For a variety of lifestyle and educated reasons I won’t get into, I personally consume meat and other animal products and don’t foreseeably intend to stop. And conversely I have no problem with people choosing to eat vegan, or otherwise vegetarian.
Running is probably one of the easiest forms of fitness to maintain on a vegan diet. Weightlifters and other power-based athletes face substantially greater challenges going vegan. But runners don’t have their strength and power needs. Plus, vegan diets are very carbohydrate rich, which plays right into the needs of endurance athletes.
Still, you need to be wary of your muscles’ and organs’ protein and other nutrient needs. A lot of vegan-common health problems manifest multifold in runners once those runners kick up the volume and intensity. Just because you don’t lift heavy weights doesn’t mean your muscle density isn’t important to your life, let alone your running.
The RDA and other listed mainstream protein requirements are frankly far too low. There’s a variety of political and economic reasons for that, none of which are particularly good for your health. You need more protein than that to live and age well, and most vegans need far more protein than they’re eating.
I set the minimum bar at 0.75 grams per pound of body weight. And if you look at most plant and grain based food, you’ll find reaching that bar is rather difficult.
There are certain foods that are very important to the health of serious vegan athletes.
– Beans and legumes. These plant based foods provide the most protein, and a variety of other nutrients. Whether or not you’re a believer in combining proteins (e.g. eating beans with rice), beans in themselves contain a ton of potassium and protein. Just make sure to soak them properly to minimize digestive gas.
Some people swear by lentils, but not everyone digests them well. I’ve always had trouble digesting lentils. Barring that, they too are a great protein source.
– Avocados, potatoes and bananas, aka the potassium monsters. Most people vegan or not don’t get enough potassium. The benchmark is 3000-4500 mg per day, depending on who you talk to, and the typical processed food rich Western diet won’t get you close.
Meat it turns out has a good share of potassium, but surprisingly many plant-based foods don’t provide much more than a similar serving of meat.
Avocados and bananas are convenient, useful potassium bombs. One avocado provides 800-1000 mg. Each banana gives you about 400 mg. But potatoes are the motherlode. A small potato can give you 600-700 mg. Cut up and eat three of them, and that’s around 2000 mg right there.
It’s little wonder so many people swear by potatoes. Famous magician Penn Jillette lost over 100 lbs subsisting largely on potatoes, which provided virtually all the nutrients his shrinking body needed. They are a calorie-dense wonder starch.
People love sweet potatoes and they’re totally fine, but they’re a bit harder to find. Conventional potatoes do the trick just fine.
– If you can eat gluten, bagels. Most breads are not worth anyone’s time. But bagels are as dense and protein-rich a form of bread as you will find.
Yes, obviously for vegans there is concern that some bagels are made with egg or honey products, which are of course not vegan. If you want to try bagels and aren’t acutely aware of the source, read your labels and make sure no animal products are involved. To my knowledge, most bagels should be clear on that front. But definitely double check.
Provided they work for you… compact and calorie rich, one or two bagels on their own will provide enough energy for your longest workouts… let alone if you tack on any toppings (I’m guessing as vegans that cream cheese or butter isn’t among them). I’m a sucker for crunchy peanut butter and fruit preserves (… if there’s no corn syrup or other additives! Whole Foods has varieties of both that are free of most typical additives, that are worth the extra cost).
– Bonus: Ugali. The great Kenyan runners live on two food staples. One is not vegan: Milk infused tea. They drink it after every run. The other, however, is very vegan. Ugali is nothing more than finely ground flour (often cornmeal) and water mixed over boiling heat to create a thick mashed-potato-like porridge. The Kenyans eat a ton of ugali. And their runners crush almost every other elite distance runner in the world at major long distance events.
Ugali is cooked like the love child of rice and oatmeal. You add 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of flour. You boil it, mash out any lumps as it cooks, and then thicken or thin it using more water or flour as desired before serving. Cooking it takes about 10-15 minutes. The nutritional profile is similar to rice, except with a little bit more potassium.
If you train a lot, this is one of the quickest deliveries of large quantities of glycogen-producing carbohydrate you can ingest. This is a great dish to eat before or after tough training days. The Kenyans are not kidding.
Yeah, I’m not vegan, and I’m in no hurry to adopt the lifestyle.
Still, it can be done without sentencing to death your muscle tone and (for men) your testosterone levels. There are foods that will allow you to take full advantage of your training. Eat them.