It’s time to put an end to the idea that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet and running well are mutually exclusive.
I became a much stronger runner almost immediately after switching to a vegetarian diet. But you don’t have to take my word for it: There are plenty of world-class athletes (and not just endurance runners) that don’t eat meat.
Running icon Bart Yasso is a vegetarian. Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathoners of all time, is vegan. (He now holds the American record of 165 miles run in 24 hours!) Brendan Brazier is a vegan pro Ironman triathlete. Robert Cheeke even makes the vegan diet work for bodybuilding.
The Plant-Based Athlete Diet
A vegetarian diet for endurance athletes is really not all that different from a normal (healthy) diet, with the exception, of course, of the meat. If you’re switching from eating McDonald’s every day, then sure, it’s going to take some getting used to. But if you eat lots of nutritious, whole foods as it is, there really aren’t all that many adjustments you need to make to go vegetarian.
You can take it as far as you want, and some vegetarian and vegan athletes tend toward raw and gluten-free diets, citing even greater energy gains. There are differing degrees of health in even vegetarian diets, and mine still includes a lot of delicious cooked foods that “normal” people eat.
The Philosophy: Healthy but Accessible
There are some fantastic books out there that espouse what I consider to be an “ideal” diet, from the standpoint of athletic performance. Vegan, high-raw, alkaline. (See Brendan Brazier’s Thrive, for example.)
Eating that way is great. But it’s tough. Lots of strange ingredients, low-temperature cooking, and very little starchy goodness for the pasta lovers among us. For meat-eaters looking to make a change (without causing their families to rebel), the chasm between this type of diet and their current one is huge.
I’d like to offer an alternative, a diet that is vegetarian (and can easily be made vegan), that’s substantial enough to support endurance training, and that’s delicious and accessible to new vegetarians.
I’ll be the first to admit you can do better nutritionally, but I believe that it’s more important to have a diet you’ll stick to first. Once you’re used to eating vegetarian or vegan (and training on that diet), that’s when it’s time to consider taking it to the next level.
But Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Ah yes, every vegetarian athlete’s favorite question.
The answer is that protein is in all kinds of foods besides meat, but generally in lower quantities. It takes some effort to make sure you get some protein in every meal, but it’s not that hard. While it is possible to eat a high-protein vegetarian diet, if your goal is to get the amount of protein recommended by many traditional diets for athletes, though, you’ll have a tough time doing it.
Having heard that many endurance athletes thrive on diets with lower amounts of protein than is traditionally recommended, I took a chance on it, and I’ve never felt better than I do now. I’ll never go back to those crazy 1-gram-of-protein-per-pound-of-body-weight rules again.
If your vegetarian diet is pizza and potato chips, then you won’t get enough protein. But if you eat a wide variety of foods and make smart choices to include some protein at every meal and ensure that you’re getting a balanced amino acid profile, chances are you’ll feel better than ever. (See the vegetarian protein page for some numbers and amino acid information.)
This list represents some common foods that will help you meet the needs of the vegetarian diet for endurance athletes. Certainly there are many more foods one could include; the idea here is to list those that can be found in common grocery stores and whose tastes aren’t too foreign.
- All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw
- Vegetable sprouts
- All kinds of fruits, usually raw
- Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole-wheat bread, pitas, and bagels
- Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, farro, millet, quinoa, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds
- Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
- Oils: grapeseed, olive, canola, coconut, flaxseed (unheated), hemp (unheated)
- Agave nectar (as workout fuel, not an all-purpose sweetener)
- Protein powder (I like this hemp, rice, pea, and chia blend)
- Soy products (limited): tofu, tempeh
- Tea and coffee (limited)
- Cheese (limited, non-vegan)
- Eggs (limited, non-vegan)
I don’t count calories, or even carbohydrate-protein-fat ratios, when I eat. I don’t believe that there’s a need to do this. But in general, such ratios can be met with a variety of food sources. In other words, take your favorite endurance diet numbers and make them work without meat. Endurance diets tend to be high in carbohydrate anyway, making a vegetarian or vegan approach especially well-suited.
Though I don’t count calories closely, I try to eyeball my caloric breakdown and stay fairly close to the proportions laid out by Lance Armstrong’s former coach, Chris Carmichael, in his book Food for Fitness. Carmichael’s recommendations, though varying based on training period, are roughly:
- 65% carbohydrate
- 13% protein
- 22% fat
If you aim to hit these numbers with a vegetarian diet, you should be just fine. And you’ll find that it’s not all that hard to do.
How Much Should You Eat?
About as much as it takes to feel comfortably full, but not stuffed. As endurance athletes, we have the luxury of eating more calories than more sedentary people. We need more calories, in fact.
If your goal is weight loss, or if you train more or less than I do, your needs will be different than mine. Figure out what size meals work for you.
Eating Around Workouts
How you eat before, during, and after your workouts is especially important on any diet. For lots of guidelines and recipes for unprocessed, vegetarian workout foods, see the natural running fuel page.
So there you have it: A workable vegetarian diet for endurance athletes. Not that much to it, is there? Vegetarians and vegans, I’m interested to know how this compares to your diet. Any major differences?
This post is part of a series on how to start eating a vegetarian diet, for new vegetarians or endurance athletes looking to take their performance to the next level.