Home » Blog » Nutrition for Runners: Carbohydrate and Protein Recommendations

Nutrition for Runners: Carbohydrate and Protein Recommendations

Rate this Article:
nutrition for runners Nutrition for Runners: Carbohydrate and Protein Recommendations www.runnerclick.com

We’ve been seeing a lot of misleading information surrounding runner nutrition, protein and carbohydrate intake, and the false promises shared by supplement companies.

So, we thought we’d dive into the topic with our resident Sports Dietitian, Megan Robinson, and share just how, when, and in what form runners should optimize their carb and protein intake.

Carbohydrates Defined

Carbohydrates found in grains, fruit, vegetables, beans/legumes, milk, and yogurt, in addition to foods containing added sugars, increase muscle and liver glycogen (stored form of carbs) to help with endurance performance.

Popular fad diets restricting carbohydrates can reduce glycogen stores and potentially negatively impact the immune system, energy, and running performance.

Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy to reduce fatigue, maintain blood glucose in range, and enhance sports performance during training and races.

Recommended Amount of Carbohydrates

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend that endurance athletes exercising 1-2 hours a day benefit from eating 5-7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) of body weight to ensure muscle glycogen stores are fully stocked before exercise.

Exercising 2-3 hours a day may require up to 6-10 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, but most athletes are able to maintain adequate muscle glycogen stores by consuming on the lower end, 5-6 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight.

As training load increases, carbohydrate amounts should increase to match the training demands.

What does this mean?

If a runner weighs 150# (68.1 kg) and trains 1-2 hours daily, they should consume approximately 340 grams of carbohydrate (5 g/kg) daily, spread throughout the day and after training.

TrainingCarb grams per kg (body weight)When
1-2 hr/day5g/kgBefore & post-workout
2-3hr/day6-10g/kgBefore & post-workout

This may seem like a lot of carbohydrates, but to put this in perspective, just 2 cups of cooked pasta with 1 cup of marinara sauce contains about 100 grams of carbohydrates.  

Carbohydrates can add up quickly if you add them to each meal, including fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains. Added sugars are OK when consumed during training from sports gels, chews, and beverages to help maintain blood glucose levels and to prevent muscle glycogen stores from dropping too low.

When to Eat Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, compared to protein and fat, break down more quickly and efficiently to produce energy for your body.

Eating easily digested carbohydrates low in dietary fiber before training can help top off liver and muscle glycogen stores, especially when runs are early in the morning after an overnight fast.

It’s important to add healthy carbohydrates to each meal and snack to meet the energy demands of endurance training.

Running events longer than 90 minutes, consuming 30-60 grams of carbohydrates during exercise is recommended to spare muscle glycogen stores and reduce fatigue.

In addition, post-exercise, carbohydrates are essential to restore muscle and liver glycogen stores lowered during prolonged exercise to maintain energy levels and to help regulate blood glucose levels.

It is suggested to consume a higher amount of carbs only, 1.0- 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight or a little less carbs, 0.8 grams per kg of body weight, plus protein within 30-60 minutes post-exercise to rapidly restore muscle glycogen.

For example, if a runner weighs 150# (68.1 kg), they would need approximately 55-68 grams of carbohydrate consumed within 30-60 minutes after exercise to maximize muscle glycogen recovery.

This can be achieved by eating a large bagel or two slices of toast with fruit to reach the desired carbohydrate gram amount.

TrainingCarb grams per kg (body weight)When
1.30hr or more1.0-1.2g/kg30-60 min post-workout
1.30hr or more0.8g/kg + proteins30-60 min post-workout

Defining Protein

Protein rich-foods from animal products (meat, eggs, cheese, dairy) and plant-based foods (nuts, nut butter, beans, soy products, plant-based milk fortified with pea protein) are necessary for building, maintaining muscle growth, and repairing damaged muscle from training. 

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein: 20 amino acids are needed to build muscle, but only 11 can be made by the body, while the remaining 9 must be consumed by food.

The type and amount of protein eaten throughout the day and post-exercise are key to muscle recovery and building new muscle proteins.

Endurance running can result in muscle protein breakdown (running downhills, marathons, significant eccentric activities), especially if not enough protein is eaten or if not enough calories are consumed on a daily basis to match training demands.

Therefore, balancing the amount of protein throughout the day is essential to stimulate muscle protein building.

Types of Protein

Leucine is an amino acid that is important for muscle recovery. It is one of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that has a special function of triggering the process of muscle protein building.

To activate this process, approximately 3 grams of leucine within 25 grams of protein is better at sustaining muscle protein building for up to 5 hours. Whole protein foods, such as whey protein, that contain enough leucine are key to stimulating muscle protein building.

Animal-based protein contains up to 25% more leucine than plant-based protein. Milk proteins are highest in leucine, but other plant-based proteins such as pea and corn may contain leucine, but are lower in other essential amino acids.

Runners consuming 25 grams of animal-based protein would need to eat approximately 40 grams of a plant-based protein to reach the same amount (3 grams) of muscle-building leucine.

Recommended Amount of Protein

Runners need more protein than the average person to achieve training adaptations and to help improve performance.

AND and ACSM recommends endurance athletes consume a range of 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight, but research suggests most endurance athletes require 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight.

