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Running On Plants: Staying Fueled As A Vegan Athlete

Just because you're a runner, doesn't mean adopting a plant-based diet is out of the question. Here's how to stay fueled during every run.

If you launched into 2019 with plans to eat healthier, consume fewer animal products and look after your health more, you may have entertained the idea of adopting a plant-based diet. And while the thought briefly entered your mind and you got excited about all the new foods and recipes you would be able to try, your thoughts may have shifted to, “Will I be able to keep running and performing well if I’m following if I’m not eating meat proteins?”

The easy answer is yes. And in fact, many high-performing athletes do just that: excel on a plant-based diet. But it does take some extra awareness and consideration along with doing your homework before making the transition. Here’s what you need to know:

Crafting a Balance

One of the most important considerations about running as a vegan athlete is to ensure you are still getting a balanced intake of fat, protein and carbohydrate, and that all of this comes at a high enough caloric value. Plant-based foods tend to be more filling due to their higher fiber content and while this is ideal from a nutritional standpoint, it may be less so from a calorie value perspective. The fiber fills you up, causing you to eat less, and in the end, potentially consuming insufficient calories to fuel your running workouts.

The body needs an appropriate and individualized balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat to fuel itself and energize you for your runs. In the early stages of switching to plants, it may take you some time to figure out the ideal balance for you. Some athletes, for example, prefer a higher intake of healthy fats, while others focus more on complex carbohydrates.

With the main goal of ensuring you are consuming an adequate calorie intake, take some time to experiment with different macronutrient balances to find which one fuels you and your running the best. Keep these things in mind as you explore plant foods:

  • All plants have protein, so not having adequate protein on a vegan diet is a myth. Just ensure you consume leafy green vegetables and plant-based protein sources daily, such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and tempeh. Having a varied selection at each meal and across your diet will ensure you have complete protein sources.
  • Try to have a healthy fats, protein and complex carbohydrates at every meal.
  • Examples of healthy fat options include coconut and coconut products, olive oil, almonds, walnuts and other seeds/nuts; flaxseed and avocado.
  • Opt for complex carbohydrates, such as quinoa, buckwheat, millet, oats and brown rice instead of the simple carbohydrate counterparts such as white rice or white pasta.

Runner-Specific Needs

Aside from the caloric intake for runners to consider there are a few other important nutrients to focus on that are relevant to increased activity level and energy output

  • Magnesium – This is the anti-stress mineral. Running puts physical stress on the body and it needs adequate magnesium to work in concentration with other nutrients in the body to optimally facilitate the stress reaction. Get your magnesium through sweet potatoes, leafy greens and raw cacao.
  • Calcium – Just like many people are misinformed over the ability to consume adequate protein on a plant-based diet, so too are they about the ability to consume adequate calcium. Calcium is found in almonds, sesame seeds and organic tofu.
  • B Complex – The B vitamins, work together in the body to allow several important functions to happen, but one of the most important is the production of energy. The body undergoes a complex energy synthesis system to extract energy from the calories you consume. To do this, it needs adequate intake of B vitamins. These are found in leafy greens, whole grains, and most vegetables. In addition however, vegans need to take a B12 supplement because this member of the B family is only found in animal sources. Speak to a nutritionist or registered dietician to ensure you are getting the right dose and type of B12 to best meet your needs.
  • Vitamin D – This vitamin is a key player in bone health. Our body actually manufactures the correct form of Vitamin D that can be used in helping build bones, but it is critical that we obtain the building block form ourselves. This happens predominately through sunlight exposure, but mushrooms have vitamin D, and plant milks are often fortified.
  • Iron – The essential nutrient for helping in oxygen transport, iron lives in red blood cells and is found in foods such as spinach, kidney beans and blackstrap molasses. When possible try to consume through food, as supplemental form is not as readily absorbed.

Considering the Options

Knowing the nutrients you need and being re-assured that running success on plants is possible is only one part of the equation. Most people get hung up, however, when it comes to combining this information together and deciding what to actually eat. Here are some daily meal plan options:

Breakfast: Porridge with almond butter and banana; or a green smoothie.

Lunch: Salad with nuts, quinoa and balsamic vinegar; or raw veggies with hummus and flatbread; or lettuce cup tacos with brown rice, chopped tomato and guacamole.

Dinner: Tofu veggie bowl with steamed broccoli, roasted cauliflower and sweet potato, crispy baked tofu, millet and guacamole.

Snacks: Apple with almond butter; or carrots and hummus; or raw nuts and fresh fruit

Factor in Recovery

Finally, while we often think about the right plant food required to fuel our runs and workouts, don’t also forget about recovery. The anti-inflammatory properties of plants, and especially well-researched selections such as tart cherry juice, have incredible benefits when it comes to helping us recover after a run or race. In addition, a recent scientific review came out that showed a plant-based diet may offer additional benefits when it comes to recovering as many plant foods help reduce oxidative stress on the body and improve artery flexibility, allowing for enhanced tissue oxygenation. Better oxygen means better performance and better recovery.

But just like figuring out what works best for you pre-run, spend some time doing the same for post-run, and don’t forget to keep the calorie content high enough to expedite results.

Above all else, stick to a selection of whole, natural foods, choose a variety and eat what’s in season. From there listen to your body and once it all starts coming together, you may be surprised, at how your running responds as a result. In the end, we only have to look to Scott Jurek or Rich Roll to know what can happen with a little bit of time and patience.