Can you be a vegan runner without it affecting your performance? With a little bit of careful planning, you might even have the upper hand…
Words Ruth Tongue
There are around 140,000 vegans in the UK, which means just one in 400 of us are currently committing to a fully plant-based diet. Yet despite these relatively small numbers, more and more of us are starting to recognise the benefits of eating less meat and animal products – be it for health, environmental or ethical reasons.
Initiatives such as ‘Veganuary’, a monthlong vegan challenge have also increased the number of ‘part-time’ vegans (otherwise known as a flexitarians) who eat a plant-based diet, but allow themselves meat and fish on the odd occasion. Along with endorsements from celebrities like Beyonce and J-Z (advocates of a vegan ‘spiritual and body cleanse’) and the widely reported health benefits, the diet once looked upon as being ‘alternative’ is now enjoying mainstream status.
But is consuming a diet free from all animal products (including meat, eggs, dairy, fish, gelatine and honey) beneficial for runners? Are we to believe that Mo Farah’s success is down to the fact he fuels up on the plant-protein Quorn? And is the fact that you can count successful vegan athletes on one hand (Carl Lewis still being the most referenced) an indicator that it may not be the best diet for optimal performance?
What the evidence says
It’s well established that for the general, non-running population, vegetarian diets are linked to lower death rates from lifestyle diseases (type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease) and a healthier weight. But few studies have looked at the links between vegetarian diets and performance in athletes.
There is of course much anecdotal evidence of athletic success with vegan diets, and as early as the 1890s, vegetarian long-distance walkers in the United States and Great Britain were noted to have performed as well as, if not better than, their meat-eating peers. In fact one of the first men to complete a sub 2hr 30mins marathon, in 1912, was vegan.
One of the downsides of intense exercise, as many runners will know, is that it challenges the body’s immunity. Upper respiratory infections are particularly troublesome for many athletes. This is where the plant-based diet may demonstrate its biggest benefits. A vegan diet tends to be high in antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and whole grains, all of which contain immunity-enhancing phytochemicals which help to protect against infection. Vegan diets also tend to have a healthier balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. These omega 3s found in flax, hemp, chia, pumpkin and sunflower seeds contribute to a stronger immune system, as well as reducing inflammation in muscles and joints.
The typical meat-rich western diet on the other hand tends to be higher in fats, particularly the omega-6 fatty acids (found in animal fats and dairy as well as junk food) which has been linked to inflammation in the body – not good news for runners. In fact, it’s been shown that people who have a high intake of red meat have greater inflammatory substances in their bodies than people who eat mainly vegetable protein.
Quick fact: One of the first men to complete a sub 2hr 30 mins marathon was vegan…
How being vegetarian works for you
Matt Bevan, 33, a seasoned ultra-marathon runner, thinks that transitioning to a plant-based diet has helped him to stay feeling fitter, fresher and achieve quicker times.
“At the age of 23, I was a 25-a-day smoker and drank way in excess. I weighed 16st 10 and had what I would call a fairly ‘standard’ Western diet: meat, eggs and dairy were a big part of my diet. I started to run and as my training miles increased, I took more of an interest in diet and read a few books to see what others were doing (Brendan Brazier’s Thrive; Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run).
I self-experimented and slowly started to realise that some foods would make me feel great, and others would wipe me out, and my training effort would be poor. Red meat always made me feel tired and my legs would be like lead the day after eating it, for instance.
“Although a big part of me moving to eating a fully-plant based diet was due to my views on farming methods and animal rights, since I’ve transitioned to a fully plant-based diet, my capability of taking on longer runs or running day after day has improved. I feel fresher, more alert and have fewer ups and downs in terms of wanting or not wanting to run.
“My biggest concern is getting enough calories in as I run around 70 miles a week. But I concentrate on fat dense foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, which seems to be doing the job as my weight rarely fluctuates as it had done prior to going fully plant-based.”
To replace glycogen and have some fats as well, I’ll have a bagel and avocado. Or a smoothie including almond milk, banana and some hemp protein.
