Protein Power

Let's set the record straight: It's not just muscle-building men who need to consume a regular amount of protein--as a female athlete, you do, too. But don't worry, learning to love protein doesn't mean that you have to eat a lot of fatty red meat or kick carbs to the curb. Carbohydrates are your main energy source for short runs--protein doesn't provide fuel for a run--and, with support from fats, also your best bet for distance fuel. Simply put, you can't be a good runner without carb calories from fruits, veggies, grains and low-fat dairy.

However, protein provides the backbone of your energy system. Think of eating protein as a long-term investment, and somewhat of an insurance policy--eating adequate amounts will prevent muscle breakdown, injury and illness. Recent research has shown that protein works in unison with carbohydrates to enhance recovery and replenish muscle glycogen. It also builds muscle to support your strength for short intense sprints and for longer distances.

Still not convinced you need to add more to your diet? Research from the International Journal of Sports Nutrition suggests that while non-athletes can afford to follow the recommended daily allowances of 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, athletes involved in intense training need to ingest 1.5 to 2 times that amount to stay healthy.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

Women don't have the same dietary protein needs as men--about 15 percent less than male athletes to be exact. That's because women are smaller, have less lean muscle mass and don't break down as much protein after running. During exercise of mild to moderate intensity up to two hours, females use proportionately more fat while males use more carbohydrates and protein.

For those of you who run at a moderate intensity four to five times a week for 45 to 60 minutes, all you need is about 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram (your pound weight divided by 2.2) of your bodyweight per day and slightly more if you're adding strength and cross training to the mix. For the 125-pound female, this translates to approximately 80 grams of protein daily--not hard to get if you eat protein dense foods. For example, each ounce of animal protein gives you approximately 6 grams of protein. One typical 6-ounce chicken breast serving provides you with almost half of your minimal needs for a day. If you drink two cups of milk, one in a latte, one in a post-run smoothie, you get another 16 grams. Add one cup of low-fat cottage cheese as a snack, and you've met your daily needs.

Research has also shown protein to be a vital component of recovery. Just remember: Timing is everything. According to the International Society of Sports Nutritionists (ISSN), you should eat a snack with 50 grams of carbohydrates and 5 to 10 grams of protein about 30 to 60 minutes before a workout to produce greater muscle protein synthesis. In addition, consuming a snack with a four-to-one ratio of carbs to protein within two hours after a workout can help with muscle recovery.

Another bonus: Eating protein snacks and meals intermittently throughout the day stabilizes blood sugars and controls the appetite, helpful for weight management. Protein serves as a satiating nutrient, typically taking longer to digest, and contributes calcium, the subject of ongoing research that suggests it might be another filling factor.

It is possible to consume too much protein, which can stress the kidneys, but the ISSN states this is highly unlikely in healthy, exercising individuals. It's smart to monitor your consumption for another reason, too: The body stores excess protein calories as fat, and many protein sources contain saturated fat and cholesterol--high amounts of any of these hinder fast running and heart health.

Quality Counts

Eating high-quality protein is as important as getting enough. Whey from milk, skinless chicken, fish and egg whites rank high according to the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which not only rates the quality of the amino acid balance but also the digestibility of the protein once it enters the body.

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