Historically the concept of following a vegan diet conjures up images of weedy teenagers and long-haired hippies, but times have changed. Vegan cookbooks are topping the best-seller lists, restaurants are catering to niche dietary requirements and people are realising that eschewing meat products and opting for a plant-based diet is not only good for the environment (and the animals), it can benefit your athletic performance to boot.
For runners, a balanced diet is not only important for health reasons, it’s vital for athletic performance. With this in mind, can you really get the best out of your running on a plant based diet?
A number of athletes have proven that meat does not necessitate sporting success. Ultrarunner Scott Jurek holds his plant-based diet responsible for his running achievements, tennis star Serena Williams follows a raw food diet and, aside from biting off the odd ear, former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson is a follower too.
As well as the ethical imperative to eat responsibly, there are numerous health benefits to following a this type of diet. ‘The evidence around the disease-protective qualities of this diet is extensive,’ says nutritionist Dr Terri Holloway. ‘Several major studies, not least the recent World Health Organisation report, confirm that the vegan diet is effective in preventing several cancers, heart disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Vegans, on average, also have lower rates of obesity and lower BMIs than any other dietary group.’
Switching your diet and eating more fruit and vegetables is arguably good for you, but can cutting out a major food group positively impact on your running? ‘Absolutely!’ says Holloway. ‘Athletes can rest assured that a varied, well-planned plant based diet can provide all of the nutrients needed to meet performance goals.’
Many athletes believe this way of living provides them with a competitive edge, particularly with endurance sports like long distance running, says Holloway. ‘While every athlete has a different testimonial, many report feeling far more energetic, even following mealtimes,’ she says. ‘This contrasts with a meat-based diet, which can leave a person feeling quite lethargic after meals. Many also experience clearer skin, more restful sleep, lower cholesterol, and find it much easier to maintain a healthy weight.’
It’s a common misconception that vegans don’t get the essential nutrients that carnivores derive from meat sources, such as protein. ‘A balanced vegan diet contains all the essential nutrients we need for optimal health at any age or life stage. It has everything we need to be healthy,’ says Holloway. ‘Athletes who follow an intense training schedule need to consume enough calories to compensate for their increased activity levels, and they can do so quite easily through beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and green leafy vegetables, which are all excellent sources of protein.’
Keep the balance
If you’ve ever skipped dinner the night before a long run you will know that nutrition can drastically affect your running, and what you eat is essential fuel for high-impact exercise. As with all major lifestyle changes, transitioning to a vegan diet should not be taken lightly and it’s important to get the balance right.
‘Research foods and plan some meals before you take the plunge and go completely animal product free,’ says Sam Conebar, from Forza Supplements. ‘It is a very big lifestyle change and will take some getting used to, both physically and mentally, but can lead to fantastic results.’
‘You should make sure that you get plenty of almonds and dark, leafy green vegetables as this keeps your sodium levels balanced and thus prevents muscle cramps and stiffness after training,’ adds Conebar. ‘It is also vital that you replace the iron lost through a lack of eating red meat. This can be achieved from bran, fortified cereals, raisins, kidney beans, peanut butter and cashews, and protects your energy levels if you favour long-distance running.’
The vegan runners
Ciaran O’Neill, 25, from Manchester made the decision to remove meat and dairy products from his diet two years ago. ‘The journey hasn't been entirely linear and it's something that I have had to transition in and out of,’ he says. ‘At first I thought it would be difficult but the reality was far less daunting once I got into the swing of things. Essentially, it just forces you to be much more conscious about what you buy and what you consume, and the trickiest habit of all was just scrupulously checking any product with mixed ingredients - It's actually incredibly surprising how many classic kitchen staples contain eggs and milk - but these days it's pretty easy to pick up alternatives and supplementary replacements. Well-Being aisles and Free-From sections are rapidly becoming the norm.’
Lauren Rutter, 27, from London has been a vegan for five years and agrees you can sustain good levels of sporting ability on a vegan diet. ‘Turning vegan inspired me to get more into running and particularly endurance stuff after reading about vegan athletes like Scott Jurek, Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier,’ she says. ‘I also think eating more nutrient dense wholefoods has helped me to recover quickly and I do think it has played a role in being able to run more endurance races like marathons and ultras.’
Lauren enjoys all sorts of food. ‘At first I tracked my intake for a little while to make sure I was getting the required amounts of macro and micronutrients, but now I just tend to listen to my body. If I'm craving certain foods then I am probably lacking something so will try to increase the all-round balance of my diet.’
‘I am not concerned about protein,’ she adds. ‘I think our society is way too hung up on getting enough protein when actually the recommended amounts we should be getting are quite low and easy enough to get with a good wholefoods diet containing beans, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and veggies. I take a B12 supplement as this in unavailable in the vegan diet. I used to use protein shakes to up my amount of protein, but I now prefer to focus on wholefoods to get that instead.’
Lauren advises would-be vegans to take it slowly. ‘Do some research, don’t just jump into it without any thought behind it. It's really important to focus on eating wholefoods to ensure you get the right balance of nutrients in your diet and can function at your best. Take the transition slowly removing one thing at a time and introducing something new that could replace it. Get some cookbooks, explore different cuisines and get creative in the kitchen!’