The importance of protein for endurance athletes

While carbs are king for fueling exercise, research shows protein also has major perks for endurance athletes. From reduced muscle damage to improved performance, here’s the 411 on protein for endurance athletes and why you may want to consider upping your intake.

Whether you’re running your hundredth 5K or training for your first century ride, you know nutrition plays a vital role in achieving peak performance. Carbs may be king for fueling endurance exercise, but science has shown protein may play an arguably equally important role.
In this article, we will explore the science-backed benefits of protein for endurance athletes, optimal dosing practices, and the best sources to meet your unique protein goals. But before we dive into all that, let’s start with a quick review of what protein is and how it’s used in the body. 

What is protein? 

Protein is an essential macronutrient composed of 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered “essential” because your body cannot produce them and, therefore, must come from your diet. These 20 amino acids are considered the primary building blocks of your body since they are found in tissues (including organs, bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and skin), hormones, enzymes, red blood cells, and more. 
The essential amino acids (which include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine) are particularly important for athletes since they are necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, a key component to recovery after exercise.
Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of protein let’s take a closer look at its benefits for endurance athletes.
man drinking a pre workout shake

Benefits of protein for endurance athletes

Protein has several key benefits for endurance athletes, from enhancing performance and body composition to minimizing muscle damage and aiding in recovery. Here’s more on what the science says about the perks of protein for endurance athletes.

Improved endurance

Replenishing carbohydrates during and immediately after an endurance workout is a no-brainer for most athletes, but pairing them with protein may have additional performance advantages.
Research has shown that refueling with a combination of protein and carbohydrates (compared to just carbohydrates) during and after endurance exercise can increase endurance performance by up to 40% and increase time to exhaustion during prolonged running and cycling [1, 2]. 
Experts believe these performance benefits are partly due to protein’s ability to stimulate greater glycogen resynthesis during and after endurance exercise [1].
To achieve these performance-enhancing benefits, experts recommend a 3-4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio when refueling during and after an endurance workout [1].

Reduced muscle damage and soreness 

If you’ve ever felt sore after a long run or ride, you’ve felt the effects of exercise-induced muscle damage —an important but unpleasant side effect of training that leads to performance gains. 
While you can’t eliminate muscle damage and soreness, studies show consuming protein along with carbohydrates (in gel or beverage form) during and after endurance exercise suppresses markers of muscle damage and muscle soreness compared to refueling with carbohydrates alone [2].

Enhanced muscle repair and recovery

The faster and better you can recover from a workout, the greater your gains will be. 
Consuming protein after endurance exercise jumpstarts muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a key part of the recovery process where the body repairs damaged muscles and builds new muscle tissue. These increases in MPS not only enhance muscle recovery but future athletic performance as well [1].
To maximize your short recovery window, experts recommend consuming 20-40 g of protein within 2 hours of completing a workout or endurance event [1]. 

Better body composition

If you’re an athlete trying to lose a little weight or reduce body fat to level up your performance, upping your protein may help reduce the loss of lean body mass, which is important for maintaining your metabolic rate and aerobic capacity [3, 4, 5].
Weight loss studies in athletes show higher protein intakes (>25% total calories/day or 1.6-2.4 g/kg/day) during periods of energy restriction can produce greater overall improvements in body composition by helping to preserve lean muscle and promoting greater reductions in body weight, fat mass, and waist circumference, particularly when paired with resistance training [2, 4, 5]. 
A man and a woman drinking protein shakes

When & how much protein for endurance athletes

Now that you know the benefits of protein for endurance athletes, you might be wondering whether or not you’re getting enough and how you might optimize your own protein intake. Let’s dive into those details, shall we? 

Do endurance athletes need more protein?

Endurance athletes (including long-distance cyclists, runners, and triathletes) need more protein than the average individual because these activities increase your metabolic needs and break down muscle tissue [8]. Consuming adequate amounts of protein helps the body meet the  increased demands of endurance exercise, repair and build new muscle tissue, prevent injury, and promote overall strength [6]. 
While the average individual needs around 0.8-1.2 g of protein/kg of body weight/day, experts say endurance athletes need anywhere from 1.4 to 2 g/kg/day [2]. 

