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Ultimate Guide for Plant Based Endurance Athletes

Ultimate Guide for Plant Based Endurance Athletes

A plant based diet is to be responsible in what you eat--this means choosing your food carefully, and not just opting for junk food. It's very important to do your research and find out which are the key food products that you need to eat regularly if you want to do this correctly and in a healthy way.

More and more people–regardless of if they’re athletes or not–are choosing to eat a plant based diet. The reasons range widely, and vary from person to person–but the main reasons that people choose a plant-based diet are: the animal suffering and the animal product industry as a whole; the effect that production of animal products has on climate change; for the personal health benefits; or just to try something new. 

Before going deep into the nuances of a plant-based diet, it’s important to mention that not eating anything from animal sources (i.e. being a vegan or vegetarian) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re following a plant-based diet. That’s because nowadays, there are a lot of products out there that label themselves as vegan but are full of chemicals or artificial things that are really not the core of a plant based diet. The idea is to find products that come from a natural source and that are ideally grown with a sustainable approach.

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For the same reasons mentioned above, it’s important to realize that the main focus of starting (or maintaining) a plant based diet is to be responsible in what you eat–this means choosing your food carefully, and not just opting for junk food. It’s very important to do your research and find out which are the key food products that you need to eat regularly if you want to do this correctly and in a healthy way. 

Before we go into the common misconceptions–and concerns–about going full-on into a plant based diet, let’s talk about its benefits and if it makes sense for you as an endurance athlete. 

A plant based diet can help us with: 

  • Lowering our overall body fat percentage and lowering concentrations of lipids in your blood flood.
  • Help oxygenate our tissues.
  • Increase our chances of having full glycogen stores in our bodies (in other words, we have more “fuel in the tank.”)
  • Overall decrease our general inflammation.
  • Create more antioxidants in our bodies

Let’s break each of these benefits down and go a little more in-depth with each one.

Copyright - Kirsten Kortebein

Fat

A plant based diet can help us lower our body fat percentage, which is not only good for our cardiovascular system, but also, it can be a direct benefit for our performance as endurance athletes.

This reduction in body fat comes from the overall lower percentage of fat and high fiber content in all of the vegetables and fruits you eat in a plant based diet. And the good thing is that you don’t need to eat less food overall to achieve this–so there is no actual calorie restriction to see the benefits of this.

You need to be aware that you may not see this change in body fat by looking at your scale every week. It’s key to remember that more important than your weight itself is the composition and balance of your body in terms of muscle, fat, and everything else. 

Finally, a lower body fat percentage has been shown in studies to increase your aerobic capacity, which as you already know, is one of the most important things for us as endurance athletes. 

When talking about lowering the amount of lipids in our blood, it’s worth mentioning that as plants in general have a very low percentage of fat and no cholesterol, a plant-based diet makes our blood more fluid. In turn, this helps promote good blood flow which is also a key aspect for us as endurance athletes because it promotes faster recovery after our hard workouts or long races.

Copyright - Kirsten Kortebein

Carbs

I bet if you’ve been doing sports for a while–especially endurance sports–you already know the importance of carbs in our diet, right?

We know that the popular keto diet was the new big thing for many endurance athletes–but not even Ultra Runners who eat a keto diet can skip carbs completely if they want to perform and run for a long period of time. So that pretty much sums up the importance of carbs in our diet, especially for endurance athletes. Of course being more fat adapted overall can help you reduce the amount of carbs you will need to perform as you want, but there’s no denying that carbs are a key element in any athlete’s diet. 

In that regard, a plant based diet is by nature big on carbs (and we’re talking about the “good” carbs, not the empty calories that you can find in sugar/artificial stuff) so if you do it properly, you can always be confident that you will have your “glycogen reserves” full. As you probably already know, these glycogen reserves are what power you through a normal training–or of course, races or longer challenges when having our reserves at full is a must if you don’t want to hit “the wall” or bonk in the middle. 

