A blog by runners. For runners.

Eat this, vegetarian runners


I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12 — so, 18 years and counting. However, I’ve only been running for the past 10 years. As a result, I don’t have a reference point for how non-vegetarian and vegetarian or vegan running compare. What I do know is that regardless of one’s particular diet — and there are many — nutrition is a huge component of running and any athletic activity for that matter.

What I often hear from my runner friends who are trying a meat-free diet for the first time (or even just a meat-less Monday) is how they are “zapped” of energy or “feeling sluggish” on hard workouts. Some of them report increased muscle cramping or just feeling ferociously hungry while on the run (and all day, really). These friends get discouraged and think meat is necessary to fuel them back to their old selves.

Thing is: Most of these problems can be fixed with a few tweaks.I’m no expert, but throughout the years of eating how I do (right now, I’m in lacto-ovo territory and consumer dairy and eggs — though I’ve also gone through periods of veganism, where I’ve consumed no animal products whatsoever) , I’ve learned a few things about nutrition and the things our bodies need to perform. And if you’ve heard of ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, you already know that meat isn’t necessary to have a fantastic career in running.

Fat and protein are super important.

I think it’s easy to get carbohydrate-heavy when switching from eating lean cuts of meat to, well, tofu. (For the record, I love tofu — but I also understand it takes some getting used to.) Instead, breads, pasta, fruits, and vegetables seem like safe choices, but none of them items alone contain the fats and protein needed to satisfy hunger and sustain energy all day long.

Foods to try: Beans (kidney, black, chickpeas, etc.), nuts and nut butters, tofu, eggs, yogurt, cheese (it’s OK to get the kind with fat!), unrefined oils, and even protein powders (just steer clear of those loaded with sugar). 

More: Vegetarian protein options

Iron is for more than just pumping.

When I was pregnant, my doctors were surprised at how steady my irons levels stayed despite my vegetarian status. I’ve paid careful attention since becoming a runner because anemia (low red blood cell count yielding low energy levels, etc.) is an issue during heavy training (and pregnancy) no matter the diet. If you’re feeling particularly exhausted, it might be worth a visit to your GP to have your levels checked. Even if you’re on the low end, a supplement isn’t always necessary with the right dietary measures.

Foods to try: Squash and pumpkin (seeds, too!), beans and lentils, dark leafy greens like spinach and swiss chard, whole grains, blackstrap molasses, peanut butter and most nuts, dark chocolate and cocoa powder, and — though I prefer whole foods — even iron-fortified cereals can be a big help.

Calcium can be found in plants, too.

Particularly for vegan athletes, calcium consumption can be tricky. Still, it’s vital for our leg muscles and bones, which take a beating day after day in a running program. And if you’ve ever encountered a stress fracture, calcium might be to blame. Over time, if we don’t eat enough of the stuff, our bodies pull from the stores in our skeleton (weird to think about, but true!) to give us what we need to keep going.

Foods to try: Almonds, almond butter, and almond milk, seeds, leafy greens like kale and collards, broccoli and cabbage, tofu, fortified orange juice, and all the classic dairy products.

Don’t skip the salt.

Surprisingly enough, in this world that seems overly obsessed with all things low-sodium, salt is actually pretty important for athletes. It’s because we sweat out a lot of the stuff and need to consume it (in moderation, of course) to allow our bodies to hydrate and avoid muscle cramps, among other things. When switching to a meat-free or even dairy-free diet, foods  that usually contain salt and exchanged for those, like vegetables, that don’t have much at all.

Foods to try: Sea salt sprinkled on meals, of course, but also consider sports drinks and other supplements if you’re particularly in a heavy training mode.

How many vegetarian/vegan athletes do we have out there? Do you have any favorite recipes or other tips to share?
Written by  Ashley Marcin.