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The Vegan Running Diet: A Complete Guide

Vegan running diet
James

It’s been a long standing myth that going plant-based can have a negative impact on running performance. In reality; numerous endurance athletes have removed animal products from their plates and seen spectacular results.

Switching to a vegan running diet has helped many people achieve their goals. It promotes energy, reduces inflammation and provides a cascade of nutrients that can support your overall health. No wonder eating plants has seen a boost in popularity.

The information in this guide applies to anyone looking to maximize running performance through the use of a vegan diet. Whether you’re a seasoned marathon runner or aiming for your first 5k; you’re sure to boost your training with the simple steps outlined below.

Why adopt a vegan diet for running?

Eating a vegan diet has numerous physiological effects that make it the optimal diet for runners. Here, we have listed some of the key benefits:

1. Reduced inflammation.

The anti-inflammatory effects of plants foods can expedite your recovery. Less aching in your joints and muscles will allow you to train more frequently, which in turn improves performance.

2. Improved blood flow.

Many plants have compounds that can widen blood vessels to increase blood flow. This leads to more oxygen reaching the muscles and a subsequent performance boost.

3. Reduced body fat.

Many runners find that they lose a layer of body fat after adopting a vegan diet. It can often leave you feeling lighter, sharper and ultimately faster.

4. Improved heart health.

The vegan diet is often touted as exceptionally heart healthy. It’s free from cholesterol, limits saturated fat and can even reverse the buildup of arterial plaque. Having good heart health should be paramount for runners, since it can put the muscle under serious strain.

5. Availability of running fuel.

The vegan diet can provide the perfect fuel for runners. Fruits, whole grains, sweet potatoes and nuts are just a few examples of performance enhancing foods that are packed with energy.

Vegan runners
A vegan diet is optimal for running

What food groups should a vegan running diet include?

Vegetables

Getting plenty of vegetables is rarely an issue with plant-based diets. However, I will admit that it’s become more challenging with the influx of processed vegan foods.

Although vegetables lack calorie density, they more than make it up for it with nutrient quality. Many runners following a classic animal-based diet will be deficient in a range of nutrients, leaving them feeling less than their best.

Eating the full spectrum of vegetables should be a top priority of any vegan runner. Every one of these colorful plants has a different array of nutrients that will act as building blocks for your body, provide anti-oxidants and reduce inflammation.

The phrase ‘eat the rainbow’ comes to mind when approaching vegetables and each one has unique benefits. However, a special shout out goes to beets for their blood flow inducing nitrite content and dark leafy greens for their sheer nutrient density.

Fruit

Fruit is sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s candy’. It’s a delicious and nutritious addition to any vegan diet and often a staple food for vegan runners.

Eating fruit can give you the carbohydrate boost you need to run long distances or power through short sprints. Each one contains a various amounts of glucose, fructose and starch that can provide fast-acting fuel for your muscles.

If you want to get technical; you can even optimize the best time to eat various types of fruits. Dates are full of fast digesting glucose that works great mid-run, while underripe bananas act as a starchy and slow-releasing source of energy.

It’s worth noting that fruits aren’t just fuel for the fire. Just like vegetables; they’re packed with nutrients that can reduce inflammation and support overall health.

Beans, Lentils and Legumes

Any vegan running diet should be rich in beans, lentils and legumes. They’re classic staple foods that are packed with protein that will aid your recovery and improve your muscle endurance.

Most beans pack a protein punch of around 7g per ½ cup serving, with lentils providing upwards of 9g per serving. In addition, the protein is surrounded by slow-digesting starches that will help to refuel your energy stores during your recovery phase.

Keep in mind that beans, lentils and legumes are more than just building blocks for your muscles. They’re also filled with nutrients to support optimal health and are a key dietary pillar of many long-lived communities across the world.

Including these wholesome superfoods in your diet should not be a challenge. Use them in stews, throw them into stir-fry’s or make burgers out of them. The possibilities are endless!

Soy

Getting adequate protein intake falls high on the list of priorities for vegan runners. In fact; it’s pretty much a mainstay on the plate of any plant-based athlete.

Including plenty of soy in your diet is a great way to reach your daily protein intake. Just one ½ cup serving of tofu provides 10g of protein, while the same amount of tempeh will provide you a whopping 16g.

The other great thing about soybean derived products is their complete amino-acid profile, which makes them a ‘complete’ protein. If you didn’t already know; amino-acids are literally the building blocks of your body, so getting them in proper quantities is key to recovery and performance.

