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How Much Protein & Carbs Do Runners Need?

By Jennifer Gill

Good overall nutrition is important for runners of all abilities and fitness levels. Every runner has different needs, and knowing the best foods to eat is just as important as knowing how much to run. Eating the right amount of protein and carbohydrates will provide the energy you need to run well and promote recovery from your workouts, helping you become a stronger and better runner.

Carbohydrates for Energy

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for runners. All carbohydrates are broken down to the simple sugar glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscle tissues as glycogen. Maintaining your glycogen stores by eating enough carbohydrates in between workouts is important. According to registered dietitian Ellen Coleman, runners training at moderate intensity for an hour per day (that is, running is "conversational" -- hard enough to break a sweat, but you can carry on a conversation) should aim for 2.3 to 3.2 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day. Runners training at moderate intensity for one to three hours should have 2.7 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound, and sessions lasting three to four hours per day require 3.6 to 5.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound.

Protein for Building Muscle

Protein is needed for muscle growth and repair in between workouts. Protein can be an energy source, but it is very inefficient for the body to use protein for energy. According to registered dietitian Monique Ryan, runners training at moderate intensity (where running is conversational) for up to an hour should aim for 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Moderate-intensity sessions lasting one to three hours per day require 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per day, and sessions lasting three to five hours require up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.

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Food Sources

Carbohydrate sources include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Runners should avoid processed carbohydrates (sweets, white bread and white pasta) because they may be higher in fat and lack important vitamins and minerals. Healthy protein sources include lean meats and fish, low-fat dairy products, beans, grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It is important not to exceed the recommended protein amounts, since excess protein will be stored as fat. In addition, high-protein diets can lead to health issues such as kidney damage. Eating a healthy, balanced diet without protein and carbohydrate supplements will ensure you meet your requirements for protein and carbohydrates.

Don't Forget the Fats

Runners need healthy fats in their diets in order to perform at their best. Fats are important for hormone production and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. In addition, they can be used as a source of energy for runners. All runners should aim for at least 0.5 grams of healthy fat per pound of body weight per day from avocados, fish, nuts and seeds. Runners training for long periods of time (four hours or more) may have higher fat requirements (up to 0.8 grams per pound).

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