Running on Plants.
I was asked by a few people to write a blog post about training for endurance events, like a marathon, while following a plant-based lifestyle. Coincidentally I happen to be training for my 26th marathon which I will run in Buenos Aires, Argentina this coming October! I went 100% plant-based long before I developed my distance running addiction, which means all of my prior 25 marathons were fueled completely by plants. It's worth noting that despite all this running, I have never endured a running related injury to which I credit my plant-based lifestyle (and smart training of course).
In fact many athletes, such as endurance runners Rich Roll and Scott Jurek, Ravens wide receiver, Griff Whalen, defensive lineman, David Carter, pro surfer, Tia Blanco, and tennis superstars, Venus and Serena Williams, have all credited their plant-based lifestyles for enhancing their athletic performance, noting faster recovery time and fewer injuries.
Though it's not at all complicated to thrive on plants while training for endurance events, understanding what you need and how to get it are crucial (this doesn't just apply to vegans as there are plenty of nutrient deficient meat eaters out there too). Each bite you put into your mouth contributes to building your cells, so we quite literally are what we eat. The human body has a tremendous capacity to heal itself, assuming it is provided with all of the right conditions (like proper nutrition) to do so. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is largely deficient in fiber and most vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which is a great disadvantage for athletic performance. Here I aim to arm you with my best tips and resources for building strength, speed and endurance and avoiding injury while powering yourself with plants.
1. Overcoming the protein myth. Protein is an essential nutrient that we need to build muscle, cells and organs. Cows, chickens, pigs and most other animals that serve as the usual go to 'protein sources' are all plant eaters. You know what that means? They get their protein from plants! In fact ALL protein is made by plants. When you eat meat, you're essentially eating recycled protein. The amount of required daily protein is grossly overestimated and in the case of protein more is not better. The average daily protein recommendation is about 50 grams/day (0.8 g/kilogram of body weight which equates to about 54 grams/daily for a 150-pound individual), but the average Americans eats >100 grams daily. Extra protein is stored as fat or is excreted along with essential minerals such as calcium. Excreting excess protein is especially damaging to the kidneys (not to mention the increased risk of colon, prostate and breast cancer as a result of animal protein intake). As long as you stick to eating an adequate amount of calories and a wide variety of whole plant foods, protein deficiency is nearly impossible, kidneys are protected and cancer risk is reduced by 33%. Although there aren't many plants that fulfill the complete amino-acid profile (spirulina and quinoa are complete sources), your body pools the amino acids from the food you eat everyday, so as long as you are eating a wide variety of whole plant foods, you're covered. To reiterate, as long as your daily caloric and carbohydrate (carbs are our fuel for exercise) intake is sufficient, your protein needs shouldn't be much greater unless you're a top performing endurance athlete.
Great plant protein sources include: tempeh, beans, lentils, edamame, nuts and seeds, quinoa, chia seeds, brown rice and all vegetables, especially the leafy green ones. I rarely use any sort of protein powder, but will occasionally add a scoop to my smoothies while I'm training. I recommend 22 Days Nutrition Protein Powders (use code tenoffof22 to get 10% off your online order) should you feel inclined to use one as they are free from the processed junk in most other protein powders. For a wide range of nutrient dense recipes fit for any athlete check out: Forks Over Knives.
2. Cut out processed foods and refined carbohydrates. These foods are typically loaded with artery clogging saturated fats and inflammation inducing added sugar and they contain very little fiber (which is crucial for helping to maintain steady energy levels). Some of my favorite pre-long run morning meals include hot oatmeal with a banana, overnight oats, or my brown rice porridge. Remember, carbs are not the enemy. It's the type of carbs you choose that matter. Focus on whole, unprocessed sources such as brown rice, oats, quinoa, multigrain bread, millet, kasha, etc.
I usually don't bring fuel along on a run unless I am going more than 16 miles. On those occasions I try to avoid the processed sugar and caffeine laden energy gels and stick to dates, Larabars and bananas. I also like Vega Energy Gels which are made from date paste and have no added sugar or processed ingredients. Alternatively consider making your own snack to throw in a baggie and bring along in a sports belt.
