Although it may be difficult to imagine a runner going the distance fueled only by a meatless menu, a vegetarian diet actually delivers a number of athletic benefits. Chief among them is the healing power of antioxidants. A plant-based diet rich with fruits, vegetables and whole grains delivers an abundance of antioxidants that reduce cellular damage. This is especially important for endurance athletes who push themselves to the point of exertion [source: Nieman].
A meatless diet aids runners in other ways, too, by passing through the digestive system with greater ease, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases and cancers in both the short- and long-term. Studies even show vegetarians live about three years longer than meat-eaters, so you could extend your marathon career [source: Wadyka].
Unfortunately, a vegetarian diet is not a panacea for runners. It could, for example, cause a shortfall of nutrients found commonly in animal meats, including iron and zinc [source: Nieman]. And, just because hamburgers and pork chops are off the table, you shouldn't replace them with the equivalent of vegetarian junk food, like french fries topped with imitation cheese sauce. Being a vegetarian doesn't guarantee optimal nutrition, so if you're a dedicated runner, your mainstay foods should be varied, colorful and close to their original state.
Vegetarian runners also need carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods. Yes, we said the P-word. No worries, though: We're not talking charbroiled T-bones here. There are plenty of surprisingly meatless sources that offer protein power. First, however, we'll see why being a vegan can really be a challenge for runners. It's the first of our top 5 nutritional tips for vegetarian runners.