If I Could Go Back and Do it All Over Again: The Importance of Protein Intake for Distance Runners

Have you ever heard the nutritional rule that your body can only absorb 20 grams of protein per meal/snack? This is a rule that I have come across on multiple occasions and cost me dearly as a professional marathon runner. Let me tell you two stories from my professional running days with two different methods of protein intake and with two very different outcomes.
MuscleTech Staff
MuscleTech Staff

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Have you ever heard the nutritional rule that your body can only absorb 20 grams of protein per meal/snack?  This is a rule that I have come across on multiple occasions and cost me dearly as a professional marathon runner.  Let me tell you two stories from my professional running days with two different methods of protein intake and with two very different outcomes.  

I was training for my first Boston Marathon in the winter of 2009 and had begun working with a well respected and wonderful nutritionist that my wife had crossed paths with during our time at Stanford.  I learned some super valuable lessons that I still hold dear to this day through my interactions, however, I made the error of becoming legalistic with my eating (not my nutritionist fault).  My nutritionist had told me my body can only absorb 20 grams of protein in one sitting so I made this my rule.  I never ate more than 20 grams.  I used a kitchen scale to weigh out every gram of protein I put in my body. 

I remember in my training for Boston (which would include runs twice per day and mileage of anywhere between 15-26 miles per day) cooking some salmon in the oven one night for dinner.  It was a huge, dark-pink, beautiful piece of fish that was causing my stomach to growl in anticipation of filling my belly with it.  When dinner time came I got out my kitchen scale and weighed out my 3 ounces of salmon.  Seeing that tiny portion of salmon on my plate was depressing, knowing how hungry I would be upon finishing it.  But, I used my head rather than my intuition and ate my 3 ounce piece of fish and tried to not think about how hungry I still was when I finished.  

Here is the thing, you can get away with low protein consumption as a distance runner.  Sometimes it’s “getting away with things” that causes us to never unlock our full potential.  I still ran well in my Boston debut, finishing 3rd in 2:09:40, but I knew I wasn’t anywhere close to my optimal level.  Now, as a coach, I have learned that “what can I get aways with?” is not a good question.  The question that I am interested in answering is: “what is optimal for my athletes?  How can I maximize their potential?”  In my case, I wasn’t malnourished at the time and felt generally healthy. My workouts were solid and I was one of the fittest marathoners on the planet, but I knew there was more there and that I wasn’t performing optimally.  I was missing something. 

Let’s flash forward to 2011. I was in my winter training cycle prepping for my third Boston Marathon (I had improved my time to 2:08:41 and finished fourth in the 2010 race) but was working with a different nutritionist who had ordered a blood draw to check various markers, with total protein being a key marker.  Upon reading my results my nutritionist observed that, though my protein wasn’t flagged as clinically low, it was on the lower end.  Luckily, he was concerned with “what it optimal” and not “what can my body get away with.”  So, in an attempt to get my protein levels up he had me start eating 12 oz steaks three times per week.  

I remember grilling that first 12 oz steak and feeling like I was in heaven.  As I ate the steak I could feel my body thanking me for giving it what it so desperately needed to perform at optimal levels.  I also remember feeling a bit self conscious to be eating such huge steaks on such regular intervals.  ‘Aren’t runners supposed to only need 20 grams of protein per meal?’  ‘Am I going to get big by eating this much protein?’  These were two common doubts that crept into my mind, but I couldn’t deny that since increasing my protein consumption, I was recovering better and therefore training at levels I had never seen before.  

So what happened in the 2011 race?  It was a magical day on multiple levels.  We were graced with an amazing day to run with a once per decade tailwind the entire way, which we took full advantage of.  I had never felt so good and so fit heading into a race, so when I stood on the starting line in Hopkinton and observed the American flag blowing the exact direction we would be running, I told myself, ‘I am not letting one mile go by without pressing the pace.’  

When the gun fired, I went straight to the front and led most of the first 20 miles of the race.  We were running so fast that race director, Dave McGillivray, thought the timers messed up the race clock when he saw our split at halfway being under world record pace at sub 62 minutes.  That race went on to be the most historic race I partook in as the top two runners shattered the previous world record (even though Boston is not eligible for record purposes since it is a point to point course) and I finished 4th but in the fourth fastest time ever run on the historic Boston marathon course in 2:04:58.  That day, regardless of the wind, I felt like I finally experienced my optimal performance level.

In running, there are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to reaching one’s optimal performance, but what I learned in 2011 is that I need to be intuitive with my protein consumption. If my body is craving protein, I need to give it what it needs for optimal recovery and optimal results, even if it means breaking some nutritional “rules”.  We are all experiments of one so I can’t tell you what your optimal protein amount is, but what I can tell you with certainty is this: protein is a critical nutrient for distance runners and you won’t reach your full potential without it optimizing it.  

So how do you find what’s the right amount of protein for you? Listen to your body’s cravings.  Become intuitive with not only your protein consumption but with all your nutrition. If you aren’t sure if you need more protein in your diet you can get a blood draw and see where your total protein is at and adjust accordingly.  If you find yourself needing or craving more protein, give your body healthy foods to answer it’s cravings and plan beforehand for how you plan on meeting your body’s daily protein needs.   

I know sometimes it can be challenging to have adequate protein on-hand.  You can’t pull out a BBQ and tailgate after every long run, but you can prepare and have quick, easy, protein with you at all times.  My favorite quick and easily accessible protein options are Muscle Tech Grass-Fed 100% Whey Protein for post workout, Muscle Tech Nitro-Tec Casein Gold for before bed, and then Muscle Tech Phase8 for between meals.  

Today, I can only wonder at how my 2009 and 2010 Boston Marathon results may have been different if I were fueling my body with the protein it needed.  The good news is, I get to share my experience with runners like you so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did and be wondering about how things could have played out differently.  I sincerely wish that this blog post may help you find your “optimal” in your next race! Happy Training!