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Whey Protein vs. Creatine for Runners

The supplement aisle can be overwhelming, especially the section geared for athletic performance. Two of the most widely available supplements are protein powder and creatine. Are you considering whey protein vs. creatine? When it comes to running, should you use either, or both?

scoop of protein powder

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Whey protein and creatine are supplements used by athletes in all sports. Both are legal dietary supplements that have been well-studied and are considered safe for consumption.

As an athlete, you may be looking for that upper edge in your training. Many of the supplements on the market promise better performance, greater strength, and improved endurance.

We’ve got posts about other supplements written for runners depending on your supplement needs.

Supplements can be a handy way to boost your nutrition, but there is a cost for that convenience.

The costs can add up if you buy all the supplements on the shelf, without even knowing if they will benefit your nutrition and workouts.

So will whey protein or creatine monohydrate help you as a runner? We’ve reviewed the research on both to see if either is worth adding to your training regimen.

What is Whey Protein?

As the name implies, whey protein is a source of protein or an accumulation of amino acids.

Whey protein is the byproduct left when making cheese from cow’s milk. When producing cheese, milk is curdled and solids and liquids separate. The liquid portion is whey.

Manufacturers then filter this liquid and dry it to make a protein-dense powder.

We know that protein is important for muscle synthesis. Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle.

Skeleton with muscle groups shown

Protein is essential for muscle recovery, especially for an endurance athlete. The recommended daily protein intake is 1.4-2.0 g per kg of body weight.

That means if you are 150 lbs, you’d need 95-136 grams of protein. While you can certainly get that from your diet, whey protein can help boost your intake.

Whey Protein for Runners: Benefits and Considerations

So, does whey protein have any benefits for runners? Well, considering that many people are working to increase protein intake, whey protein can be one route to get there.

One scoop of whey protein powder has approximately 20-30 grams of protein. It is easy to add into most liquids, like protein shakes, tart cherry juice or recovery drinks.

In addition to getting in the necessary protein for muscle recovery and growth, here are some of the benefits of whey protein for runners.

Improves recovery

When you are putting in the hard work of adding miles, increasing speed, and crosstraining, you’ll want your muscles to fully recover.

Whether you’re working to improve recovery from a half marathon, full marathon or more, what you put in your body matters.

man and woman on track running side by side

This review found that athletes who consumed whey protein had higher serum levels of amino acids, which help improve post-exercise muscle synthesis, which ultimately, helps with recovery.

Additionally, it was found that these athletes had lower myoglobin and creatine kinase levels, which can be measures of inflammation.

In other words, these athletes had better recovery and less fatigue and muscle damage.

Reduces muscle damage

Endurance exercise can do a number on your body. In this randomized trial, researchers compared whey protein with pea protein to evaluate their impact on muscle damage and if there was any difference between the two.

It was found that when supplementing either protein type for 5 days after a difficult workout, there was significantly reduced muscle damage in the group taking the whey protein, and moderately reduced damage with the pea protein.

So, while both forms of protein can provide benefit, whey protein had the edge in reducing muscle damage.

woman grabbing ankle on running trail

The results were then duplicated in older adults in this small 2023 study.

Whey protein supplementation helped to lower post-exercise creatine kinase levels, a marker of muscle damage.

Of course, reducing injury risk through things like foam rolling, stretching, eating enough and proper rest days, is also important, but this also brings attention to the importance of nutrition.

Aids in muscle mass and strength building

In this analysis, it was found that in combination with resistance training, whey protein supplementation improved bicep strength and leg muscle in women.

Likewise, this analysis found that supplementation with whey protein during weight training sessions improved muscle mass, reduced fat mass, and increased strength in healthy, young individuals (under 40 years old).

It should be noted that there is seemingly no difference in muscle mass gain when comparing whey protein to its vegetarian counterpart, soy protein.

Maintains muscle mass in older adults

Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass that often occurs with age. Whey protein can be an effective treatment when used in conjunction with exercise.

The supplementation of whey protein, in combination with resistance training, has also shown to be beneficial in older adults.

a man and woman running

Types of Whey Protein

There are 3 types of whey protein for runners that you can usually find at just about any store that sells supplements.

