Before a run, it’s all about getting extra carbs so that your body can quickly access it to fuel your needs. Shortly after a run, though, you need a little extra protein to help your muscles recover. A protein shake can help fill the bill – if you’ve just run an extra-long distance. But you don’t need to make the shakes a habit unless you’re also trying to bulk up.
Regular Protein Needs
You should get about 15 percent of the calories you consume each day from protein. That’s about three to five servings from lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy, which contain complete proteins that supply all the amino acids your body needs each day. Typically, athletes get the protein they need from a balanced diet. But keep in mind that runners need to eat more than their sedentary friends, so their requirement of protein increases when they have to have more calories in their daily diet.
Runner’s Protein Needs
If you’re a regular runner, you need a little more protein than your couch potato friends – mainly for muscle growth and repair. When you run regularly, your body actually loses protein and experiences some protein breakdown. If you haven’t taken in enough carbs to provide the energy you need for a run, your body starts using protein to fuel the run. This means there's less protein available for its primary job in the body – muscle growth and repair. But you don’t need a lot of extra protein, just an extra serving or two.
Sources of Protein
If you’re going to eat shortly after you’ve finished a run, you will likely get the protein your body needs from that meal. Road Runner Sports registered dietician Nancy Ling says your body needs carbohydrates and protein after a run, and the protein in a piece of meat or a hard-boiled egg would do just fine. She says a nutrition drink, which has a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat, are enough to fill your needs if you can stomach food right after a run.
If you’re not getting the protein you need through your diet, a protein shake could be a good option. But Ling says you really don’t need all the protein in a protein shake after a regular run. They might be good after an 18-miler or so, but protein shakes are aimed primarily at bodybuilders and weightlifters. She says if you do choose a protein shake after an especially intense workout, throw in a carb-rich food, for example, a piece of fruit or a bagel to balance the protein.
Lucy D'Berry has been a writer for nearly 30 years, specializing in nutrition and health issues, as well as in education and government. She has written for daily newspapers and edits a national magazine. She has earned both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in the communications field.