Some vegan and vegetarian long-distance runners are challenging the belief that people need to eat protein from meat to perform better
“Ultrarunners take off at sunrise and continue through sunset, moonrise, and another sunrise, sunset, and moonrise. Sometimes we stumble from exhaustion and double over with pain, while other times we effortlessly float over rocky trails and hammer up a 3,000-foot climb after accessing an unknown source of strength. We run with bruised bones and scraped skin. It’s a hard, simple calculus: Run until you can’t run anymore. Then run some more. Find a new source of energy and will. Then run even faster.”
Then, soon after this passage in Scott Jurek’s new book, appears a recipe for Rice Balls.
The seaweed-wrapped packets cool the body, Jurek writes. They deliver essentials for the body – carbs, salt, electrolytes – during impossibly long runs. And they’re made entirely of plants, which is where Jurek – who’s won a host of ultrarunning, 100-mile-plus events – derives all his energy, old and new.
With the publication last month of “Eat & Run,” written with Steve Friedman, Jurek may be the most high-profile long-distance runner at the moment to adhere to an animal product-free, or at least meatless, diet. But he’s at the head of a pack of vegan or vegetarian endurance athletes, both professionals and amateurs.
Together, they’re continuing to challenge the notion that you need meat to be strong. But as for the performance boost some boast or hope for, there’s no guarantee, dietitians and runners say. It takes careful food choices for anyone to get the nutrients they need on a meatless diet – much less long-distance runners, who have some different nutritional requirements and face greater risk of some deficiencies.
Beyond anecdotally, scientists have little data about the effects of meatless diets on athletes.
“It’s very new, and (there’s) very little research in the area,” said Lindsay Brown, coordinator of sports nutrition at Washington State University in Pullman. “Now we’re seeing a trend, in the last 10 years or so, of vegan athletes. Another trend is going to be gluten-free athletes. Typically, research is about 10 years later” than the phenomenon.
They do know, however, about how vegetarian and vegan diets affect people in general, and about differences between the nutritional needs of endurance athletes and those of couch potatoes. And that can help long-distance runners and other athletes avoid pitfalls.
‘A lot of people like us’
The anecdotal evidence comes from a broad group of runners with meatless diets. It includes those whose enthusiasm veers into salesmanship. Former pro Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier endorses a vegan diet along with his line of “plant-based superfoods.” It also includes ordinary runners whose animal-rights or ecological or health concerns have led them to diets that steer clear of meat.
“There’s a lot of people like us now out there,” said Tim VanOrden, a professional trail runner who competed in Spokane’s U.S. 15k Trail Champion- ships in 2010 and 2011.
VanOrden adheres to a raw vegan diet: uncooked, unprocessed plant foods. He believes food loses nutritional value when it’s cooked.
VanOrden credits his diet with improving his strength and endurance and shortening his post-run recovery times. From his home in Vermont, he travels the country competing in trail-running and other events, as well as speaking about his diet. At 44, after seven years as a raw-vegan runner, the former high school and college athlete is faster than he’s ever been, he said.
If you lump together people who avoid food made of or by animals, raw-food adherents are the minority. “Lacto-ovo” vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish, but they do eat eggs and dairy products. Regular vegans – the kind who cook – don’t eat meat or eggs, dairy products or foods containing animal-derived ingredients, such as gelatin.
Elizabeth Abbey, 31, a registered dietitian who teaches at Whitworth University, runs marathons and sticks to a pescatarian diet. Besides grains, fruits and vegetables, she eats eggs, dairy products and, weekly or so, seafood.
“I can’t say it’s necessarily made me a better athlete, but it hasn’t made me worse,” said the Spokane resident, who ran her most recent marathon in April.
Spokane Valley resident Lori Buratto, 41, has been a runner since 14 and a vegetarian nearly as long. She’s moved closer to a vegan diet in recent years (she makes an exception for milk – and lattes). She finished the Twin Cities Marathon last fall in 2 hours, 57 minutes, her personal record.