  • Whey protein concentrate (WPC): WPC is the least processed of the 3 types. While still primarily made up of protein, there is a higher amount of fat and carbs, as well as lactose. It is often the most affordable option.
  • Whey protein isolate (WPI): WPI is a highly concentrated protein, as it is processed to remove most of the fat and carbohydrates.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH): This is commonly used in baby formulas as it is easy to digest and is less likely to trigger allergies. WPH is partially hydrolyzed, or broken down, making it quicker and easier to digest.
scoop of protein powder

How Runners Should Use Whey Protein

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends that protein be evenly distributed throughout the day, about every 3–4 hours.

You just want to make sure you aren’t consuming much protein right before a run, as it may cause some runner’s gut issues since it takes time for the body to break it down, which is why it helps with satiety after a meal.

While endurance athletes should focus on carbohydrates as their primary fuel source, protein provides satiety and helps muscle recovery and has many benefits for bone health and longevity.

Protein shakes for runners can be a convenient on-the-go snack or post-workout drink. You can also use whey protein in smoothie bowls and energy ball recipes.

Additionally, you can mix whey protein in oatmeal or yogurt for a quick and easy high-protein meal or snack.

What is Creatine?

To understand which one is necessary for you, let’s talk about whey protein vs. creatine monohydrate and break down what creatine is.

Creatine, or creatine monohydrate, is a compound found in the body. You also can get creatine in your diet, primarily through animal products, like meat, eggs, and fish.

Most of the creatine in your body is stored in the muscles.

tub of creatine powder

Creatine is a major player in energy production—especially during short burst exercises like HIIT, weightlifting, and sprinting.

Because creatine helps replenish ATP, the primary fuel for non-aerobic exercise, it is of interest to many athletes looking to level up.

Creatine is available in powder form for supplementation.

Creatine benefits for runners

While creatine supplementation can be beneficial for short bursts, anaerobic activities, it has been shown to be beneficial to a variety of athletes.

woman showing muscle with white exercise towel

Increases Work Capacity and Recovery

Creatine has the potential to enhance performance during spurts (think end of race, give-it-your-all effort).

This is a big deal for athletes who cross-country ski, bike, or row, or run short distances at maximum capacity, like sprinting.

Athletes have found improvements when doing high-intensity, intermittent activities. So you may notice a difference on your cross-training or speedwork days. Recovery may be a bit easier, too.

Improves Strength and Muscle Mass

Athletes that play sports like football, combat sports, rugby, track and field events, and weightlifting, may benefit from the increase in body mass and muscle that creatine may provide.

Improves heat tolerance

Are you training in a hot climate? Creatine may be able to help you better maintain your hydration status.

Water and other fluids, like sports drinks, are necessary for optimal performance. However, creatine can promote short-term fluid retention, which can help you pre-hydrate for your run.

woman drinking water bottle after workout

Preserves muscle mass

Like whey protein, creatine has also been shown to be useful in older populations to preserve muscle mass when combined with exercise.

How To Use Creatine

Is creatine for runners safe?

Yes! A plethora of research has shown that up to 30 g of creatine every day (for the long term or about 5 years) is considered safe. It has been studied in populations of all ages.

You can mix creatine with juice, water, or milk. Be sure to follow the package instructions.

Like whey protein, avoid taking it right before a run in case of GI upset.

man putting powder supplement into drink

According to the ISSN, dietary supplementation of creatine may increase muscle creatine stores by 20–40%.

You can effectively increase muscle creatine stores by taking 5 g of creatine monohydrate (or approximately 0.3 g/kg body weight) four times daily for 5–7 days.

Source: ISSN

Can You Take Whey Protein and Creatine Together?

It is safe to take both whey protein and creatine together. In fact, some whey protein supplements come with creatine added.

While both are safe, it should be noted that neither are absolutely necessary because you can get creatine and protein from your diet.

However, you may want to consider it if you are vegetarian or vegan and don’t eat the dietary source of creatine or whey.

For more on how to eat as a runner, check out our Sample Long Distance Runners Diet Plan.

typical foods on a keto diet

Cautionary Things to Note

Both whey protein and creatine are considered safe supplements. They have been the focus of many research projects, and very rarely are there related adverse events.

As with anything, there is a possibility of upset stomach and bloating with protein supplementation, but nothing serious.

