When I went vegan two years ago I was honestly nervous about how it might derail my training and my fitness. I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t, even though I went in pretty blind. But many runners have found it to be beneficial, with research starting to emerge to support that.
Mary Denholm (formerly Schneider), a 2:41 marathoner, told us that she has noticed that she recovers quicker since she switched to a plant-based diet. Denholm’s experience was featured in the new book, The Plant-Based Athlete: A Game-Changing Approach to Peak Performance published June 15.
Before we get into the great advice provided by runners who are proud of and feel great eating a plant-based diet, I want to address some of the negativity that arises when the word ‘vegan’ is brought to the dinner table.
First off, an entirely plant-based diet may not be for you. And that’s OK. If you don’t have the desire to consume less animal protein, what is the reality that you’re going to stick with it?
Just like with running, you’re going to want to pinpoint why you’re pursuing a vegan diet. “If you want to stick with a plant-based lifestyle, it will be much easier if you have a reason that resonates with your heart,” says ultrarunner Carlee McDot.
Second, nobody is asking for perfection here. Vegan culture tends to have a (sometimes unsaid) expectation of all or nothing. But if you’re really focused on your why—that perfectionist thinking doesn’t really make sense. Whether you’re eating plant-based for the environment, for your health, for the sake of animals, or any other reason, a slip here or there is not going to dismantle your efforts.
So, if you’re looking to rearrange your meals with more plants and less meat, these vegan and (mostly) plant-based runners have some tips for you:
“If someone wants to try being plant-based I always suggest starting small,” says McDot. Aim for one meal a day (or a week if that’s easier) to eat plant-based and go from there. She recommends breakfast as an easy option that isn’t traditionally meat heavy. “You don’t have to revamp everything all at once,” she says. “Little changes add up.”
American women’s marathon record holder Deena Kastor also recommends starting slowly and building from there. “Keep searching for fun recipes while continuing to make the ones you enjoy,” she says. “Soon you’ll have a delicious and diverse archive of recipes to rotate through.”
Don’t Be Shy About Portion Sizes
One thing you may notice when switching from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based one is that you’re going to need to increase your portion sizes. This is especially important for runners whose caloric needs are higher anyway.
“Don’t be freaked when you all the sudden are eating out of serving bowls,” says Denholm.
Registered dietitian Pamela Fergusson, a vegan runner herself, backs that up. “You might need to eat a little bit more food or a little more frequently in order to meet your energy needs,” she says. Pay attention to signs of under-fueling like fatigue, hitting a training plateau, brain fog, constipation, insomnia, and loss of period.
If you don’t want to risk under-fueling, this would be a good time to consult with a registered sports dietitian.
Pay Attention to Protein
“Make sure you’re including all of the different food groups within plant-based eating. Don’t rely just on salads and fruits and vegetables,” says Fergusson.
Protein is a top concern for people making the switch, but it’s one of the surprisingly easier aspects. “As long as you eat a wide variety of plant foods and make sure to get in the higher protein sources every day like beans, tofu, and tempeh you can do it and thrive eating plant based as a runner,” says Denholm.
These plant-based food items are high in protein:
- Seitan—a gluten-based protein (25g)
- Tofu (11g)
- Tempeh (20g)
- Edamame (12g)
- Lentils (8.4g)
- Beans (9g)
- Nutritional yeast (8g)
- Hempseed (9g)
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
If you’re used to just melting some cheese on top of your meals for flavor, you may find going vegan to be an opportunity to elevate your skills as a chef. One way to do that is just by experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.
Take your favorite recipes and tweak them. “Replace the meat in your stir fry with chickpeas, try lentils in your pasta sauce. Experiment with tempeh and tofu,” says vegan ultrarunner Laura Kline.
You can also experiment at the grocery store, like with the wide variety of plant-based milk alternatives (almond, cashew, soy, coconut, rice, etc).
“Once you get started you’ll find yourself wanting to experiment more and more with the amazing combinations you can create with plant foods,” says Kline.
There’s no one recipe for success. “Find what works for your lifestyle, your palate, your wallet, and go for it,” says McDot.