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Protein Shakes for Runners

Are protein shakes for runners a good snack option? Can they meet runners’ nutrition needs? See some options for the best protein shake for runners.

protein shake with vanilla and chocolate protein powder.

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Protein shakes are a world of their own. You can find a million different options at just about every grocery store, gas station, or gym you go to.

So, really, what are protein shakes, and should runners be using them?

Are Protein Shakes Good for Runners?

Protein shakes can be a good meal replacement or post workout snack for runners.

Protein shakes are supplements that contain concentrated plant or animal proteins in a liquid form.

Most often, protein shakes contain whey protein, soy protein, or plant protein blends.

Protein shakes may also contain other ingredients, like flavorings and artificial sweeteners.

Many runners incorporate protein shakes into their diets to promote muscle recovery and long-term muscle health, help meet protein needs or to improve the timing of their snacks and meals despite a busy schedule.

colorful fruity protein shakes

While protein is essential for the muscle recovery and rebuilding process, protein also functions to help manage blood sugar and support healing from injuries as well.

Blood sugar management might be of greatest concern to diabetics, but it affects all individuals.

If you eat something composed mostly of simple carbohydrates, your blood sugar will spike and then crash.

However, if you pair a protein shake with the same simple carbohydrate, glucose will be released into the bloodstream more steadily, which prevents a spike and crash.

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This translates to longer lasting energy after your workout and throughout the day.

Because of this, incorporating a protein shake into a high-carbohydrate snack can help moderate hunger and energy levels, while also repairing your muscle.

What To Look For In Protein Shakes for Runners

Here’s what to look for in your protein shake or supplement.

If you’re considering a recovery drink for runners, make sure you pair extra carbohydrates with that protein!

  • Adequate protein – Most protein shakes contain at least 20 g of protein per serving, which is ideal for stimulating muscle growth after exercise. If you’re consuming a protein shake after working out, make sure to pair it with 50-60 g of carbohydrates, too.
  • Hydrolyzed protein – Protein shakes contain hydrolyzed proteins, meaning they are partially broken down, allowing the protein to reach your muscles faster to start repair. This helps with promoting hydration and a quicker recovery, too.
  • Additives and sweeteners – Some protein shakes are sweetened with sugars, while others use artificial sweeteners. Too much of either option is not good, so try to balance your nutrition needs by glancing at the ingredient list.

When you take your shake may also depend on what’s in it. For example, creatine vs. whey protein.

Protein Needs for Runners

Protein needs for athletes are higher than those of sedentary individuals and range from 1.2-2.0 g/kg/day (0.55-0.90 g/lb/day) for athletes, depending on activity type and level.

Many athletes pair a protein shake with other foods, like fruit or crackers, to make a more substantial snack.

crackers on white plate with cheese

Protein shakes are also a common snack for runners to help them meet their daily protein needs, especially for women.

Sports nutrition for women may look a little different, so knowledge is power.

When a runner is dealing with an injury, such as a broken bone or stress fracture, protein needs increase even more.

The body needs and uses extra amino acids, such as leucine for muscle building, to repair the injury.

If you were meeting protein needs through diet alone and have since gotten injured, adding a protein shake to your regimen might be an easy way to support your healing.

When to Consume Protein Shakes for Running

Incorporating protein shakes after running or after an upper body workout is probably the most ideal and feasible time to use protein powder.

Plus, combining protein and carbs may help the body absorb more carnitine, which helps increase beta alanine for runners.

As the muscles have been broken down during a run or workout, rebuilding them with protein, through amino acids, after exercise is critical.

Protein drinks for runners can be very convenient after a hard workout, especially when you don’t have an appetite.

In fact, feeling not hungry after a workout is very common. But, finding a way to replenish your muscles is important.

runner with muscle showing

Another ideal time to consume protein shakes is before bedtime. If taken before bedtime, protein shakes can promote muscle growth and repair while sleeping and increase feelings of fullness upon waking.

This can be especially helpful for athletes who struggle to meet their protein goals or who are looking to preserve lean muscle mass, as well as teenage athletes.