Consuming on the higher end of protein may interfere with the ability to eat enough energy from carbohydrates; therefore, it’s important to balance energy from carbs and protein to maximize muscle glycogen stores and promote muscle protein building.

Protein needs to be divided up evenly every 3-5 hours of the day, plus 0.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight, 30-60 minutes post-exercise to enhance muscle protein recovery and building after strenuous or training longer than 60 minutes.

Eating more protein beyond what is recommended does not show additional benefits, and muscle protein building can only be stimulated with doses at least 3-5 hours apart.

What does this look like? 

If a runner weighs 150# (68.1 kg), they would need approximately 109 grams of protein, 25-30 grams of protein, spread out every 3-5 hours throughout the day to meet the recommended daily amount.

TrainingCarb grams per kg (body weight)When
1.30hr or more1.0-1.2g/kg30-60 min post-workout
1.30hr or more0.8g/kg + proteins30-60 min post-workout

To put this in perspective, consuming just 4 ounces of meat (a little larger than a deck of cards) equates to about 28 grams of protein.

Spreading out protein more evenly throughout the day is key to increasing muscle protein building rather than consuming large amounts 2-3 times a day.

Use of Protein Supplements In A Runner’s Diet

Runners who find it difficult to meet the recommended amount of protein daily may rely on protein supplements to fill in the gaps.

This may be more important for vegetarian or vegan athletes since the amount of protein required to consume 3 grams of leucine post-exercise and every 3-5 hours during the day may be challenging due to the large quantity of food required to meet these guidelines.

Protein powder supplements from plants (soy, pea, rice, potato, or hemp) or from eggs, or milk (casein or whey), contain a varying amount of protein per serving (10 to 50 grams) and may have extra added or artificial sugars, artificial flavorings, vitamins, minerals and/or probiotics.

Whey protein is a high-quality, fast-digesting protein containing all essential amino acids and is highest in leucine compared to other proteins. Different types of whey consist of hydrolysates (typically >80% protein), isolates (generally 90% protein), and whey protein generally concentrates>70% protein).

Whey protein isolate contains a higher percentage of protein and a higher concentration of leucine (14%) to increase muscle protein building; therefore is the gold standard when choosing a protein powder.

Other plant-based protein powders, such as pea, lack other amino acids. Runners need to eat more total protein from plant-based powders compared to whey to reach the goal of 3 grams of leucine.

Protein powder is a dietary supplement that is not regulated by the FDA, so it is difficult to know if it is safe for consumption. Consumer Reports and the Clean Label Project studies reveal that protein powders may contain heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and BPA.

Therefore, choosing a safe protein powder and limiting the frequency and amount used is important to avoid or limit the intake of these contaminants.

Listen to our Sports Dietitian, Megan Robinson, and her protein and carb recommendations.

How to Choose a Protein Powder

Choosing a protein powder should be based on a number of factors:

1. It is regulated or certified by a 3rd party company, either NSF Sport or Informed Choice.

2. All of the ingredients on the label are recognizable and do not just list propriety blends in the ingredient list.

3. None of the ingredients are banned for use in sport.

Ideally, the carbohydrate to protein ratio should be 3:1 to maximize muscle recovery. If the protein powder contains only 6-10 grams of carbs, additional carbohydrates (from fruit) should be added to reach the correct amount of carbohydrates post-exercise for recovery.

Post-Run Recovery Nutrition

Post-exercise, runners don’t need to eat a recovery snack or meal immediately after training unless you have a training session scheduled less than 8 hours apart or if it is a regularly scheduled time for your next meal or snack.

If training just once daily, consuming a post-exercise meal should be around the next time you plan to eat or based on your hunger.

If you need to restore muscle glycogen quickly and help with muscle repair, consider the following strategies:

  • Consume a fast-acting carbohydrate, such as fruit, at least 0.8 grams of carb per kg of body weight plus 0.4 grams of protein per kg of body weight immediately post-exercise
  • For example, if you weigh 150# (68.1 kg) post-exercise, you should choose a recovery meal containing approximately 55 grams of carbohydrate (0.8 g carb/kg) plus 20 grams of protein (0.3 g protein/kg).
  • A recovery smoothie including a protein powder recipe could include the following:
    • 1 cup almond milk
    • 1 medium banana
    • 1 cup frozen berries
    • 1 scoop of certified whey protein powder (20-gram protein, 6 grams of carbohydrate per scoop)
GoalProtein grams per kg (body weight)Daily intake
Restore muscle glycogen quickly0.8g/kg carbsPost-workout
Restore muscle glycogen quickly0.3g/kg proteinsPost-workout

Recommended Products

To meet safety and health standards, some protein powders recommended for runners include the following:

1. Garden of Life SPORT Certified Grass Fed Whey Protein

2. Garden of Life SPORT Organic Plant-Based Protein

3. Klean Athlete Isolate

4. Plant-based Vega Sport Protein

5. Ladder Premium Whey Protein

6. Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Protein

7. Gnarly Whey Grass-fed Protein

8. Gnarly Vegan Plant Protein

9. Momentous Recovery

Overall, whole food protein is a healthier choice for muscle recovery and building, but protein powders can fill in the gaps for runners who struggle to reach their protein goals throughout the day and after training.

Just choose one sparingly that is 3rd party certified, contains few ingredients, avoids excessive added and artificial sweeteners, as well as proprietary blend ingredients.

Latest Articles