By: Shiloh Beckerley PhD
When I was spectating the CrossFit southwest regionals with my family last year, someone was handing out samples of potato chips to anyone and everyone who walked by. My then 4-year old grabbed a pack with an excited look on her face. We didn’t have these at home, but I smiled at her and told her it was fine to try them. After one chip, she chucked the bag into her wagon with a disgusted look on her face, almost choking. After a quick taste myself, I understood her expression. High protein potato chips? Seriously?
Clearly as a whole, our culture believes protein is important. Grocery stores are overflowing with protein fortified cheerios, but should endurance athletes be listening? The prevailing thought is that athletes need protein simply for getting bigger muscles… and a muscle-bound body builder isn’t exactly the body type you expect to see on the podium at your local marathon. So is protein actually important for endurance athletes?
The answer is a resounding YES – but why?
Protein helps endurance athletes recover. Researchers have shown that dietary protein plays a key role in supporting recovery from endurance exercise.
Protein helps “remodel” your muscles so they become more endurance adapted. Whatever type of training you are doing, protein helps your body adapt to this. So while protein helps bodybuilders pack on size and strength, protein also increases aerobic capacity and muscle power required for endurance sports. This is a fairly new, exciting line of research that should definitely have you reaching for a protein shake after your long run!
Protein helps you lean out. As a general rule, endurance athletes move most efficiently when they’re at the lower end of what’s considered a healthy body-fat percentage and body mass. Imagine for a moment running with an 18 pound kettlebell strapped to you. Or (in my life), a short sprint down the block while holding two flailing small children. The struggle is real. Running lighter means running easier and faster. Lighter athletes also deliver oxygen more efficiently through the body, and can cool their bodies more effectively. Researchers estimate that for a marathon - “one minute slower per 1 pound overweight”. Put another way, dropping 10 pounds of unneeded body weight, may be your fastest way to Boston. A large body of research supports the concept that higher protein diets aid weight loss attempts, primarily through increasing how full individuals feel; this effect is even more pronounced when high protein diets are compared to the typical endurance athlete’s high carb diet.
Where to start? The primary place where most people are missing out on their protein is at breakfast. Commit to including at least 20 grams of protein to your daily breakfast. This can be easily accomplished by adding a couple hard boiled eggs, a small container of greek yogurt, a couple slices of deli turkey, or a plant-based protein powder (for our vegans).