This nighttime feeding opportunity can be incredibly strategic.

Are Protein Shakes and Meal Replacement Shakes the Same Thing?

While protein shakes and meal replacement shakes may both be high in protein, they are usually used for different purposes.

While protein shakes can occasionally act as a meal replacement, that should not be their sole purpose. They won’t provide all of the macronutrients, fiber and antioxidants that a varied food diet will.

However, they will and can provide the ideal proportion and balance of carbohydrates to protein (2:1-3:1 ratio) for after a workout to support muscle growth and minimal muscle breakdown.

protein shake with a banana on the side

Furthermore, protein shakes are convenient in a pinch or for liquid nutrition after a workout or cross country race. Bonus – they are hydrating too!

Meal replacement shakes are typically higher in calories and macronutrients, since their purpose is to replace a meal. They may also have added vitamins and minerals.

Are There Any Downsides to Protein Shakes?

While protein shakes for athletes are extremely convenient, they may not be necessary for every runner.

Arguably, the two largest downsides to protein shakes are high cost and potential contaminants.

Cost

Protein shakes might cost as much as $3-4 per serving, which can add up quickly. Especially if it is something you rely on day in and day out, or multiple times a day.

A way to make your protein powder last longer is to use smaller serving sizes (or half the scoop), and make up the other protein through real food sources, such as dairy milk or yogurt in your shake.

This will also provide other nutrients and may taste better.

Contaminants

While we don’t like to think about contaminants in our protein powders, protein shakes are supplements.

This means that they are not regulated by the FDA and could contain ingredients that are not listed on the label.

To prevent the consumption of unwanted substances, choose protein shakes that are reputable and certified by a third-party organization, like NSF for Sport, Informed Choice for Sport, or USP.

Hand holding Vitamin C

Fiber

Many, if not most protein powders will not have fiber in them. Fiber is an important nutrient for digestion, fullness, and promoting a healthy gut, among other things.

If you are just mixing protein powder with a liquid, you will likely be missing out on fiber, so make sure to pair with a piece of fruit or whole-grain carbohydrates.

If making a protein shake, you can also add fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds to increase fiber.

frozen strawberries in blender

When Not to Have Protein Shakes

Lastly, if you do choose to incorporate protein shakes, avoid drinking them before a workout. Doing so could cause GI distress during exercise or runners gut symptoms.

Further, your body still needs carbohydrates and fats to function, so make sure you are not decreasing these nutrients below suboptimal levels by overcompensating with protein.

man running with flowers in background

Best Protein Powder for Running

While protein powder and protein shakes are not one in the same, many people “use” protein powder to make their protein shakes.

Although, it is possible to make a protein shake for running without protein powder, using ingredients like cow’s or soy milk, yogurt, nut butter, nut flours, nuts/seeds.

I often recommend chia or flax seeds, and/or hemp seeds, which are super high in protein.

If trying to decide on the best protein powder for runners, you’ll want to consider:

  • Are any nutrients fortified in it?
  • Is it made with any fillers or thickeners? If so, they may cause digestive issues for those with sensitive stomachs.
  • How hydrolyzed (broken down) is the protein?
  • Are there artificial sweeteners?
  • Do you like the taste?
  • Are there any other additives hiding in there, such as caffeine?
  • Is it third party tested?
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Third party testing ensures that you are getting what you think you are getting and that the product is free from banned or illegal substances.

Labels to look for include NSF for Sport, Informed Choice for Sport, or USP.

Some of our favorite protein powders for running include Orgain Organic Protein Plant Based Protein Powder, Momentous Grass Fed Whey Isolate and Legion Whey+ Whey Isolate Protein Powder

Wrap Up

In moderation, protein shakes can level up a runner’s game by supporting muscle recovery, appropriate nutrient intake, and more for even the busiest athletes.

When used properly, they can make a significant difference in an athlete’s fueling to help counter relative energy deficiency, extreme muscle breakdown, increased risk of injury, and nutrient deficiencies.

Some people may be more sensitive to chalky tastes and artificial flavors, so they should try a few brands to figure out what sits best with them.

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