Antioxidants

Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about antioxidants and why they are important to have in your regular diet. So, what are antioxidants?

Well first, it’s important to understand that every time that we move, our organism creates a series of chemical reactions that not only generate the components that we need to keep moving, but also generate some metabolic waste that we need to get rid of if we want to continue moving. And one kind of this metabolic waste are the so-called “free radicals” that are generated within our body every time we use our muscles.

When our body is not able to get rid of this metabolic waste on time, we generate an oxidant stress in our body…which eventually ends up producing fatigue that may directly affect our performance as ultrarunners. Another negative consequence of this oxidant stress is that it can affect our ability to recover after hard workouts or long efforts. 

So those are basically things that we really don’t want to happen as endurance athletes, right? 

Well, the good thing is that one of the easiest ways of fighting this oxidant stress in our bodies is to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and guess which diet has tons of that? Yep, that’s right. A plant based diet (done properly) has all the food that we need to increase our levels of Vitamin C, beta carotene, anthocyanins, licopens and more which help us fight these “free radicals” on a daily basis. 

So now that you know that, even if you’re not into going full Plant Based mode, it’s always a good idea to incorporate more fruits and vegetables (of all the colors possible–”eat the rainbow” is a good way to think about it!) into your daily diet..especially if you’re an endurance athlete. 

Inflammation

It’s already well-known that doing any kind of sport with consistency can help you maintain better health in multiple-ways: fighting things like obesity, diabetes and other metabolic syndromes….but if you’ve been running for a while, you probably also know that running is HARD on our bodies.

Inflammation of multiple kinds is a very common thing for trail and ultrarunners. Whether you have been doing this for a long time or if you’re new to the sport, chances are you’ve already experienced some sort of injury or overall sensation of body inflammation, especially after hard workouts or longer sustained efforts on the trail. (If you think “nope,” what about: running some long downhills, and then feeling your quads burning for a couple of days afterwards. Ring a bell for you?)  

A plant based diet can be one of the best overall strategies to try to reduce inflammation which result from running and hard training. How? Well, because of the antioxidant properties we find in many of the foods that you eat naturally on this diet–and also because, if done correctly, you should be eating very little “bad fat” which is inflammatory.

There have been some studies that have shown that some very specific foods can help us deal with post-run inflammation and overall soreness, so take note: eating cherries, pomegranate seeds, blueberries, blackberries and even watermelon are great in fighting running inflammation! 

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Myths and overall things to watch out for when switching fully to a plant-based diet

Ok, so now that you know all the goodness behind  a plant based diet, it’s time to address the “protein” elephant in the room and the overall things that you need to be careful of if you want to do this the right way. 

You probably know the big concern surrounding this diet, right? Protein, protein, protein…yep. 

Who here hasn’t heard:

“You’re not going to be able to have enough protein without animal sources” 

“It’s important to eat a lot of protein if you do sport” 

“Animal protein is not the same quality as plant protein” 

…and so on.

Well, let’s talk about it. 

Protein

So the rule of thumb for sporty people or athletes is to consume between 1-2 grams of protein for every kilo of weight. (This means, if you weigh 70 kilos your daily protein intake should be anywhere between 70 to 140 grams per day).

And doing that on a plant based diet is super achievable. Really. There’s no secret behind it. It’s that simple…on a plant based diet you can achieve those number easily if you eat the proper foods. 

There have been studies comparing omnivore, vegetarian and vegan diets to see if they can all achieve their required protein intakes for the day…and guess what? All three of them are able to easily meet their requirements. So just to set the record straight and bust the myth: yes, you can achieve your daily intake levels of protein if you’re on a plant based diet. Period. 

If you’re really worried about the amount of protein you feel you need on a daily basis, the recommendation is to incorporate more legumes and overall cereals into your diet. If you do this every day of the week–not just once or twice a week, but every day–it should be easy to bump up your protein levels.

So you’re probably wondering: which foods are we talking about here? Well, every legume like lentils, chickpeas and beans (red beans should be higher up on your list if you are worried about protein.) You can also try adding in some tofu or tempeh too if you feel like mixing it up. 

