Carbohydrates get all the attention in distance running circles. Carbo-loading is a well-known practice before long races. High school teams enjoy pasta parties before cross-country races. Most distance runners are constantly downing carbs. There is no doubt that carbs are important for fueling distance runners, but sometimes carbs overshadow another important nutritional component: Protein.
Most athletes never consider when exactly they get better. For runners, it is not technically during a run that our muscles gain strength. It is in between runs that we improve. During a workout, we work our muscles so hard that we cause them to tear just a little. After that workout, when we are relaxing, our bodies fix those tears and rebuild the muscles stronger so the tears won't happen as easily in the future. This is how we get stronger and faster. The reason protein is so important is because that is the nutrient that allows our bodies to properly recover. Without protein, athletes would be constantly breaking down their bodies, but then wouldn't be able to build them back up. So, protein is essential for every distance runner after each workout.
There are many ways to get protein after a run. You could eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some hummus with carrots. For many, though, it is hard to eat food immediately after a workout because of gastro-intestinal struggles or because it is simply too inconvenient to pack food when traveling to work out. For these runners, liquid nutrition is a good solution. Some people like purchasing powder to make a protein shake after working out.
One popular brand of protein powder is called "Muscle Milk." Personally, I find protein-specific powders less effective than other forms of post-workout nutrition. If a powder contains mostly protein, it is neglecting some of the other nutrients necessary for the recovery of endurance athletes (such as glycogen). For distance runners looking to drink a powdered shake post-workout, I recommend finding a shake that is developed specifically for endurance athletes.
Two popular brands are Endurox and Hammer Recoverite. Both are incredibly effective and have a loyal following. The advantage to drinking a powdered recovery drink is that you do not need to refrigerate it, so you can store it in a locker at a gym or in your car. For those looking for a classic drink that is both delicious and protein-packed, grab a chocolate milk, which will provide all the protein and carbs you need to recover after a workout. Regardless of how you get protein, make sure that you take in at least a small snack within a half an hour of completing a workout, so your body can begin effectively recovering as soon as possible.