Conventional archetypes portray professional athletes drinking gallons of milk and carbo-loading on macaroni and cheese. So, can a vegan runner really compete? After all, vegans don't eat milk, eggs or any other animal products. Instead, a vegan diet consists of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and proteins from beans, tofu, peanuts and other sources [source: Vegan.org].
Until relatively recently, endurance athletes were often discouraged from strict vegan diets because of nutrition concerns. But professional opinions are shifting. In July 2009, the American Dietetic Association announced a new position on the matter: Well-planned vegan diets are OK for people at all stages of life -- even athletes [source: American Dietetic Association]. Scott Jurek, for example, is an endurance runner and vegan who logs 100 miles or more during ultramarathon races. When he converted to a vegan eating plan, even he had doubts about his protein intake and overall performance. Now he insists it speeds his physical recovery after each race [source: Keri]. Still, eating vegan didn't necessarily offer Jurek a competitive edge, something that corresponds with current research. There just aren't any studies that prove a vegan diet helps a runner gain distance or speed [source: Keri].
Unfortunately, eating a vegan diet can still pose risks, especially if it's executed to the fork of perfection. That's because the average vegan diet may not contain enough variety to provide the vitamin B12 or omega-3 fatty acids--both found in animal products--runners need [source: MSN]. Without B12, the body can't convert fats and proteins into energy, a transformation crucial to a runner's performance. Without omega-3, there's an increased risk of inflammation, muscle soreness and lowered immunity [source: Dada].
Most people in North America get their omega-3 fatty acids from cold-water fish, and runners are commonly advised to eat least two servings of omega-rich fish during training. But what if salmon's off the menu? Fortunately, for vegans and vegetarians, B12 and omega-3s also are found in walnuts and other nuts or flax seeds. Milk is a good source of B12, too, but isn't an option for vegans. Instead, look for vegan foods fortified with B12; soy milks and vegan snack bars. B12 supplements can help, but the absorption rate is lower than when B12 is consumed in food, so they're not perfect substitutes [source: Aronson].