As for creatine, it is sometimes cautioned that creatine supplementation can cause kidney damage, but research has proven that it does not (when not exceeding the recommended dose). Always talk to your care provider and follow the instructions.

Besides some potential water retention, there are no reported adverse effects with creatine supplementation.

Key Takeaways For Creatine vs. Whey Protein

  • Whey protein and creatine are both well-studied and considered to be safe for all ages.
  • Athletes from all sports can benefit from supplementation of whey protein and creatine.
  • Both whey protein and creatine can enhance muscle recovery and performance.
  • Whey protein can be added to a variety of recipes to increase protein intake.
  • You can supplement both creatine and whey protein at the same time, with very few adverse effects (perhaps GI upset from too much protein).
  • While both have been found helpful in supplement form, you can get enough protein and creatine from a well-balanced diet.

References:

  • Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. Published 2017 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
  • Lam, FC., Khan, T.M., Faidah, H. et al. Effectiveness of whey protein supplements on the serum levels of amino acid, creatinine kinase and myoglobin of athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Syst Rev 8, 130 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-019-1039-z
  • Nieman DC, Zwetsloot KA, Simonson AJ, et al. Effects of Whey and Pea Protein Supplementation on Post-Eccentric Exercise Muscle Damage: A Randomized Trial. Nutrients. 2020;12(8):2382. Published 2020 Aug 9. doi:10.3390/nu12082382
  • Spoelder M, Koopmans L, Hartman YAW, et al. Supplementation with Whey Protein, but Not Pea Protein, Reduces Muscle Damage Following Long-Distance Walking in Older Adults. Nutrients. 2023;15(2):342. Published 2023 Jan 10. doi:10.3390/nu15020342
  • Kuo YY, Chang HY, Huang YC, Liu CW. Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation in Postmenopausal Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2022;14(19):4210. Published 2022 Oct 10. doi:10.3390/nu14194210
  • Li M , Liu F . Effect of whey protein supplementation during resistance training sessions on body mass and muscular strength: a meta-analysis. Food Funct. 2019;10(5):2766-2773. doi:10.1039/c9fo00182d
  • Messina M, Lynch H, Dickinson JM, Reed KE. No Difference Between the Effects of Supplementing With Soy Protein Versus Animal Protein on Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Response to Resistance Exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018;28(6):674-685. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0071
  • Cereda E, Pisati R, Rondanelli M, Caccialanza R. Whey Protein, Leucine- and Vitamin-D-Enriched Oral Nutritional Supplementation for the Treatment of Sarcopenia. Nutrients. 2022;14(7):1524. Published 2022 Apr 6. doi:10.3390/nu14071524
  • Kemmler W, Kohl M, Jakob F, Engelke K, von Stengel S. Effects of High Intensity Dynamic Resistance Exercise and Whey Protein Supplements on Osteosarcopenia in Older Men with Low Bone and Muscle Mass. Final Results of the Randomized Controlled FrOST Study. Nutrients. 2020;12(8):2341. Published 2020 Aug 5. doi:10.3390/nu12082341
  • Forbes SC, Candow DG, Neto JHF, et al. Creatine supplementation and endurance performance: surges and sprints to win the race. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2023;20(1):2204071. doi:10.1080/15502783.2023.2204071
  • Antonio J, Candow DG, Forbes SC, et al. Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show?. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2021;18(1):13. Published 2021 Feb 8. doi:10.1186/s12970-021-00412-w
  • Cooke MB, Rybalka E, Williams AD, Cribb PJ, Hayes A. Creatine supplementation enhances muscle force recovery after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009;6:13. Published 2009 Jun 2. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-6-13
  • Wu SH, Chen KL, Hsu C, et al. Creatine Supplementation for Muscle Growth: A Scoping Review of Randomized Clinical Trials from 2012 to 2021. Nutrients. 2022;14(6):1255. Published 2022 Mar 16. doi:10.3390/nu14061255
  • Kreider RB, Kalman DS, Antonio J, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:18. Published 2017 Jun 13. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z
  • Ambulkar P, Hande P, Tambe B, et al. Efficacy and safety assessment of protein supplement – micronutrient fortification in promoting health and wellbeing in healthy adults – a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Transl Clin Pharmacol. 2023;31(1):13-27. doi:10.12793/tcp.2023.31.e1
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