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.
Don't Go Vegan (Unless You do it Right)
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].
Get Your Balance
Long distance runners are masters at seeking balance. Often, settling into a pace designed to go the distance can mean crossing the finish line -- or not. The same is true of nutrition. For vegetarian athletes especially, striking a balance is crucial. During training, the optimal dietary mix is 60 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent proteins and 15 percent fats -- about 2,500 calories a day. If a particularly lengthy training session or endurance event is in the works, carbohydrates should be increased an additional 5 to 10 percent a day or two before the big run [source: Venderly].
This seems like straightforward advice, but for vegetarians eating filling, high-fiber diets, it can be tough to ingest large quantities of foods to meet high calorie counts. Other than adding more mouthfuls to a meal, how does a vegetarian runner get enough nutrients?
For starters, plan meals with a complex carbohydrate base, such as vegetables and whole grain pastas. Unlike the simple carbohydrates comprising doughnuts or white bread (you'll recognize these when they produce a sugar rush), complex carbohydrates absorb slowly and offer steady energy. Plus, excess carbohydrates are stored in the muscles as glycogen, the primary fuel that allows runners to put one foot in front of the other for mile upon mile [source: Clark]. Some carbohydrate-rich foods can pull double-duty; simply watch for foods with an extra nutritional punch, such as whole grain cereals fortified with vitamins and minerals.
In addition, when you eat is nearly as important as what you eat. Don't send your body competing signals from your full stomach and your running legs. If you eat a heavy meal immediately before a run, your body may divert blood to your leg muscles instead of your digestive tract. Even if the weighty meal doesn't slow you down, the fact that it's digesting so slowly probably will. However, if you eat an hour before your run and give your body a bit of digestion time, it can help you recover afterward. A 2009 study in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reveals eating the right foods before exercising increases muscle repair by 20 percent [source: Witard].
A vegetarian runner needs about 150 percent more protein than a vegetarian whose workout is an evening stroll; an athlete should eat 0.7 protein grams for every pound of his or her weight [source: Wadyka]. And, because you aren't putting hamburgers in your crumb-maker as a matter of course, ingesting enough protein takes deliberate effort.
Protein's important for runners because it stabilizes blood sugar and repairs scores of tiny muscle fiber tears caused by exercise [source: Wadyka]. Fortunately, stores of protein are as close as the nearest salad bar. Many foods common to the vegetarian diet contain protein, including lettuce, lentils, beans, tempeh (a seasoned soybean cake), tofu and nuts.
By adjusting the quantities you eat of these easy-to-find ingredients, you can up your protein intake nearly effortlessly. Simply make adaptations to what you currently ingest. For example, add chickpeas to your leafy greens or slather peanut butter on apple slices or celery sticks. Add a hard-boiled egg, slice of whole wheat bread or glass of milk to a meal. In these ways, you can pick up protein grams throughout the day. Just make sure you're keeping track of the increase.
However, certain complete proteins -- those containing all the essential amino acids --aren't replicated in plants. These animal-bound proteins, which are found only in red meat, seafood, dairy, eggs or poultry, can pose a challenge for the vegetarian runner. But there's an easy workaround: variety. Putting a range of foods together in combination, such as eating beans and brown rice or hummus and pita bread, create a complete protein like the one found in a beef filet [source: Messina]. These complete proteins are efficiently digested and keep your body from, well, starvation mode. Recent studies also show you don't even have to eat these foods at the same sitting to unlock a complete protein combination. Turns out, your body will combine them automatically [source: Better Health].
If you're still concerned about protein intake, over-the-counter protein supplements can be a real boon to veggie runners looking for a quick boost. Just make sure your dependence on protein smoothies doesn't make up the lion's share of your diet.
Drink Lunch, Unwrap Dinner
If you're in the middle of a 10-mile training run or a full-fledged marathon, you can't really stop and order a salad at the local café. That's where energy bars and drinks come into play. Not only can they fuel your race (before you even take the first step), but they offer a handy way to sustain your energy as you run. Just don't opt for a bar coated in chocolate or dotted with chocolate chips -- unless you don't mind flashing a messy grin as you cross the finish line.
Energy bars offer more than convenience, though. High in carbohydrates, they are easy to digest and convert to energy. Low in protein and fat, they don't slow the digestive process (or cause a "cookie-toss" on mile nine). Energy gels contain similar ingredients and offer the same benefits, just in a viscous liquid form. Both should be ingested with plenty of water; this will make it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients.
Likewise, sports drinks have a high carbohydrate count, but also help replenish lost fluid and electrolytes. Some sports drinks even include small amounts of protein, which helps your body absorb more of the liquid [source: Dada].
Low-tech sources of fuel during endurance runs include pretzels (carbohydrates and salt) and bite-size sugary snacks, such as gummy bears. A whole banana, which is high in sugar and potassium (although admittedly more difficult to store in your pocket than a few sugary bears) is another option. There are even jelly bean-style snacks specifically made for endurance athletes because they contain higher concentrations of electrolytes than a mass-market candy. Keep in mind, though, you'll want to stay away from the gel or bar form of any snack if you're prone to nausea during a long run; these take longer to digest than a sports drink. If you're looking for an immediate energy infusion, you should stick to liquids.
The basic ingredients for an energy boost are carbohydrates laced with small amounts of protein and/or fat. But, you can also look for energy gels or sports drinks with added caffeine to help fight fatigue, as well as sodium to combat sweat loss during hot and humid conditions. Sports drinks also have minerals, known as electrolytes, designed to help you combat fatigue.
By now, you've probably had your fill of information about the "big three" macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. In the right combinations, these compounds are essential for vegetarian runners. But, there also are dozens of little reasons to pay attention to the details of your nutrition. Micronutrients such as potassium, zinc, chromium and antioxidants can give you an edge by boosting energy levels, speeding recovery times and lending an overall feeling of health as you exercise.
Potassium, in particular, is important to replace after running. Without it, your muscles will cramp and you'll feel nauseous. This electrolyte is found in radishes, cabbage, bananas and cashews. Chromium, found in mushrooms and whole grains, stabilizes blood-sugar levels, while zinc (wheat germ is a good source) helps tissues repair more efficiently [source: Christianson].
Antioxidants, on the other hand, boost an athlete's rate of cellular repair, which makes vitamin E one of the most important micronutrients to ingest. Research shows the more vitamin E a runner takes, the less his or her cells are damaged. Runners need to take more antioxidants than sedentary people because strenuous, aerobic exercise requires more antioxidants to keep cells protected [source: Christianson].
Unfortunately, macronutrient deficiencies can topple even top athletes--especially if they are vegetarians. A combination of increased demand brought on by strenuous exercise and inadequate nutrition can make athletes lose steam during training and struggle to recover. And, because vegetarians have eliminated entire food groups from their diets, they're at particular risk of micronutrient deficiencies. Still, if you're dedicated to eating a variety of veggie-friendly foods, there's little need to worry. For many athletes, paying close attention to food choices is a natural progression of dedicated training. For these runners, each race begins by lifting a fork long before the starting gun ever sounds.
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