Soy products can take many forms, ranging from fake meat products to milk. This low-carb vegan protein source should make it onto your plate almost every day if you want to achieve your running goals.

Nuts and Seeds

Vegan running snacks probably don’t get better than nuts and seeds. These nutrient dense powerhouses have a full spectrum of benefits that can fuel every aspect of your wellbeing and performance.

Nuts and seeds are generally incredibly high in healthy fats. Eating these fats can provide slow-burning energy for your long runs, support optimal heart health and improve the absorption of many vital nutrients.

Adding a handful of nuts and seeds to your meal can also provide an added boost of protein and nutrients that can aid in your recovery. Not to mention they’re high calorie-density, which can help runners meet their excessive energy requirements.

A special mention also goes to nut butter for its easily-palatable style. Adding it into your smoothies, spreading it onto your bread or consuming it mid-run is a convenient way to boost your caloric intake.

Grains, Pasta & Potatoes

No vegan running diet would be complete without these classic forms of carbohydrate. Although the quantities that you consume them may vary depending on your goals, it’s hard to imagine any athlete omitting them entirely.

Grains most commonly come in the form of rice, wheat, oats and corn. Naturally gluten-free options like buckwheat and quinoa are also great sources of slow-releasing energy, while also supplying a respectable amount of protein.

Sweet potatoes are often a vegan runner’s favorite and can be a great source of nutrient-dense energy. Those looking to replenish their energy stores will also favor pasta thanks to its ‘carb-loading’ potential.

It’s also worth noting that most grains, pasta and potatoes can be eaten in their ‘whole’ or ‘refined’ form. Most consider the whole form (e.g. brown rice, brown pasta) to be healthy due to increased nutrient density and slower energy release. However, some athletes may look to the faster-digesting ‘refined’ options (e.g. white rice, white pasta) if they’re looking to refuel muscle energy quickly.

Vegan Running Food
Vegan food provides a host of nutrients that can fuel your run

Protein for intake vegan runners

The biggest worry of most runners switching to a vegan diet centers around protein. Actually, protein intake is probably the biggest worry of almost anybody going plant-based.

In reality; it’s not as complicated as people have been led to believe. Plant sources of protein like beans, soy, nuts and seeds provide more than enough protein for runners to repair and rebuild.

Most vegan runners should be aiming to get around 15% of their diet from protein, which isn’t hard to achieve with a well-rounded nutrition strategy. Long distance athletes should include roughly 0.7g of protein per pound of body weight, which equates to 105g of protein per day.

Once you’re already reaching this intake; the inclusion of excess protein will provide diminishing returns. Aim to get your targeted level of daily protein, then fill the remaining calories with a combination of carbohydrate and fat.

Protein For Vegan Runners
Don’t stress too much about protein, just eat your beans!

High carb vs high fat for vegan runners

Breaking down what percentage of your diet should come from fat and carbohydrates is highly individual. Running distance and intensity should play a big role in choosing the fuel source that works for you.

The high carb approach

Most vegan runners will look to fuel their workouts with carbohydrates. Diets rich in fruits, grains, pastas and potatoes have become synonymous with plant-based athletes.

Taking a high carb approach requires the consistent ingestion of starches and sugars to maintain your energy levels. Each time you eat a carbohydrate rich food, it can be stored in your muscles for future use or burned immediately if you’re already running.

Slow-digesting carbs, such as brown rice, can be eaten prior to long runs to provide a long-lasting energy boost. Fast-digesting carbs, such as high sugar fruits, can be eaten mid-run when fast refueling is required.

It’s worth noting that short bursts of energy, such as HIIT, training can be performed at greatest intensity with sufficient carb intake. Having muscles that are loaded with energy (aka glycogen) will give your body the fast-acting fuel required.

The high fat approach

Using fat to fuel workouts has become increasingly popular amongst endurance athletes. Becoming fat adapted will allow the body to tap into its vast fuel reserves that can be stored anywhere on the body, negating the need for constant refueling.

Fat adapted athletes can typically run for many hours without needing to ingest any food. Once their body has finished using the fuel eaten during a pre-run meal, it will seamlessly switch over to burning body fat instead.

A high fat vegan running diet will typically rely on foods like nuts, seeds, coconut and avocado to act as pre-run fuel sources. Athletes looking for a mid-run boost will often turn to portable nut butters thanks to their easily digestible texture.