Rebecca Lane, the logistical vegan, discovered that not only was it practical to cut out meat, but her performance excelled.
“I started eating a vegetarian diet last year when I moved house. It was a purely logistical issue that if I was cooking for two or three days in one session, I felt better about not putting meat in (and reducing the risk of the food going off). But suddenly I felt better, weight was coming off and I was getting better times. The more I started to read about being vegetarian, the more I was exposed to the ethical concerns of the animal industry. I took part in ‘Veganuary’ and have stayed with it since. Since starting the journey I feel healthier, my run times are decreasing and my stamina is improving. I ran the North London Half marathon last month and I knocked five minutes off my previous best.”
“My biggest concern is also getting enough calories. But from the day I worked out how to make vegan cake, this ceased to be a worry for me! There are times when finding vegan food is impossible and, for example, if I am with a client I will eat vegetarian food if there’s no alternative. However I’ve also learnt that there are no ‘vegan police’ and I do the best I can.”
My favourite snack is crumpets with the Lotus Biscoff spread, and my favourite post-run meal is currently spinach, mushroom and aubergine burritos with guacamole.
Damien Clarkson writes a blog at veganrunneruk.wordpress.com and attributes much of his weight loss and physical and mental wellbeing to a vegan diet.
“I was a vegetarian before, but when I went vegan I realised how much more efficient my body was running on plants, grains and fruits. It was a real revelation. Whatever your diet, I encourage you to eat more plants and lots more fruit. I believe going vegan is a key reason I have improved quickly as a runner.
A high-carb vegan diet rich in fruits and vegetables of over 3000 calories a day has seen me lose 7kg, my recovery and energy levels are great and the PBs keep coming my way!”
My pre-run meal is peanut butter on toast, or porridge. Post-run, I like to have some nuts and dried fruit; or I’ll have a smoothie with almond, banana, cocoa and maple syrup.
The flip side
But it’s not all good news. If careful attention is not paid to certain food groups and nutrients, the vegan diet could be lacking in some nutrients essential for runners. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that runners pay particular attention to the following nutrients to prevent any nutritional deficiencies:
The iron requirement for those training intensely is higher than for the general population, and vegans need to take extra care to make sure they’re getting enough iron, as vegetable sources of iron are not as well absorbed as animal sources (in fact vegetarians and vegans have twice the iron requirement as meat-eaters for this reason).
That’s not to say you can’t get enough with a bit of focus – lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, almonds and cashew nuts and green leafy veg are all good sources. It’s estimated that iron-deficiency (anaemia) could be as high as 50 per cent in female athletes, so it’s especially important for vegan female runners to ensure they’re getting enough iron and supplements if tests show low iron levels.
Zinc is essential for immune function and like iron, is harder to absorb from plant sources. This is because certain foods high in zinc like beans, nuts and seeds also contain a substance called phytate which prevents the absorption of zinc – so even if plenty of zinc-rich plant foods are eaten, it may not actually be absorbed.
Soaking and sprouting beans, grains, and seeds, and using grain products that rise (for example, bread instead of crackers) reduces the level of phytate but it may be also be advisable for vegan athletes to take a zinc supplement.
Vegans have lower levels of vitamin B12 than vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, or flexitarians who occasionally eat meat. As B12 is essential for a healthy nervous system and blood regulation, this may affect athletic performance and energy. Although vegans can get sufficient intake from regular intake of fortified foods like soy products and vegetable extracts or yeast spreads, it’s commonly recommended that vegans take a B12 supplement.
Vegans will no doubt be fed up of being asked ‘where do you get your protein?’ Although legumes, grains, nuts and seeds contain protein, they do not provide the ideal mix of amino acids that the body needs in one go, so they are said to be ‘incomplete’. Plant sources of protein are also harder for the body to digest.
However, eating the right combination of plant proteins can give the right mix of amino acids. Wholewheat bread and peanut butter, or beans and rice for example, are complementary proteins. These proteins don’t need to be eaten at the same meal, so as long as a range of vegetable proteins are eaten throughout the day, the right balance can be achieved.
Is it time you went vegan?
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