The objective for the competitive distance runner is simple, to get from A to B as fast as possible. However, as we saw in the ambitious Breaking2 project, Eliud Kipoge, supported by a team of world-leading coaches and sports scientists, was not able to break the two-hour mark in the marathon distance, despite achieving maximum performance with immense work across all aspects of preparation. More is thus needed.
The goal for endurance cyclists and long-distance runners is to be as light as possible while maintaining the highest average power output over the distance. Achieving an optimal power-to-mass ratio is one of the keys to victory or a new personal best. However, it is not simply a case of losing as much weight as possible, rather it’s about the quality of weight loss.
Traditionally, distance runners planned training sessions based on lactate thresholds and managed training loads, making sure to taper and peak in time for competition. Between and within those training sessions, carbohydrate is strategically consumed. More athletes now apply established scientific principals and undertake lower-intensity sessions in a carbohydrate-depleted state to increase their ability to use fat as a fuel. However, elite athletes are realising that protein matters and, when combined with strength training, the effects on both health and performance are significant.
Protein and muscle
An athlete will turnover 1.2 per cent of their skeletal muscle per day. This is a balancing act between synthesis and breakdown or, put simply, addition and subtraction. What determines addition is the protein we eat and the physical activity we undertake. When we rest for a week in bed, we lose significant muscle mass and strength and when we do this in the fasting state the results are frightening. Not surprisingly, when a distance running does not consume enough protein, muscle is lost. Muscle is what carries you to the finish line and is vital to success because the power-to-mass ratio is determined by how much force your muscles can generate.
How much protein do you need?
The guideline for the average person is 0.8g of protein per kilogramme of body weight. However, for an athlete undergoing strenuous training up to six days per week, at least 1.2g of protein per kilogramme body weight is needed to ensure maintenance of muscle. To maximise uptake into muscle and prevent losses, the intake should be split as evenly as possible over at least three meals per day. In practice, protein distribution tends to be loaded in the evening meal and be too light in the morning – checking your intake at breakfast and lunch and adjusting accordingly is worth the effort.
Interestingly, for the average runner, especially novices, more than 10 per cent weight loss may sound desirable, but in this case, aiming for an intake of 1.5g of protein per kilogramme of body weight will help maintain your muscle while the rest of your body is catabolic.
When do you need protein?
There has been an obsession with consuming protein immediately after a training session to take advantage of a supposed ‘anabolic window’. However, while this is likely to be helpful it is even more beneficial to spread protein intake throughout the day. For most runners of average body weight, this will typically mean achieving a protein intake of between 25g and 30g in the morning, mid-day and evening. The evidence is even building for consuming some protein (typically around 20g) before sleeping. When we sleep, growth hormone is released, stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Consuming protein before bedtime provides the amino acid building blocks that can utilise the anabolic benefit of growth hormone secretion, improving the muscle adaptive response to exercise training.
What type of protein do you need?
You need protein that is high in essential amino acids as humans cannot produce these naturally. Since protein from animals is almost identical in composition to human protein, it supplies all the essential amino acids needed to rebuild or repair muscle, giving it a high biological value. Leucine is a key essential amino, which slow muscle degradation and improves muscle function. Therefore, eating foods that are high in leucine is vital for athletic performance. Leucine is found in all animal protein, whereas, plant-based protein sources vary, putting vegetarians and vegans at a higher risk of muscle depletion if special dietary advice is not followed. Soy products, such as fresh soy beans (Edamame), soy dairy products, and roasted soy beans are particularly good plant-based sources of high-quality protein and leucine. As protein is highly satiating, it can be difficult to eat enough throughout the day. Supplementing protein is a safe and effective option provided you ensure the supplement you use has been sufficiently tested to exclude any banned performance-enhancing substances.