–70 years is 46 grams per day. The RDI of protein for men aged 19-70 years is 64 grams per day.

Do runners need extra protein?

In Australia, most people eat plenty of protein so we don’t need to supplement the diet with any extra. Even if you’re active on a daily basis and you eat a balanced diet, you’re probably already eating enough protein.

We need more protein during times of cell growth and repair such as:

  • During childhood and teenage years
  • Pregnancy and lactation
  • After illness or surgery
  • Prolonged or heavy exercise (endurance athletes and bodybuilders)

I’m currently training for an ultramarathon and I simply add in an extra 25% protein to my RDI, which means I’m eating around 60grams of protein a day. 

If you fall into one of the above categories you may like to discuss your extra protein needs with a qualified dietician. Everyone is different with different training schedules so it’s impossible to prescribe exactly how much you may need.

Does the type of protein matter?

Complete vs incomplete protein

Proteins are made up of ‘building blocks’ called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids. Of these 20, nine are called ‘essential’ amino acids, meaning your body can’t make them on its own and we must consume them from food. The other 11 amino acids our bodies naturally produce.

 A complete protein source is one that has all of the 9 essential amino acids. Complete protein sources generally come from animal foods (red meat, chicken, fish and dairy). Most plant foods are incomplete proteins, but when different plant foods are carefully combined they can make a complete protein (e.g. rice and beans consumed together make a complete protein).  

Plant Vs. animal proteins

Top animal based sources of protein:

  1. Chicken breast / 31g per 100g
  2. Pork / 27g per 100g
  3. Beef  / 26g per 100g
  4. Cheese / 25g per 100g
  5. Salmon / 20g per 100g
  6. Egg / 13g
  7. Milk / 8g per cup

Top plant based sources of protein:

  1. Lentils: 17.9g / Cup
  2. Tempeh: 15g / Half cup
  3. Quinoa: 11g / Cup (Quinoa is a complete protein!)
  4. Beans (Black, Kidney, Mung, Pinto): 12-15g Protein / Cup
  5. Firm tofu: 10g / Half cu
  6. Peanuts: 20.5g / Half cup
  7. Spirulina: 6g Protein / 10 grams

Vegan and vegetarian athletes can certainly source all their protein needs through plant based foods, however they must be well planned with their meals to ensure they are receiving the all essential amino acids. 

To get my daily dose of protein whilst training for an ultramarathon I eat:

Breakfast: Eggs, toast, spinach and avocado

Lunch: Quinoa salad or rice and beans with veggies and cheese

Dinner: 100grams (200grams if it’s after a LONG run) of lean meat or fish with steamed vegetables

Snacks: Peanut butter toast or a protein power ball

Signs you’re not getting enough protein:

  • Swelling
  • Nutrient malabsorption
  • Slow recovery from injuries
  • Muscle and joint pain and weakness
  • Low immunity

Signs you’re overdoing it on the protein

  • Weight gain
  • Bad breath
  • Constipation

Whilst there is no set upper limit on protein consumption, there are increased risks for kidney damage (your kidneys have to work harder to get rid of the extra nitrogen and waste products of protein metabolism), and some cancers and heart disease (due to the high level of saturated fats and cholesterol in animal products).

References:

Australian Nutrient References

Sports Dieticians Australia

Australian Dieticians Association