It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a runner’s diet must feature additional calories to support the intensity of training and promote a high rate of muscle recovery. While the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle are seemingly endless, the carb-laden, protein-rich diet favored by athletes can often pose a problem for the vegetarian runner, whose higher-than-average nutritional demands have to be met by a limited range of food choices.
Yet, the rising numbers of professional distance runners turning vegetarian — and even vegan — these days are testimony to the fact this is not impossible; though it does require some research and a bit of creativity.
Balance your calories
Sure you can make up your carb and calorie requirements by piling on the potatoes and the pasta, but an excess of either will do your running form more damage than good. The trick for any athlete lies in the balance of key nutrients—and for vegetarians, this means loading up on the portions and focusing on items that can be included rather than avoided. A combination of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and dairy products can provide the necessary calories to your diet. Plan meals with a complex carbohydrate base such as whole grain cereals, as they are absorbed slowly by the body offering steady energy during training.
Proteins and amino acids are among a runner’s best friends. These constitute the building blocks of our muscles. Meat is the easiest, and in some cases, the only way to get some essential amino acids, so vegetarians need to scour the market a little harder to make up for that requirement. Good sources include legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, lentils, cheeses, regular, soy and almond milk, grains like quinoa and oats. For most runners, protein requirements fall between 0.6–0.8 grams per pound, or about 12–15 percent of the total calories consumed daily. Eating a range of foods together in combination, such as beans and brown rice or hummus and pita bread, creates a complete protein like the one found in a meat filet. You can sneak in some proteins during snack time as well by adding chickpeas to your green salad or slathering peanut butter on apple slices. Small calculated diet variations can go a long way in keeping your body free of wear and tear in the long run.
Carb-loading and energy
Unlike several other sports, runners need a significantly higher percentage of fats and carbs in their daily diet. These provide energy during training and help in faster recoveries. Experts recommend avocados, nuts, full fat milk and yoghurt, cheeses such as mozzarella, cottage and feta cheese, seeds such as hemp, pumpkin, sesame seeds and green leafy vegetables as ‘good’ fats. During endurance training, energy bars and sports drinks can also supplement your energy requirements. The former are high in carbs but low on proteins and fats, and therefore easier to digest, while sports drinks come with a high carbohydrate count and essential electrolytes.
By eliminating whole food groups from their diet, vegetarians are often at the risk of missing out on small but essential nutrients such as potassium, zinc, calcium, iron, and Vitamins D and B12 that have immense restorative properties. For example, lower iron levels (a common problem in plant-based diets) eventually lead to low blood supply to the muscles resulting in tiredness and poor performance. Good sources of iron include spinach, lentils, beans, soybeans, blackstrap molasses, whole grains like quinoa, and fortified cereals, while zinc is found in lentils, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, and soy products. You can get your calcium intake from spinach, broccoli and watercress, cauliflower, fortified fruit juices, breakfast cereals, kidney beans, lentils, dates, raisins, and seeds. Meat-based diets automatically include several of these nutrients (such as Vitamin D and B12), and vegetarian runners may often have to take the aid of a few vitamin and mineral supplements to keep up their form.
Marathon runner and author of No Meat Athlete, Matt Frazier has a great tip or athletes:
Start every day with a smoothie. A smoothie is an easy way to make sure you’re getting things that your body needs. If you want more greens in your diet, put them in there. If you want good fats, it’s easy to add a tablespoon or two. If you take glutamine or creatine or a liquid multivitamin or whatever else, you can put it in your smoothie. Starting like that sets the tone for the rest of the day so it’s a great habit to develop.