I recommend coconut water, which is a much healthier alternative to Gatorade or Powerade, for hydration during and after long-runs. Coconut water is a natural electrolyte beverage (check the label to make sure you aren't buying one that has sugar or some kind of fructose listed as one of the ingredients). Sometimes it's too sweet for me during a run, so I will bring along a water bottle with 1/2 water and 1/2 coconut water. Alternatively I will use a Nuun Electrolyte Tablet in my water bottle or sprinkle a pinch of sea salt in the bottle.
3. Amp up on anti-inflammatory foods. It's tempting to reach for sweets, chips and other unhealthy snacks because you're burning all those extra calories, right?!?! Though I admit to indulging in more sweets while training, making a habit of it will only serve to hurt you (literally!). Animal protein and sugary, processed foods cause inflammation in the body, so eating these foods after a workout will hinder your recovery time whereas fueling up on anti-inflammatory foods after a long run will dramatically improve your recovery time and leave you feeling a lot less sore the next day. Going downstairs will be a breeze (runners, you feel me?)!
Aim to incorporate 1 teaspoon daily of turmeric into your diet (use it to season food, add it to a smoothie or make a turmeric almond milk latte. I often add turmeric and ginger to hot lemon water in the morning for a detoxifying, hydrating, anti-inflammatory drink). Increasing your intake of veggies and fruits, especially berries, will also help reduce exercise induced inflammation. Making a post-workout nutrient-loaded smoothie is a great way to rehydrate and replenish nutrients. Try this one:
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk or coconut water
- 1 cup spinach or kale
- 1 frozen banana
- half cup blueberries
- 2 tablespoons of chia seeds, spiraling, hempseed or ground flaxseed
Blend almond milk/coconut water and greens until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. If you don't have a frozen banana, add the banana with 1/2 cup ice.
4. Iron Wo(Man). Next to protein, iron is the second most common nutrient people fear I'm deficient in when they learn I'm plant-based. Although non-heme iron (which comes from plants) may not be as well absorbed as heme iron (which comes from animals), it's much less toxic to the body. Just as with protein, eating a wide variety of plant foods will supply you with all of your iron needs. The best foods for iron include pumpkin seeds (I love to throw these in my oatmeal and brown rice porridge and on top of salads), leafy greens, and black strap molasses (consider putting a little of this in a small plastic baggie and bringing it along on long runs as a fuel source). Combining iron-rich foods with Vitamin C rich foods (such as oranges, red peppers, kale, broccoli and Brussel sprouts) helps with iron absorption.
5. Caloric needs are different for every athlete. I never meticulously calculate the calorie in, calorie out equation. My best advice is to learn to tune-in and listen to your body. The types of foods I eat on a daily basis aren't any different from the types of foods I eat while I'm training for a marathon, I just eat MORE when I'm training. Choose a wide, colorful variety of whole plant foods, eat when you're hungry, chew thoroughly and stop when you're full. Easy as that.
6. Supplements. If you plan to be fueled by plants for the long-haul, it's important to supplement your lifestyle with Vitamin B12. This vitamin aids in the development and protection of nerve cells and red blood cells. It's also necessary for DNA production. In short, it's pretty damn important.
Unfortunately, it's the only nutrient that can't be obtained from a whole-food plant-based lifestyle. Before you use that as an excuse to return to meat eating, let me explain why. Vitamin B12 is not made by plants or animals, but rather by bacteria. Animals eat B12 containing bacteria via dirt and water, which accumulates in their tissue and makes it available when we eat meat. Because we are a nation obsessed with sanitation, we rarely have the opportunity to consume B12 via plant food. The best option for this essential vitamin is a 2,500 microgram (mcg) weekly dose. Here's what I use.
Bottom Line: As long as you consume enough calories through a wide variety of whole plant foods, minimize intake of processed foods and take a Vitamin B12 supplement not only will your nutritional needs be covered, but you'll improve your endurance and you'll recover more quickly!
If you have any training or nutrition related questions comment below or message me directly! Happy training :)