24 – Vegan Eating for Runners

This originally appeared in Trail Runner magazine.

Intro

Matt Frazier was an average runner who ate an average, albeit healthy, American diet and had average runner’s aches and pains Then he stopped eating meat for ethical reasons. Chicken and fish went next, and he didn’t miss them much. When he quit eggs and dairy something unexpected happened: Matt found he could run longer and harder than ever. Within a few months of becoming a vegan he ran two 50-mile races, shed some stubborn pounds, and felt fleet and fit. Inquisitive and communicative by nature, Matt started the “No Meat Athlete” blog to share his experiences.

Running on plants has taken Matt places he never imagined. This year he completed his first 100-miler, the Burning River Endurance Run, and published his first book: “No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self”. Co-authored by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, a vegan dietician, ultra-marathoner and endurance cyclist. The book is an engaging guide to plant-based diets for runners, running for vegans, and all interested parties in-between.

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Why ‘No Meat’?

Removing meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs from your diet is a major lifestyle change but Frazier cites three compelling reasons to do so: health, the environment, and ethics.

Fitter & Faster

Studies showing that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc are as common as mud in March, but what are the specific benefits to runners? “The most common change I hear about is faster recovery,” says Frazier. “This means less injury because it reduces your chance of over-training and getting hurt. It lets serious runners do more hard workouts.”

Scientists have yet to pinpoint why runners may recover faster on a veggie diet but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say they do, with world-beating vegans like Scott Jurek, Brendan Brazier, and Catra Corbett attesting to the efficacy of plant-powered running. Monique Ryan, MS, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, says the benefit may be down to the anti-inflammatory properties of plant foods. “Exercise increases the level of free radicals in your body, which causes inflammation,” she explains. Anti-oxidants in fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory and protect your body from physiological stress.

Food: Environment & Ethics

Losing yourself in nature is one of the great pleasures of trail running, and eating plants is a great way to protect the environment you love. Raising livestock is a leading cause of deforestation, soil erosion, destruction of grasslands, and water contamination, worldwide, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization research; and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined. Meat is also an inefficient food source. For example, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce a pound of steak.

Animal cruelty is a clear argument for veganism but the human cost of meat is, if anything, greater. Meat-packing is notoriously one of America’s most dangerous jobs. Globally, the demand for meat means two-thirds of arable land is used to grow animal feed versus just eight percent to produce food for direct human consumption. This drives up food prices and put swathes of the world’s population at risk of hunger.

Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

How to Make it Work: Calories – The Burning Issue

You might be surprised to hear that when it comes to food quantity is as important as quality. “Under-fuelling is a common problem,” says Ingrid Skoog, RD, chair of the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) group of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Between intense training, the appetite suppressant effect of exercise, and hectic lives, a lot of runners don’t eat enough.” You can get by on reserves for a while but a consistent calorie deficit puts you at risk of fatigue, excessive weight loss and sub-par training. “Nutrition is non-negotiable,” notes Skoog. “Regardless of the diet you choose, your body’s needs don’t change.”

Ruscigno concurs: “One of the biggest factors in good nutrition is getting enough food. People are concerned about protein in vegan diets but if you eat enough total calories it is almost impossible to not get enough protein.” When you cut out meat, dairy and eggs make sure to compensate with calorie-dense plant foods like nuts and nut butters, avocados, and coconut oil.

Micro-nutrients – Less is More

Decades of meat and dairy industry marketing have created the perception that you need meat for iron and dairy for calcium. But animal products are not the only option. A balanced vegan diet provides iron from a range of foods such as whole grains, leafy greens and legumes. Eating mini-portions of protein is actually more efficient than eating a steak, explains Ruscigno, because your body absorbs nutrients better in small doses.

Calcium absorption also improves on a plant-based diet because animal protein increases the amount of calcium you excrete (thus drinking milk is a paradoxical pursuit). Getting calcium from fortified plant milks, leafy greens and legumes means you can eat less total calcium but your body will retain more. Ruth Heidrich, a 78-year-old raw vegan marathoner and Ironman triathlete, who holds a PhD in nutrition and exercise physiology reports her bone density increased on an all-plant diet, despite a family history of osteoporosis.

The one essential supplement for vegans is vitamin B12, which is helps form DNA and red blood cells, and supports brain function. “You need to get some every day,” Ruscigno recommends. You can take a B12 supplement or multi-vitamin, or eat fortified foods like bread, cereal, plant milks and nutritional yeast.

Think Addition, Not Just Subtraction

Vegan or meat-eater, nutrition experts agree that what you add to your diet is more important than what you subtract. Nell Stephenson, a Paleo diet consultant and lifestyle coach who competes in Ironman Triathlons and ultra-marathons, says the key to health is eating more vegetables. “Even with the Paleo diet [which advocates eating meat] you should get 40-50% of your calories from vegetables and fruit. That gives you all the vitamins, minerals and fiber you need and nothing you don’t.”

“Not everyone is going to be a vegan,” says Ruscigno. “But if you eat like one, by consuming more fruit and vegetables, you will gain a lot of the benefits.”

Conclusion

Running on plants can have a powerful, positive effect on your performance and lifestyle as long as you are mindful and properly fuel your training. “Historically, the healthiest societies ate low-meat diets. It’s how we thrive,” says Frazier. “Becoming vegan gave me an indescribable sense of well-being. It felt whole, complete and right. It’s a force for happiness.”

No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self’ is published by Fair Winds Press. For more information and Matt’s book tour dates visit www.nomeatathlete.com.

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