Vegetarian and vegan diets are gaining traction, not just among the general population, but also within the athletic community. As more and more qualified professionals advocate for the health (and ethical) benefits of a plant-based diet, athletes have realized that, with a little extra thought and planning, their nutritional needs can be met without eating meat.
Among the professional athletes to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle are ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, track star Carl Lewis, and even figures from non-endurance arenas, like bodybuilder Bill Pearl.
A vegetarian diet can certainly support a runner’s lifestyle, but there are a few things to be especially cognizant of when it comes to nutrition.
Plant-based diets can be less calorie-dense than their omnivorous counterparts, and it takes quite a few calories to fuel a running habit. For the runner looking to shed a few pounds, it may seem tempting to run a huge caloric deficit in hopes of quickly reaching their goal weight. However, eating too few calories can hamper recovery efforts, lesson the impact of hard workouts, and slow metabolism. For successful training and long-term health, adequate calorie intake is a must.
For runners, protein plays an essential role in rebuilding and maintaining the muscles that power our training. According to the American College of Sports medicine, daily protein intake for runners should fall between 1.2 and 1.7 grams per pound of body weight. This means that a 150 pound runner should consume between 90 and 120 grams of protein in a day.
Luckily, protein-rich vegetarian foods are fairly common. Foods like beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, cheeses, eggs, and milk are widely available sources of vegetable protein. Whole grains like quinoa and Ezekiel bread also have high protein levels.
Vitamin B-12 is essential for our bodies, and a B-12 deficiency can even lead to anemia. The best sources are animal-based, but some vegetarian foods like cow’s milk, cheese, and eggs can support B-12 requirements.
Non-dairy options such as cereals, soy milk, and meat substitutes are often fortified with vitamin B-12.
Iron is essential for athletic performance. Simply put, iron plays an important role in getting oxygen to your muscles so that you can run at your best. If your iron levels are low, you will generate fewer red blood cells and, as a consequence, will not be able to carry as much oxygen to your working muscles.
The average male runner needs about 8 milligrams (mg) of iron per day, and the average female runner needs 18 mg. However, plant-based forms of iron are not as easily absorbed as animal sources, making iron requirements for vegetarian athletes higher than those of meat-eating runners. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that vegetarians consume 1.8 times the amount of iron as non-vegetarians.
Vegetarian sources of iron include spinach, soybeans, lentils, quinoa, beans, and blackstrap molasses.
Eating foods rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits and green leafy vegetables also helps enhance the absorption of iron. Another strategy is to cook in a cast iron skillet, because iron from the skillet will infuse into the food you are cooking.
Like iron, zinc is not absorbed as well when it comes from plant-based sources, so vegetarians require higher daily levels of zinc. Zinc helps fight infections, heal injuries, and promotes healthy muscle growth.
Vegetarian sources of zinc include lentils, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, oats, and wheat germ.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to normal development and brain function, and can also help reduce inflammation. Essential fatty acids, like DHA and EPA, are often found in fish.
Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, tofu, avocado, and soybeans.
Recipe for the Runner: Vegan Power Pot
This unique, protein-rich dish is a nutrient powerhouse. Iron from the spinach and tofu is supported by vitamin C from the pineapple, while the nut butter provides zinc and healthy fats. Protein is provided by both the nut butter and the tofu, which also provides Omega-3 fatty acids.
- 1 tablespoon oil (any kind should work)
- 1 onion, sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ~16 oz spinach, fresh or frozen (other greens like kale or chard will work too)
- 1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple, undrained
- ½ cup peanut butter (or your choice of nut butter)
- 1 box firm tofu, cubed
- Pinch of salt
- Crushed red pepper flakes
- Optional toppings:
- Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce
- Whole peanuts
- Fresh cilantro
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan or Dutch oven. Add the onion and sauté until the pieces just starting to brown, about seven minutes. Add the garlic according to how strong you prefer: adding it earlier in the cooking time will decrease its pungency, while adding it during the last thirty seconds will create a stronger flavor. I usually add it with approximately two minutes remaining.
- In the meantime, as the onions cook, cube the tofu and press to drain liquid. I place a paper towel over it, then a cutting board, and then some cook books or whatever heavy objects I have lying around. This isn’t crucial, but will help the tofu retain its shape and consistency.
- Add the full can of crushed pineapple to the pan, juice included, and bring the entire mixture to a simmer.
- Add the spinach and work in until completely incorporated. If spinach is frozen, cover while stirring every couple minutes as it thaws. Cook for about five minutes.
- Add in the peanut butter and stir until completely incorporated.
- Add salt, red pepper flakes, or any other desired spices.
- Add the tofu, folding it in carefully so the pieces stay whole as much as possible. Cover and let cook for about five minutes.
- Serve over rice or couscous (I usually use brown rice). Garnish with toppings as desired.
Elena has been running for two years since graduating from college, where she pole vaulted on the UCLA track team. At this time, she remains the only documented case of a pole vaulter learning to love running. She can hardly believe it either.