Runners who think that extra whey protein is just for strength athletes and sprinters should think again.
Whey is no longer just for building muscle and strength. The reasons? Research shows that whey protein helps improve stamina and race time, speeds recovery, and may even protect the body from succumbing to a run-down immune system.
Long-distance runners can be known to avoid protein supplementation. Being able to powerfully explode from the blocks or bench pressing 200 pounds is not very helpful to endurance athletes. Putting on a lot of muscle can, in fact, hurt endurance performance, as more muscle means more weight to carry and earlier fatigue.
Because of its bulk-promoting reputation, whey protein has been overshadowed by an intense focus on carbohydrates among runners. As the main source of energy during races lasting up to two hours, maximizing carb stores (glycogen) can mean the difference between winning and losing. The downside to filling up on carbs during meals is that it means less room and desire for protein.
Studies show failing to get enough high-quality protein can be devastating to endurance performance (1). Whey protein, in fact, is shown to be superior to other proteins for helping the body adapt to improve energy and stamina. This is likely due to whey’s rich concentration of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are quickly absorbed by the body during that critical time after training sessions (2).
Repeated training sessions force muscle to get stronger and cause energy-producing cellular organelles, the mitochondria, to multiply and become more efficient (1). Plus, repeated sessions cause the cardiovascular system to improve delivery of blood and oxygen to muscle. Getting whey after these workouts, during the post-workout window, quickly delivers key amino acids including BCAAs to areas where they are used to build and restructure muscle, mitochondria, and the cardiovascular system (1, 3, 4).
Whey protein can also help offset protein losses that occur during extended exercise. Extended exercise leads to muscle breakdown, releasing protein to be used for energy. Protein can provide as much as 10 percent of fuel for exercise, much of it coming from BCAAs (5).
Getting whey protein throughout the day, especially before and after training, is key to avoiding muscle loss over time and counteracting any BCAA losses that occur during exercise. This primes the body to make structural changes that improve stamina.
A diet rich in protein can also help runners avoid pesky training interruptions due to a run-down immune system. As shown in studies, plenty of protein after exhaustive training helps to keep immune cells functioning optimally (1).
Whey can help replace glycogen stores faster, too. The more quickly glycogen stores are recovered after training, the better, especially for athletes who exercise daily or multiple times per day. Studies show carb uptake by muscle to be three and a half times greater after eating protein and carbohydrate together compared to smaller amounts of carbohydrate alone (6,7). This means that eating carbs along with whey protein restores glycogen and repairs muscle simultaneously.
Whey protein, in particular, can maximize recovery of damaged muscle tissue and refuel carb stores. Hard training temporarily throws the body off balance: fuel stores are wiped out, fluid and electrolytes dwindle, hormones fluctuate, and muscle and tissue are damaged (1). Afterward, whey protein is fast-absorbed to quickly reach muscle cells, where muscle fibers and energy-producing mitochondria can be repaired and regenerated.
The improved remodeling process due to regular intake of whey protein ultimately translates to better performance, faster muscle recovery, and harder, more frequent training sessions.
1) Daniel R Moore et al. Beyond muscle hypertrophy: why dietary protein is important for endurance athletes. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 10.1139/apnm-2013-0591
2) Phillips SM et al. The role of milk- and soy-based protein in support of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein accretion in young and elderly persons. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Aug;28(4):343-54.
3) Breen L1, et al. The influence of carbohydrate-protein co-ingestion following endurance exercise on myofibrillar and mitochondrial protein synthesis. J Physiol. 2011 Aug 15;589(Pt 16):4011-25.
4) Howarth KR1, et al. Coingestion of protein with carbohydrate during recovery from endurance exercise stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Apr;106(4):1394-402.
5) Tarnopolsky M. Protein requirements for endurance athletes. Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):662-8. Review.
6) Levenhagen DK et al. Postexercise protein intake enhances whole-body and leg protein accretion in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 May;34(5):828-37.
7) Hulmi JJ et al. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010 Jun 17;7:51.