Following a plant-based diet is one of the top diet trends among runners and non-runners alike. But can it really fuel your training adequately? The short answer: yes. In fact, many high-performing athletes (e.g., Scott Jurek) are vegan (consume no animal foods whatsoever), vegetarian (may consume some eggs, fish or dairy foods) or following a plant-based lifestyle (may eat meat only occasionally). Whether it is for health, ethical, ecological, environmental, religious or spiritual reasons, you’ll just need to do a little extra planning to ensure the lifestyle you choose is also nutritionally adequate to support (and get the most out of) your workouts.
Let’s dive a bit deeper on what nutrients you’ll want to pay particular attention to when following a vegan, vegetarian or plant-based lifestyle. Here are a few tips to make sure you are eating enough to support your training and some specific nutrients to focus on as well.
Big Picture: Eat Enough Calories to Support Your Training
Your calorie/energy and macronutrient (protein, fat and carbohydrates) needs generally remain the same as your omnivore runner friends. In fact, you may need slightly more. Inadequate caloric or energy intake relative to what you expend (or burn) during your workouts can negate any of the benefits you might get from training and compromise your performance. Getting enough energy from only vegan sources can sometimes be more difficult as animal-based foods tend to be more calorically dense and vegan diets can be very high in fiber which may result in feeling fuller sooner and the inability to take in enough calories. But with a little bit of forethought and planning, it’s doable. Be sure to eat 3 meals a day and a couple of snacks as needed, time your meals to support your training and include calorie-dense vegetarian-friendly foods like avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds, plant-based oils, dried fruit and plenty of grains.
Specific Nutrients of Consideration for Vegan/Vegetarian Runners
Protein: because plant-based proteins have a decreased digestibility compared to animal proteins, you may need to increase your intake a bit more. I recommend getting at least 0.5-0.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for most of the runners I work with. That typically looks like about 20-30 grams at meals and at least ½ that (10-15 grams) at snacks. It’s also important to include a variety of plant-based sources of protein in a vegan/vegetarian diet to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids (protein’s building blocks) that our bodies need. Some examples: legumes, lentils, beans, soy-based foods, nuts, seeds and some grains. Vegetarians can also incorporate eggs and dairy foods for protein if they allow it.
Omega 3s: essential for eye, brain and heart health, this type of fat in the diet has also been shown to play a role in the inflammation process—making it important for recovery from tough workouts or injury. Fatty fish is the best source but if that isn’t an option you can get it from foods like walnuts, hemp seeds, ground flaxseed, chia seeds or an algae-based supplement.
Iron: the type of iron in non-meat foods is not absorbed as well as the type in animal foods. So it’s important to ensure adequate amounts of iron are included in the diet – especially for female runners. Vegetarian sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole/enriched grains, enriched/fortified cereals and pasta, leafy greens and root vegetables and dried fruits. You can also enhance the absorption of iron in your foods by eating them with something containing vitamin C – like broccoli, red peppers or oranges/orange juice. Avoid eating iron-rich foods with the following as they can actually inhibit iron absorption: calcium supplements or foods rich in calcium like milk/dairy foods, tea, coffee, some herbal teas, wine and cocoa.
Magnesium: a deficiency in this mineral can result in impaired performance and the inability to recover after a tough workout. We lose magnesium whenever we ‘stress’ the body, as running does, through our sweat and urine. Vegan-friendly sources of magnesium include legumes, nuts/seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, cacao and blackstrap molasses.
Calcium: important for maintaining bone health, vegans and vegetarian runners who avoid or omit dairy entirely want to ensure they are meeting their daily requirements (1,000 mg for those 19-50 years old and 1,200 mg for those over 50). Plant-based sources include calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified beverages (e.g., orange juice, plant-based milks), broccoli, kale, leafy greens, almonds, tahini/sesame seeds, and legumes.
Vitamin D: important not only for adequate absorption of calcium but also immune and muscle function, this vitamin is primarily obtained via sun exposure. But it is also important to get it from the foods we eat or a supplement – especially when/if you aren’t seeing the sunlight as often (e.g., a Chicago winter). Plant-based sources include fortified foods, fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel (if fish is allowed) and mushrooms.
Vitamin B12: since this vitamin is found exclusively in animal foods, vegan athletes in particular need to ensure they are eating fortified foods daily like soy milk or other fortified plant-based milks, breakfast cereals, and meat substitutes, or taking a multivitamin with B12 added. B12 is essential for helping convert carbohydrates into energy when we’re working out.
What about Taking Supplements?
I encourage my vegetarian and vegan athletes to always try to meet their needs with food first before turning to a supplement for multiple reasons. Supplements aren’t as heavily regulated as our food is – so it’s hard to guarantee what you are taking is actually what’s in the supplement. In addition, there’s plenty of research to suggest that the nutrients in food work together in ways that when isolated and delivered via a supplement, they just don’t have the same effect. That being said, I think most runners could benefit from a simple multivitamin as an insurance policy—but not a replacement for whole foods. Further, picky vegans or vegetarians who aren’t eating as wide a variety of foods may benefit from certain supplements and need to pay special attention to how they are feeling and how their body is responding. Working with a doctor and a dietitian to ensure you are not deficient in any one or more nutrient – especially the ones listed above – may be necessary.
The Big Question: Can Going Vegan/Vegetarian Improve Performance?
To date, there has been no definitive research supporting a vegan or vegetarian diet over a diet that includes meat for improving performance. The bottom line: as long as you get enough calories/energy to fuel your workouts and recovery as well as meet your essential nutrient needs, your performance will not suffer. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.
Vegan/Vegetarian Fueling Resources:
Some of my favorite vegetarian recipes: