One look at social media and you’ll likely see some runners declaring devotion to a plant-based lifestyle and others shouting their love for bacon from the rooftops. Everywhere you look, runners are swearing up and down, “THIS is the diet that boosts running performance!”
We all want a healthy diet over all, but what that means to different runners can vary widely. Some of us watch our diets closely, others don’t. Some of us allow for daily or weekly splurges, others follow rigid rules until race day. And nobody seems to agree on which path is the right one for an athlete. Can removing all animal products really lead to enhanced performance? Is meat an essential element of a healthy athlete’s diet? Is there some middle ground?
With all the conflicting viewpoints about what amount of animal-products in a diet is optimal, I decided to explore different diets with runners who actually follow them. It won’t lead to any real scientific conclusions of course, but I was interested to learn what these runners had to say.
I spoke with four athletes, one of each who identifies as vegan, mostly vegan, vegetarian, or meat-eating/omniverous.
Veganism is on one end of the animal-products eating spectrum and it’s proponents completely avoid all animal-products, like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and even honey.
Vegetarianism is a less restrictive, only excluding meat, but usually including eggs and dairy. Some vegetarians include fish in their diets, as well.
Lastly, on the other end of the spectrum from vegans, are omnivores, who eat a mix of plants and animal-based foods.
Diet: 100% Vegan
For how long: I became a vegetarian about four years ago and it slowly progressed to a fully plant-based, vegan diet.
How many times per week do you run: 6-7
How long have you been running: I’ve been focusing on running for about seven years.
Diet: Mostly vegan. When traveling and by accident sometimes I eat baked goods with eggs in them, indulge in a cheesy pizza and/or have honey though. So not pure vegan, but mostly.
For how long: Six months after a life-time of vegetarianism.
How many times per week do you run:12-13
How long have you been running: 17 years year-round
For how long: Six years
How many times per week do you run: 5-6 times
How long have you been running: Seven years
How many times per week do you run: I run six days a week, 30-70 mi depending on training goals and time of the year. I also spend a lot of time climbing and skiing depending on the season.
How long have you been running: I have been running since 2007, but started to take it more seriously in 2009.
Buzz, the meat-eater in our group, calls his diet the Keep it Simple, Stupid or KISS Diet. “Ok, so, this is not a real name, but it is how I feel about my diet,” he said about it. “After growing up as a nearly-obese Midwestern kid, who decided to turn into a ‘manorexic’ endurance athlete in college, I tried plenty of different diets and found the one that has made me the happiest and healthiest was a simple one based on mostly home-cooked whole foods with a relatively lax stance on pleasure food.”
For Sandi, becoming vegan stemmed in her upbringing. “I grew up in the Midwest where it was conditioned in people to not think about where their meat came from or if it had feelings, but at some point I realized that choosing to remain ignorant was causing a lot of unnecessary pain, something that doesn’t align with my belief system.”
Kali echoed this sentiment, after watching the documentary about factory farming, Food Inc. and realized she became a vegetarian for ethical reasons.
Sage grew up as a vegetarian, and “… sees it as good for my running, but also good for the animals and good for the planet.”
The Effect of the Change
Kali, who began running partially to lose weight after college, added that becoming a vegetarian helped her attain her weight loss goal while training for her first half marathon. Sandi also found becoming a vegetarian and then vegan led to weight loss. She said, “I am now 25 pounds lighter than I was in college, even though I probably eat a larger quantity of food and exercise the same amount.”
But weight loss is the exact reason Buzz adheres to his omnivorous KISS diet. Buzz also grew up in the Midwest, and went to college and shed his Midwestern dietary roots. “(I) switched to a calorie-counting diet where everything was weighed, and very low in fat in college when I fell in love with endurance sports. My weight dropped but I was not healthy. I tried other diets like low-carb, vegetarian, and vegan, but they just did not work well for me.” Taking the complexity out of dieting propelled Buzz to become a more well-rounded person, and he was able to enjoy meals with friends and family, which he had not been able to do on a restricted diet.
What Do They Eat?
Beans and rice are staples in all four runners’ diets, and I asked them their favorite go-to recipes. Buzz, our omnivore and adherent to his made-up KISS diet, whips up a homemade chickpea masala inspired by his grandmother in India, with a pile of sautéed veggies and two fried eggs on top. Sage and Sandi both regularly make lentil burgers with cauliflower wings, and Kali takes it south of the border with tofu tacos and burritos.
But there was a time when all four were transitioning into their current diets, and finding their staple meals took many trials and errors. Sandi did her homework and tried a variety of recipes to see what worked for her and over a few months, made the switch. Kali had a bit of trouble in the beginning. She didn’t like the faux meat that was available, so instead slowly phased out chicken and fish and then eventually made the total switch to vegetarianism. Both women shared the sentiment of adding plenty of vegetables and trying a variety of recipes. For Sage, the hardest part was cutting out cheese, so she eased the transition with the aid of substitute products. For Buzz it was much easier: “The easiest transition period I have had has been to the non-diet I am currently on.”
As any runner knows, protein plays an incredible role in the recovery process in-between runs and also plays a crucial part in continuing to excel in running endeavors. So, I snuck the eye-roller question, “Where do you get your protein?” in, asking how they ensured they each get all of their carbohydrates, fats, and protein on a daily basis. All four runners use the “eyeball” method; eating a variety of vegetables and plants and getting in plenty of fats and carbohydrates to fuel their runs. Sage and Kali have both dabbled in using apps and software to track their macro- and micronutrients.
Sometimes nutrients from food in a diet isn’t enough. Kali was dealing with fatigue and knew it was a problem when it didn’t subside when she took some down-time from training. “It was from really low iron and hypothyroidism. So I take prescription thyroid meds as well as supplements for iron, magnesium, calcium and vitamins C and D. I’ve been working with a great sports medicine doctor for almost a year and he’s really helped!”
Sage is more conscious about his intake of B12, which is only naturally occurring in animal-based foods, but asserts that deficiency in iron, vitamin D and magnesium is an “all-runner” problem and not just a vegan or vegetarian problem. Even though Buzz eats meat, he echoes Sage’s sentiment and has always taken some dietary supplements. He currently takes vitamin D, calcium/magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
A more practical question pertaining to running and nutrition, “Is it hard to find a pre-race meal that works within the diet perimeters when in an unfamiliar place?” I thought this question may be a bit more difficult for my panel, but all four answered with a resounding, “Nope.”
So I went with my backup question, “Do you ever give yourself a ‘pass’ for certain foods?” (i.e., after a big breakthrough performance or just for an indulgence?) Kali had a bite of her husband’s chicken wing once, but other than that, no. Buzz also said no, and “I wish I owned a coffee mug that read Will run for bacon, beer, and doughnuts. As long as I use moderation, I do not see anything as needing a ‘pass.’ I love Granny’s Doughnuts in Bozeman and go there once a week after a morning workout.” Sage and Sandi are able to indulge without doing a number on their diets; living in Boulder has it’s advantages. “Every now and then I can’t pass up some of the great vegan desserts that restaurants have these days! Fior Di Latte, a gelato place in Boulder, makes amazing dark chocolate gelato from coconut milk. So good!” Vegan or non-vegan, I would definitely indulge in some dark chocolate gelato myself.
How Do Their Diets Affect Their Running Performance?
Kali has run a personal best in every distance from 5K-100K since becoming a vegetarian. “I can survive on less I think. During ultras, I don’t eat a ton and prefer to drink calories from Tailwind. I see other people stop at aid stations for too long and pig out, whereas I just fill up my bottles with Tailwind, eat some pretzels or chips and leave.”
Buzz has also made leaps and bounds (pun intended) in his training since adhering to KISS. “I have never been a stronger runner and climber than I am today. I went from teetering on the edge of injury and overtraining, to being able to withstand rough training blocks in order to perform well at races – I placed 3rd at the Rocky Raccoon 50, in about 7 hours – and on climbing objectives in the northern Rockies.”
Sage credits his mostly-vegan diets for better recovery and consistency and Sage has the resume to back it up. In addition to the Black Canyon 100K win, in 2015 trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials he ran four marathons in a 10-month span and averaged 2:19:54, including a 16th place at Boston.
Sandi is feeling better than she ever has and “…went fully plant based/vegan right before I had Achilles surgery a year ago. I haven’t raced since, but this is by far the best I’ve felt my entire life, so once my training fully kicks in again and I start racing, I’m excited to see what happens.”
All four are excelling in their respective distances and making major improvements. So will switching your diet to a vegetarian, vegan, or KISS method help your performance? It may not necessarily be which diet you adhere to, but your relationship with food and running. Despite their varying diet choices, all four have a few things in common:
- A major emphasis on overall health
- A healthy relationship with food relative to running
- Techniques to ensure they’re getting all of their micro- and macronutrients
- Not using restriction methods to achieve peak performances
As for the hard science on which diet is the best for performance, Nancy Clark concludes that there simply isn’t enough research yet for as how being either a vegan or vegetarian affects athletic performance. But she says:
anecdotally, people do fine. It is possible that some vegan athletes are low on creatine, a nutrient that you get only from meat and that can help during short bouts of intense exercise, like sprinting, though supplementation isn’t necessary. My feeling is that hard training trumps everything. Diet, if it’s healthy, isn’t going to make that much difference.
The Mayo Clinic concluded that as long as a vegan diet is rich in whole foods and well planned, it’s commendable, but requires some research and education on the consumer’s part.
Whatever diet path you chose, make sure it’s one that aligns with your own personal needs, and one that adequately fuels you for the run ahead. And don’t be afraid to indulge in the occasional dessert; vegan or not. Life is short, get the donut!
What’s your approach to meat and animal products?
*Correction: An earlier version of this article said Buzz finished third in the Rocky Raccoon 100, but it was the 50 mile race.