Protein can sometimes seem to be a mystery nutrient. Some places we read that runners need relatively little protein and should focus on carbohydrates instead. Other sources tell us that carbohydrates are overrated and that we should instead focus on a high-protein diet to maintain our muscles and prevent injury.
Of course the truth, like in most things, is somewhere in the middle.
Carbohydrates are important for runners, but they are not the end-all, be-all of running nutrition. Any runner who has trained for a marathon or done intervals at the track can tell you that running will break your body down. Proteins are the building blocks that put you back together.
This is where timing is important. It's good to have some protein any time of day, but before and after workouts is when you really need to get a boost. There are four times that I'll use a protein supplement, in the form of either All-Pro Science Recovery or All-Pro Science Grass Fed Whey (Dislosure: these are affiliate links and if you make a purchase at the site after clicking, I will receive a small commission. I've previously reviewed APS products, and continue to use them as my protein supplement of choice).
1. Before a strength workout. Protein doesn't add a lot of value before an endurance workout, but it has been shown that taking it before strength training can enhance recovery. I'll use APS Recovery or APS Precharge. You can also take half a scoop of protein mixed with some juice or sports drink to get a similar effect. You will want to still have about 15-30 grams of carbohydrate in your pre-workout "shooter" for fuel.
2. After a strength workout. After a workout, I usually will have a protein "shake" - a scoop of APS Grass Fed Whey with 10 ounces of Naked Juice and 10 ounces of water. I've read that 35 grams of protein total around your workout (including both before and after) is ideal for muscle growth. Now "growth" is not necessarily what we're going for as runners, but you could also think of it as regeneration or repair - necessary if you're going to be going for a run later in the day.
3. After a short run. Endurance training doesn't have the same impact on your muscles as strength training, so I typically won't take any protein before a run and a serving of APS Recovery after - unless I'm going to have a meal after, then I don't bother with a protein supplement. Even a short 3-4 mile run requires nutrients to replace what was burned in your workout, but not like you need after a strength workout or long run.
4. After a long run. Like a short run, I don't take protein beforehand, but I like to have a shake or two servings of APS Recovery just to make sure I get the protein I need. I will also have a meal along with this (since a 20-mile trail run will burn over 2,500 calories), where I've found I tend to overdo the carbs, so having some good healthy protein in shake form helps balances things out.
In a addition to timing the type of protein is important. I use whey protein because it is absorbed quickly (unlike Cassein, another milk protein) and soy can boost estrogen levels, with undesirable results for men. Other vegetable proteins are more expensive and I don't really like the flavor.
Do you use a protein supplement?
How do you decide when to boost your protein and when to let your normal diet suffice?