If you’re a serious non-vegetarian runner from the start, the aim here is not to brainwash you into ditching your preferred diet. There are lots of factors that come into play during fuelling and sudden switches based on trends and fads can do your body more harm than good. As a runner, you require a balance of nutrients that’s crucial for keeping your muscles in good working order and optimizing your performance and recovery. Therefore, each new dietary addition (or deletion) should be exercised cautiously; see how your body reacts to small changes before taking the plunge and giving up whole food groups at once.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, what if you are thinking of going vegetarian? Athletes all over the world have increasingly started to favor plant-based diets, not just as a personal preference but also on the grounds that it actually helps them perform better on the track. Adopting a vegetarian diet, however, amounts to more than just cutting down on meat. You’ll have to do some homework to make up for the essential nutrients that now have to be compensated from elsewhere. Here are some pointers:
Protein: A meat-free diet lacks the protein and amino acid content that help recovery, tissue repair, muscle development and immunity building processes. Ideally, it should account for 12 – 15% of the total calories consumed by a runner – but thankfully, meat does not hold the monopoly over protein. Other sources include beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, lentils, cheeses and cow, soy and almond milk, as well as grains like quinoa, bulgar and oats.
Iron and zinc: While both nutrients are essential for runners, the vegetarian sources of iron and zinc are not absorbed as well as from the animal sources, making them high priorities in a veggie runner’s diet. Iron ensures adequate blood supply to working tissues while zinc boosts immunity and supports recovery. Foods that contain high doses of Vitamin C can enhance absorption of iron by the blood – so increasing your intake of citrus fruits and leafy spinach can help. Other iron-rich sources include soyabeans, blackstrap molasses, lentils, quinoa and beans, while grains, legumes, nuts, soy and dairy products make up for your zinc requirements.
Omega 3: These comprise essential fatty acids that your body needs for its day-to-day development and brain function. Fish makes for one of the best sources, but vegetarians can get their daily share by including items like flaxseed or flaxseed oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, tofu, avocado and soybeans, as well as breads, cereals and pastas and yogurt.
Some additional tips:
• Once you’ve researched and decided on suitable replacements for the meats in your regular diet, chart out a fortnight’s plan so that you’re not left fumbling for options before every meal.
• Start slow by replacing one meat item with protein-rich vegetarian sources every week, such as beans and rice instead of chicken curry, or peanut butter toast instead of a chicken sandwich.
• Welcome new foods and cuisines into your lifestyle. Seek out local fruits, roots and vegetables and treat them as the heroes of your dish through experimentation and some help from Google.
• Don’t beat yourself up over transgressions or mistakes. It’s not a competition to see how long you last without meat, but rather a balanced way of fulfilling your nutrition requirements through a variety of new sources.