Whether you’re running 5Ks or marathons, you need the right fuel to get you to the finish line. And if you’ve given up meat, that means paying particular attention to the best vegetarian protein sources you can find.
This key nutrient helps preserve lean mass and build new muscle tissue after a strenuous run, which can cause microscopic tears and damage to muscle fibers. In fact, studies show that runners who consume the right amount of protein are less likely to get injured (because their muscles heal faster) than those who skip. High protein intake has also been shown to help maintain a strong immune system by stimulating white blood cells. This is important because after an intense bout of exercise, your immune system is weakened for about four to five hours, leaving you susceptible to infection. Protein is also essential if you’re trying to lose weight; the nutrient takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, so you feel fuller longer. And it helps keep blood-sugar levels stable.
Here are some great sources for protein:
Tofu: In addition to being rich in protein—a cup contains 10 grams—tofu is rich in isoflavones, which protect your heart. Just be sure to buy organic; nonorganic tofu is very often made with genetically modified soy.
Soymilk: If the texture of tofu turns you off, try soymilk instead. It has the most protein of any nondairy milk alternative, about 6 grams per cup, along with all the calcium and vitamin D you’d get from cow’s milk. Again, look for organic brands, which aren’t made with GMO soy.
Beans: To maximize your protein intake, load up on beans, which contain roughly 12 to 14 grams per cup, depending on the type. They also contain iron, which is needed to boost a runner’s endurance.
Greek yogurt: Has twice the protein of traditional yogurt, plus calcium for healthy bones.
Seeds and nuts: These protein powerhouses are also rich in vitamin E; Seeds and nuts are also rich in fiber and heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
Eggs: Along with protein you get in a single egg, yolks are rich in choline, which helps with brain health, and lutein for eye health.
Spinach: While not exactly a protein powerhouse, spinach is one of the richest vegetarian sources of iron, which runners need to maintain their endurance. If you pair vegetarian iron with vitamin C–rich foods, such as red bell peppers in a spinach salad, you boost your absorption of the iron.
Whole grains: Many grains, particularly quinoa (which is technically a seed but treated as a grain) are surprisingly high in protein. They’re also good sources of quality carbohydrates that will fuel your run.
Oatmeal: Has three times the protein of brown rice with less starch and more fiber. It’s also a great source of magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins.
Edamame: Filled with antioxidants and fiber, not to mention protein, edamame is the young green soybean and so delicious! It’s filled with a nutty sweetness and packs in the protein! Add to your favorite salad or you can even snack on it raw and roast it like chickpeas for a crunchy snack.
Chickpeas: Not just for hummus, chickpeas will also give you a nice dose of protein .You can also use hummus, though note that it’s not as high in servings as chickpeas since it contains other ingredients. Try incorporating chickpeas into meals more often when you can.