Does Protein During Recovery Really Help You Recover Faster and Perform Better as a Distance Runner?

By Rick Morris

Does ingesting protein help with recover after a race or hard workout? Recovery nutrition used to be easy. You just ate and drank whatever you could get your hands on. Sometimes it was a banana and water while other times it might have been a muffin and soft drink. Then came the advent of sports drinks with specialized formulations of sugar, water and electrolytes. Now, many experts are recommending the newer designer concoctions that include protein along with a variety of sugars and electrolytes.

This latest accepted version of proper post run recovery nutrition seems to make a lot of sense. Hard or long workouts take a toll on your muscles and it’s just logical that including protein in your recovery plan would help your over taxed muscles recover and rebuild. But is that really the case? Does protein really assist with your recovery and running performance?

In terms of recovery, there have been a number of recent studies that support the benefits of protein in your post run hydration and nutrition plan. A group of researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, looked at the effect of coingestion of protein and carbohydrate during exercise recovery. They concluded that “…ingesting protein with CHO (carbohydrate) during recovery from prolonged endurance exercise increased muscle FSR (fractional synthetic rate) and improved whole body net protein balance compared to CHO alone.

However, adding protein or additional CHO to a drinking strategy that provided 1.2g CHO (per kilogram of body weight per hour) did not further augment glycogen synthesis.” In simpler terms, adding protein to your carbohydrate recovery drink will probably improve your muscles ability to repair themselves after a hard workout, but will do little to assist with carbohydrate replenishment.

The Canadian study supported the results of several other recent investigations which also found that consuming some protein along with your carbohydrate recovery drink will give your tired muscles an immediate helping hand. How about overnight or the day after? There is an assumption out there that additional dietary protein will continue to help with muscle repair and strengthening even after your recovery window. Does the addition of protein continue to help your muscles overnight or the next day? A study completed in the Netherlands says maybe not.

These researchers recruited the help of twenty physically active male volunteers to look at that same coingestion of protein and carbohydrates. These authors agreed with the Canadian study, saying: “In conclusion, the combined ingestion of carbohydrate and protein during and immediately after exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis during exercise conditions…” However, they went on to conclude: “…but does not further augment net muscle protein accretion during subsequent over-night recovery.”
So, the bottom line is that the addition of protein in your carbohydrate replacement drink does assist with immediate muscle recovery but does not assist with long term recovery and does not improve carbohydrate replenishment.

Scientific studies are great. They give us some valuable textbook information, but does it translate into real life or real running? On paper, the benefits of protein look good, but does it really help us as runners? Does it help us perform better? On the surface it would be logical to assume that it does. If our muscles are able to rebuild faster with the inclusion of recovery protein, won’t that help us run better?

There have been very few investigations into how recovery protein affects running performance and the ones that there are have some rather negative news. A group at Georgia State University looked at that very subject. They recruited some very high level runners and completed a series of tests using both long and high intensity workouts. In this double blind study, the runners drank either a protein/carbohydrate drink, a carbohydrate only drink with 8 percent sucrose or a carbohydrate only drink with 6.3 percent carbohydrate. The runners performed a series of exhausting runs, recovered for 24 hours and then competed in a 5K time trial. The researchers found that there was no significant difference in the 5K time trial performance between any of the three drinks.

Why doesn’t recovery protein improve performance when logic says that it should? The most likely answer lies with how your body reacts to the substrates in your blood. You probably already know that protein is composed of amino acids. There is an enzyme in your body called BCOAD that regulates the breakdown of amino acids. When your body is low in carbohydrates, your levels of BCOAD rise as your body prepares to break down amino acids for energy in response to plummeting carbohydrate levels. When your carbohydrate levels are topped off, your levels of BCOAD drop because there is no need for amino acid breakdown to produce energy. So, in a sense, you can control the breakdown of your amino acids by manipulating your carbohydrate levels. Fully replacing your used up carbs will help prevent muscle breakdown.

So what do you do? Should you include protein with your carbohydrate recovery drink? I say yes. During short to moderate level runs, focus on carbohydrate consumption before and during your workout or race. That will help keep your carbohydrate levels high enough to minimize amino acid breakdown. During the longer marathon or ultra marathon events it will be very difficult to maintain your carbohydrate levels to a point that will avoid muscle breakdown, so use a drink that includes some protein. While it won’t eliminate amino acid breakdown in very long events, it can help minimize the damage. For post run recovery, focus on replacing those carbs to keep your BCOAD levels low but add in just a bit of protein to give your muscles a jump start in repair, recovery and strengthening.

The addition of protein to your sports drink may not directly improve your running performance but it probably has indirect benefits associated with quicker recovery, less muscle soreness and reduced skeletal muscle breakdown.

Making room for protein in approaches to muscle recovery from endurance exercise, J Appl Physiol, April, 1, 2009; 106 (4):1036-1037
Coingestion of Carbohydrate and Protein Hydrolysate Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis during Exercise in Young Men, with No Further Increase during Subsequent Overnight Recovery, The Journal of Nutrition, August 2008, 2198-2204