Does timing of protein matter?

When it comes to protein intake, timing matters tremendously. This is because the body doesn’t  store protein like it can store other nutrients and requires essential amino acids to stimulate MPS. 
Timing your protein intake will help ensure your body has the amino acids it needs to meet the increased metabolic needs of endurance athletes and support athletic performance and recovery.
Here are some strategies to help you optimize the timing of your protein intake:
  • Divide your daily protein intake into 3-4 hour intervals throughout the day [2]. 
  • If your tummy can tolerate it, consider a pre-endurance exercise protein dose of 0.3 g/kg, which may help offset markers of muscle damage [7]. 
  • During longer training sessions or endurance events, try adding 0.25 g of protein/kg/hr to your regular carbohydrate replenishment regimen, as this may reduce muscle damage and muscular soreness [2].
  • To stimulate robust increases in muscle protein synthesis after exercise, consume 20-40 grams of high-quality protein (preferably paired with carbohydrates) after a workout —the sooner, the better [1, 2]. 
Since exercise can affect digestion and protein tolerance, it’s important to experiment with these strategies in training rather than waiting until race day to test them out.    
eggs in a bowl

Best sources of protein for endurance athletes

High protein foods

Experts recommend endurance athletes focus on whole food sources of protein that contain all of the essential amino acids, as these are key to stimulating muscle protein synthesis and recovery [2]. 
Foods that contain high-quality protein include:
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Lean meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Beans 
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Soybeans
  • Tofu
Want to incorporate more of these foods into your diet? Check out these delicious high-protein meals and snacks for active people.  

Protein supplements

While endurance athletes can meet their daily protein requirements by eating a variety of  whole, protein-rich foods, supplementation can help athletes with higher protein needs achieve an optimal intake of quality protein [2].
Protein powder is the most popular type of protein supplement. Made from protein-rich foods (like milk and egg whites) and plant sources (like soy, pea, rice, pumpkin seed, and hemp), protein powder can be a convenient and cost-effective way to get more quality protein in your diet. However, protein supplementation can get complicated, especially when you factor in nutrient timing and your unique protein needs — but it’s important to understand how supplementation and specific dosing amounts can aid in your recovery strategy. That’s where Elo Smart Protein can help.
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Elo Smart Protein is the world’s most personalized protein product, offering a combination of high-quality protein, functional nutrient boosts such as super greens and turmeric, and real-time dosing recommendations tailored to your needs and workout. 
Your unique Smart Protein blend is determined using a combination of data from wearables and activity apps, dietary preferences, and goals. Your information is then matched with the latest scientific research to determine a blend of ingredients that maximizes post-workout recovery and supports your health goals. Learn more about how it can enhance your performance and recovery
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Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays an essential role in body structure, function, and maintenance. While it’s important for everyone, endurance athletes have greater protein needs due to the increased physical demands of training. Research also shows optimizing your protein intake may improve endurance, muscle repair, recovery, and body composition and reduce muscle damage and soreness from endurance training. While you should aim to get most of your protein from whole foods like eggs, dairy, beans, and tofu, protein supplements like Elo Smart Protein, can help you meet your protein goals. 
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose, or replace personalized medical care.

Key takeaways

  • Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays key roles in body structure, function, and maintenance and is particularly important for athletes.  
  • Endurance athletes have greater protein needs due to the increased physical demands of training. Experts recommend endurance athletes have protein intakes of 1.4 to 2 g/kg/day [2].
  • Optimizing your protein intake may improve endurance, muscle repair, recovery, and body composition and reduce muscle damage and soreness from endurance training.
  • Quality protein sources include eggs, dairy, lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, peas, soybeans, and tofu.   
  • In addition to quality, high-protein foods, protein supplements, like Elo Smart Protein, can be helpful for meeting your daily protein needs. 


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