Protein for the Win – Protein Needs of Cross Country Athletes

Posted by Scott Christensen

Low fat, high carbohydrate, low calorie intake, carbohydrate cycling, vegetarian, vegan, junk food!  What else have coaches heard from their endurance athletes regarding nutrition?   Today we will focus on the importance of protein.

In the last few decades cross country runners have increased their awareness in how nutrition affects performance, but with diet fads, advertising, and a dynamic society it is difficult to fit the dietary pieces together into an athlete’s lifestyle and family situation.  

As a result, many coaches just make very general (common sense) recommendations about what to eat to their athletes.  Notice though, that one never hears about the recommendation of low protein for endurance performance, and that is because protein is essential for many functions in the body and for the constant tissue repair that results from training.

Protein is one of the three macronutrients in food along with fat and carbohydrate that need to be consumed daily.  Proteins are needed for muscle tissue growth and repair (striated and cardiac), connective tissue growth and repair (especially red blood cell replacement), bone tissue growth and repair (bones re-model themselves only in deep sleep), antibodies, enzymes, and hormones. 


* Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


Proteins can also serve as a source of calories in the physiology of some systems in the body, especially when the body is under high stress such as running long races, or periods of high intensity, or big volume training. 

Protein is found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, nuts, seeds, and grains.  Proteins are made up of amino acids which are considered the “building blocks” of the molecule. 

There are 20 different amino acids found in humans (and all life) with about half of them referred to as essential, which means they can only enter human processes through consumption.  The other half is termed non-essential which does not diminish their importance, but rather indicates they can be synthesized in the body if not consumed properly.

The recommendations for protein intake in human diet originated from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and have not changed for decades despite the huge changes in the training of endurance athletes.  These recommendations were designed to prevent malnutrition, but not necessarily to achieve optimal nutrition.  Because these recommendations are printed on all food packaging it is assumed it is for everybody including cross country runners training at 50 miles or more per week. 

Currently, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams/kg body mass.  For the average adult female that translates to about 55 grams of protein per day, and for adult males about 70 grams of protein per day.  For years, exercise scientists claim that the recommended daily allowance for protein is too low, especially in distance runners who pound their legs on a frequent basis.

It is relatively easy to get the RDA for protein if the runner is eating meat.  It is still pretty easy even if the runner is a vegetarian as long as they also eat dairy products and eggs (each egg is 6 grams of protein).  If the runner does not eat any animal products, then careful and thoughtful planning must go into the diet on a daily basis.  For example, one cannot just consume salads or plain pasta products day after day and consider it good nutrition. 

For those runners trying to eat more than the RDA but are not that excited about eating a lot more meat, then increasing Greek yogurt consumption as well as eating more beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and protein powders will get them to their goal. 

A good goal for male and female runners is to aim for 25-30 grams of protein at each of three meals, plus one or two snacks, for a total of 100-120 grams of protein per day.  After increasing protein intake to these levels and structuring sleeping habits to be a consistent 8-9 hours per night, the cross country runner should notice a tremendous change in recovery length and intrinsic feel between high level work sessions.  Repair of bones, ligaments, muscles, and organs is directed by human growth hormones (hgh) which are only secreted while in a deep sleep cycle, but only if the necessary amino acids are present for the re-building process.

A final word needs to be stated about iron intake because that mineral is linked to protein.  The human body contains only 5 grams of iron.  However, for the synthesis of red blood cells, even this small amount is essential for healthy distance runners.  Red meat contains heme iron and this is by far the best source of dietary iron because it absorbed by humans in the highest amounts. 


* Coaching Resource: Every Single Cross Country Workout from June Through Nationals


Whole grains, seeds, green vegetables, poultry, fish, and dairy products also contain iron but it is not heme iron and is not as easily absorbed.  In addition, most of these alternative iron sources also contain calcium which blocks iron transport (absorption) in the small intestine of humans. 

All distance runners should eat 3-4 meals each week of red meat (4-5 ounce portions/meal) which will not only supply the proper iron intake but also add to the protein intake as well.             



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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