After all that, if you’re still worried about meeting your protein intake needs, you can also incorporate one protein shake for after those big, hard days of training. The usual shakes and protein powders for those on a plant based diet are made from: peas, rice or soy…and as long as you check the ingredients of the product (remember, try to avoid artificial preservatives and sweeteners if you want to do the plant based diet right) you should be all set. 

Well, that’s it for protein-related stuff. 

Now, lastly, here are some final things that you may want to read before you decide to try out a plant based diet.

Micronutrients

Even though all the foods that you eat on a plant-based diet are full of rich nutrients and good stuff for your body, it’s also important to acknowledge that if you’re into endurance sport, it is always VERY important to go and do a blood test and check with your doctor to track your overall levels and to see if you may need some supplements or not. 

Imbalances may not even be the result of your diet, but can often pop up as a result of lots of hard training, too. 

With that being said, as a plant-based diet athlete myself, I’ve put together here a list for you with a few potential issues and micro-nutrients which may be worth watching or tracking if you want to be on top of your health and your overall nutrition. (Which I definitely recommend doing.) 

B12:

B12 (or cobalamin) is the main thing you may be missing out if you are consuming 100% plant based food (even though those with omnivore diets have also been found to have low levels of B12.) So, it’s good to know your overall levels and then you can tell if you need to supplement to reach the recommended levels. The good thing is that now there are a lot of plant based products that come with added B12, which makes it a bit easier to keep balanced. 

Vitamin D:

Vitamin D (which has been getting a lot of news and attention after worldwide Covid lockdowns, and with people not being exposed to the great outdoors) is another of the key micronutrients that you should be looking at closely when following a plant-based diet. While you can obtain this from plant-sourced food (and sun exposure is something that as a trail runner you probably get plenty of), it is still not enough if your body is not able to absorb this vitamin correctly. Mushrooms are something that you want to keep in your regular diet if you are low in Vitamin D. Nowadays, there are also a lot of fortified foods on the market with added Vitamin D. Finally, you can also supplement this with the usual ‘drops’ which are now very popular, too. 

Finally we have Iron.

Even though you can obtain plenty of Iron on a plant-based diet, it is always worth checking your levels to see where you are and if it’s something you need to supplement. Endurance athletes have been associated with low levels of Iron because of the heavy load of our training, so it’s good to check your Iron levels regardless of whether you eat animal products or not. In general, try to incorporate lots of dark, leafy greens into your diet…and try to have this with some Vitamin C in it to help the body absorb it better. A great example of this: a nice salad with some lemon juice and pepper. 

Final Thoughts

Eventually, if you try this for a while, you’ll realize that being plant-based is not a diet at all–just like trail running, it becomes a lifestyle that goes way beyond what you put in your mouth every day. In the end, you’ll probably keep at it because you’ll feel the ways it improves your being…both physically and mentally.

Don’t think that because you’re not eating animal products on your diet all your meals will taste the same. That’s simply not true. Nowadays there are millions of easy recipes you can find online to give yourself a nice, tasty meal with only plant based foods. 

Whether you practice endurance sport or not, adding more plant-based foods into your diet will definitely be good for you. The idea of incorporating more fruits, vegetables and legumes in your life won’t harm you. No matter if you keep consuming animal products or not, the benefits of eating more plant-based foods are clear and loud.

References

  • Melina, V.; Craig, W.; Levin, S. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: Vegetarian diets. J. Acad. Nutr. Diet. 2016, 116, 1970–1980.
  • Barnard ND, Goldman DM, Loomis JF, et al. Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients. 2019;11(1):130. Published 2019 Jan 10.
  • Casazza GA, Tovar AP, Richardson CE, Cortez AN, Davis BA. Energy Availability, Macronutrient Intake, and Nutritional Supplementation for Improving Exercise Performance in Endurance Athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2018;17(6):215-223. 
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