How to Pack in Your Protein

Go to any pre-race party or post-run potluck and you'll see legions of runners twirling forks in huge plates of spaghetti. And why not? Carbs are king, right? Except you may be missing out on another essential running nutrient, especially if you've been following the government's dietary guidelines.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) released a position paper by nine researchers in the field of protein and exercise and found that people who engage in regular exercise, don't just need more calories than desk jockeys—they need more protein.

"With every footstrike, a runner carries two to seven times his or her body weight," says Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., R.D., who has done extensive research on the effects of protein in athletes. "Protein is what keeps your body healthy under all that strain." Adequate protein intake accelerates muscle growth and speeds recovery by helping rebuild muscle fibers stressed during a run. Since protein helps muscles heal faster, runners who consume the right amount are less likely to get injured. The reverse is also true, according to the authors of the ISSN paper: Athletes who get insufficient amounts of protein are at a higher risk of injury.

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What's more, high-protein intake has been shown to help maintain a strong immune system. "After an intense bout of exercise, your immune system is weakened for about four to five hours," says Richard Kreider, Ph.D., one of the ISSN study's authors and head of the Exercise and Nutrition Laboratory at Baylor University. "Protein stimulates white blood cells, which helps shield against upper-respiratory problems." Military research studies show that Marines who ingested high amounts of protein had fewer medical visits than those with lower protein intake.

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