Protein has a good reputation. You can tell by stopping by your local supermarket and looking at food packaging. Foods that are high in protein often brag about it with package callouts like "high in protein" or "9 grams of protein per serving."
The other dietary macronutrients—carbohydrate and fat—can only envy protein's good name. When was the last time you saw the phrase "high in carbs" or "high in fat" on food packaging?
Protein is no better than carbs and fat. All three macronutrients are important components of the diet that are healthful in the right amounts and potentially harmful in excess. Ironically, despite its better reputation, the optimal amount of protein in the diet is actually lower than the ideal amount of carbs or fat—at least for endurance athletes.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily compared to just 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg of protein. Fat needs are represented as a percentage of total calories—specifically 20 to 35 percent of calories—which is also significantly more than the roughly 10 to 20 percent of total calories that the ACSM's weight-based protein recommendations equate to.
Real-world evidence supports the notion that the protein needs of endurance athletes are relatively low. The world's best distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia get 10 to 12 percent of their daily calories from protein.
Meeting your protein needs as an endurance athlete is easy. You don't even have to think about it. But to get the greatest possible benefit from protein in your diet, it helps to pay attention to when you consume it and to take measures to concentrate your protein intake at the times when it's most needed and can do the most good. The three best times to protein-load are during and immediately after workouts, late in the day, and during the offseason.
Protein During and After Workouts
You've probably heard it's beneficial to consume protein after workouts. Your muscles will repair the damage they suffered during the workout much faster if you consume at least 10 grams of protein in the first hour of recovery than they will if you wait longer to consume the same amount of protein. But taking in protein during the workout itself is even better because it prevents the muscles from suffering some of that damage in the first place. The ultimate payoff of this protection is better performance in the next workout.