When it comes to optimal performance and recovery, most runners know that protein plays a crucial role. Over the years, we’ve seen nutritional trends that push the macronutrient, including moves by food manufacturers to add it to things like cookies and ice cream.
Experts recommend that athletes might benefit from consuming more protein than their non-runner counterparts. The recommended protein intake for runners is 0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For a 150-pound person, that’s roughly 75 to 135 grams per day.
Runners who follow a varied diet—even vegetarians—likely consume enough protein from whole foods, says registered dietitian Jenna Braddock, C.S.S.D. “You don’t have to have protein powder products even though marketing tells us otherwise,” Braddock tells Runner’s World.
That said, there are certain situations, often temporary, during which runners have increased protein needs and would benefit from supplementing with a powder. Braddock points out that runners in peak training, people who are juggling hectic schedules, breastfeeding runners, and vegan or plant-based runners might need more protein and calories. There is also research that recommends older runners boost their protein intake to promote muscle synthesis after a workout, Braddock says.
Increasing that intake through diet alone can become challenging, she says, making a protein powder a smart option. “In those cases, you can look at powders as something you can supplement with and take a load off of some of that meal prep,” she says.
Best Protein Powders
The Expert: Jenna Braddock is a sports dietitian and author of The High-Protein Vegan Cookbook for Athletes. She’s been focused on sports nutrition for 15 years, after having seen the role nutrition played in her own athletic performance. “I see the power of nutrition and how it helps people feel better and perform better,” she says, noting that once she started making intentional food choices as a teen volleyball player, her stamina and performance improved. “Now, when I fuel my workouts, as opposed to doing them fasted, I perform better, recover better, and feel the benefits to my body.” Earlier in Braddock’s career, she worked with endurance athletes, but today, she helps guide teen athletes.
The Purpose of Protein Powders
Perhaps the greatest benefit of protein powders is they’re a convenient source of important nutrition. “They can serve a helpful role for anyone who’s looking for an easy way to get a good dose of protein,” Braddock says.
A scoop or two of powder might deliver 30 grams of protein, which can be easier to consume than certain portion sizes of food, say, chicken for example, Braddock says. (A three-ounce portion of chicken contains about 26 grams of protein.) Powders can be easily mixed into just about anything, including oatmeal, smoothies, baked goods, or just with water.
What to Consider in a Protein Powder
It can be easy to get caught up in marketing labels touting claims like “weight loss,” “improved performance,” “vegan,” “organic,” “superfood blend,” and not know what powder might be best for you and your needs.
Scoop and serving sizes
When reading the nutrition labels to determine if a certain protein powder is right for you, it’s important to note the scoop and serving sizes, Braddock says. Not all scoops are the same size, and some powders, even those that use the same type of protein, require two scoops instead of one for a substantial serving protein. For example, you might need two scoops of some plant-based powders for just 12 grams of protein. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Braddock says. “But in my opinion, that’s a lot of scoops to get to 24 grams of protein.” Other brands might offer a whopping 40 to 50 grams of protein in a scoop or two.
Type of protein
There are a variety of protein sources, with more coming on the market, seemingly every day.
▶ Whey: This is the OG of protein powders. It’s a tried-and-true source that offers a complete protein profile, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s dairy-based, which can be a dealbreaker for people who struggle with dairy intolerances or who follow a plant-based diet. You could argue that whey powders are the most palatable, largely because manufacturers have been developing the taste and consistency for decades.
▶ Pea: This fairly recent entrant into the protein powder market can be hit or miss when it comes to taste because it’s so new. Two scoops contain about 27 grams of protein. It’s vegan-friendly, increasing its popularity for those who avoid dairy.
▶ Soy: Like whey, soy protein powders are a tried-and-true option. It’s a plant-based protein that provides all nine essential amino acids. Soy has been under fire over the years for potentially causing adverse health effects, but research doesn’t support that, Braddock says. But with all things nutrition, it’s best to change up your nutrient sources, including protein.
▶ Protein blends: Powders are now also available as blends from certain ancient grains, including quinoa and amaranth, giving plant-based runners yet even more options.
Ingredients and Certifications
Working with a sports dietitian is a helpful way to determine if you might benefit from adding a protein powder supplement to your diet, and if so, what the powder should contain. Some powders contain vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. Certain people, Braddock says, might only need protein, so they can forgo the pricier powders that contain nutrient boosts, including superfoods. “But a breastfeeding runner might need more nutrition than just protein and should look for additional carbohydrates, fat, and fiber,” she says.
You might see protein powders that also bill themselves as containing “superfoods,” like broccoli sprouts or acai. These are add-ons that aren’t always necessary, Braddock says, and can jack up the price of already-expensive powders. Plus, the amounts of these superfoods are so small that there might not be much of a benefit at all, Braddock says.
When reading an ingredients list, the lowest quantities are at the bottom, which means they’re isn’t much in the product at all. “If the brand is marketing a superfood, but it’s at the tail end of the list, chances are it’s not a significant amount,” she says.
Supplements, like protein powders, are also not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means brands can make claims that aren’t true or tout ingredients that aren’t really there. Braddock advises people to look for powders that are certified by third-party companies, including USP, NSF, Informed Choice, and Informed Sport.
“Just because something is certified doesn’t mean it’s effective,” she says, pointing out these certifications vet the ingredients, and in the case of sports certifications, confirm the products don’t contain banned substances for performance.
How We Test and Recommend
As the former food and nutrition editor for Runner’s World and avid runner I know all about how nutrition can make or break a workout. And like the RW test editors, I’m always trying new nutrition products that will help my performance and recovery (and taste great, too). When choosing protein powders, I looked only for certified products, assessed taste and how well the powder dissolved, and of course, the amount of protein per scoop and serving. I also considered the source of protein; while I prefer whey products, not everyone wants a dairy-based supplement. To round out my knowledge of protein powders, I spoke with registered dietitian Jenna Braddock about her favorite brands across protein types.