Environmental and animal-rights concerns partly guide her diet, said Buratto, a science teacher at Central Valley High School. But mostly she’s an almost-vegan because she thinks it’s healthier. She chooses food based on its nutritional value, avoiding “empty calories” and refined food such as white sugar, white flour and white rice. She takes supplements to fill in any nutritional gaps.
“I think it makes me a lot stronger runner, just because my diet’s pretty clean,” Buratto said. “It’s pretty austere. I’m not much fun on a dinner date.”
Her advice to other runners looking to improve their diets would be to eat as nutritionally sound meals as they can, possibly cutting out sugar and simple carbohydrates. That’s probably more important than eschewing meat, Buratto said.
Health professionals tend to agree that it’s the quality of a runner’s diet – regardless of whether it includes meat, eggs or dairy – that influences their training.
“If you have a well-planned diet – vegetarian or nonvegetarian – it’s going to help performance,” said Brown, the WSU sports-nutrition coordinator. “One diet isn’t better than another.”
When athletes switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet and find they’re running faster and farther, it’s usually because their diet was poor to begin with, said Abbey, the Whitworth lecturer.
Their new focus on food – their decision to eat better – leads to more nutritious food choices overall.
It’s maintaining that vigilance that can trip up runners, especially because endurance athletes, by definition, are hard on their bodies.
That’s one reason Debbie Judd, a registered nurse who co-owns the Metabolic Institute near downtown Spokane, is skeptical of vegan or vegetarian diets as a way to improve health: People get lazy. Judd provides nutritional and exercise counseling.
“I think if they become a wise, educated intelligent vegetarian, I think they absolutely can get away with it,” said Judd, whose clients include athletes who want to boost their performance. “I just think they have to be really smart about it, and that’s the key right there.”
People who don’t eat meat are often short on iron as well as vitamin B12 and carnitine, she said, both of which help the body transform nutrients and fat into energy. Iron deficiencies can cause fatigue, too, along with a weakened immune system.
If their diets aren’t right, “one of the things people notice about vegetarian diets is a lack of energy,” Judd said.
Brown, at WSU, said about 10 percent of the student-athletes she sees stick to some kind of meatless diet.
Those athletes’ blood tests often show they’re short on iron, she said. And athletes usually need more iron than other people, because iron helps supply oxygen to the body during exercise. Meanwhile, running causes tiny tears in muscles that result in blood loss.
But while eating red meat, organ meats and eggs is the easiest way to get iron, athletes also can get it by eating dark, leafy greens, quinoa, lentils and walnuts. Soy products and cereal often are iron-fortified.
There are some catches, though. While greens contain iron, for example, they also contain fiber, which inhibits the release of the iron into your system. One tip Brown offers tips to WSU athletes: Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron. Put some citrus fruit on your spinach salad.
Vitamin B12 deficiencies are nearly as common as iron problems, Brown said. But athletes can get that from food including fortified tofu and brewer’s yeast.
Vegetarians and vegans are often also short on vitamin D, calcium and zinc, Abbey added. Fortified food and supplements can provide the latter two, but the best source of vitamin D is sunshine.
Other concerns for meat-free distance runners: They need more carbohydrates than other people, as carbs are their main energy source. And they need more protein, though not as much more as “strength and performance” athletes like football players.
While the plant world is full of protein, complete protein is harder to come by. People need to eat a variety of protein-rich plant food to get the nine “essential” amino acids.
For many who eat a meatless diet, of course, the decision stems not from concern for their own health, but for that of the animals they’re not eating.
And while, in terms of research, the verdict is out on whether a vegetarian diet can fuel athletic improvement, it’s not insignificant that people believe it does, Brown said.
The mind plays an important role in the body’s abilities, she said: “There’s a lot of studies that show if you believe in something, if you believe it works, you’re going to see improvements.”