Since fat is a very slow-burning fuel source, it’s typically best used during steady-state endurance events, such as ultra-marathon running. Taking a fat adapted approach to these events has shown to reduce fatigue and negate ‘bonking’ when facing multiple hours on the trail.

Vegan food
Carbs vs. Fat. Each one has benefits for specific goals

Things to consider when planning your vegan running diet

1. Intensity.

High-intensity running is likely going to burn more calories and require adequate carbohydrate intake. However, slower ‘steady-state’ jogging will tap into your fat reserves and may not require as much fueling.

2. Distance.

Shorter running events may require less fuel than longer distances. If you’re  planning on running at high speed for a short distance, you may want to prioritize carbohydrate. Long distance runners may look to include more fats in their pre-run meals.

3. Caloric requirements.

Do you burn a lot of calories when running? If yes, then you will need to adequately replace the energy loss to maintain performance. However, those looking to lose weight could benefit from being in a calorie deficit.

4. Always plan ahead.

Getting enough calories from healthy whole-foods is vital for performance and wellbeing. Make sure you plan your meals ahead of time to avoid unwanted ‘food emergencies’, especially if you’re travelling.

5. Know your goals.

Are you looking to maximize performance, lose weight or just maintain optimal health. Each of these goals will decide how many calories you need to consume and the food groups you should be eating most frequently.

Vegan running towards mountains
Assess your goals to choose the right eating plan

Top tips for runners following a vegan diet

Always plan ahead.

Getting enough calories from healthy whole-foods is vital for performance and wellbeing. Make sure you plan your meals ahead of time to avoid unwanted ‘food emergencies’, especially if you’re travelling.

Eat enough food.

Plant foods are extremely nutrient dense, but have a limited amount of calories. Make sure you’re eating plenty of calorie dense plant foods if you want to feel great, perform well and maintain bodyweight.

Keep it simple.

Eating plant-based doesn’t need to be complicated. Many recipes online call for obscure ingredients and take a long time to prepare. Sticking to basic meals, like salads and stir-frys, will save you time and keep you eating healthy whole-foods.

Listen to your body.

Two of the main benefits of going plant-based are faster recovery time and increased energy. If you’re feeling sluggish or achy; it could a sign that you’re under consuming calories or not getting enough nutrients.

Eat whole foods.

The amount of processed vegan foods available is constantly growing. Although they might be quick, easy and delicious; they’re usually unhealthy. Stick to real whole-foods if you want to reap the benefits of going plant-based.

Get enough nutrients.

Eat a wide variety plant foods to meet your nutrient requirements. If you’re still struggling to meet your daily intake of a specific nutrient, consider supplementation.

Keep an eye on fiber.

Fiber is undoubtably great for your gut, but it’s also extremely filling. Overloading on fibrous plant foods can make it difficult to ingest enough calories to meet your needs. In addition, feeling overly full might have a negative impact on your performance.

Rice and beans
Vegan food provides great running fuel

My personal experience as a vegan runner

Going plant-based was the best thing that ever happened to my running performance. Eliminating animal products from my diet immediately removed the aches and pains I was feeling in my joints.

It also gave me the energy to train every day without rest. In fact, I now regularly run twice per day and still feel fresh in the morning. Overall; my recovery and inflammation have both dramatically improved.

One thing I found challenging at the beginning was getting enough calories. I found myself losing weight for the first couple of months, but this quickly stopped once I realized I was chronically eating a calorie deficit. The solution was simple; I started eating more.

I personally follow a high fat vegan running diet and fuel my performance with nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. I occasionally use vegan keto treats to fuel longer runs, or just for a tasty dessert! If I’m doing HIIT training, I will then use high-sugar fruits for a targeted boost of instant energy.

I am also a big fan of beans, although I save them for after my workout since I prefer to run without carbs. My dream dinner would be a huge salad with at least one cup of navy beans. It feels good to crave healthy foods!

Summing Up

Many runners are adopting a vegan diet and seeing remarkable results. It’s a health focused way of eating that can have a profound impact on recovery, performance and overall wellbeing.

Figuring out how to plan your meals, prepare food and monitor nutrient intake might seem confusing to an outsider. However, armed with a basic level of understanding from the information in this article; you really shouldn’t be feeling overwhelmed.

The key to a successful vegan running diet is usually making sure you’re eating enough calories from whole-foods. Once you’re eating enough of the right foods and not too many of the bad (processed) ones; your performance should start to improve.

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