I have a confession to make.
I haven’t been eating meat.
It just happened by accident. I wouldn’t call myself a vegetarian or a vegan—it’s not a strict diet and I’m not interested in putting a label on myself. But I do find that being majority meatless has made me feel happier and healthy.
But whoa, you might say: aren’t you an endurance runner, Chris? How do you get enough protein in your diet?
Here’s what I’m discovering in my meatless journey: it’s completely possible to not eat meat (whether you’re doing it intentionally or you just fall into it) and be a dedicated endurance runner. I’m not saying the meatless method is right for every runner, but it sure is working out for me. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan and you’ve let your diet stop you from running, then let me tell you: you don’t have to let it.
Here are some facts behind running as a vegetarian or vegan, why it can work, and why some athletes even choose it for themselves.
Plant-based Protein for Meat-Free Runners
One of the main questions vegetarian/vegan athletes get asked is: "Where do you get your protein?"
Most people assume that protein intake is the most important thing for athletic performance, and that’s true to a degree. The problem really is that as a society we’ve been trained to think protein = meat.
There are so many sources of great protein, some that rival meat, that are totally plant-based.
- ⅓ cup seitan — 21g protein
- 2oz peanuts — 14g
- ½ cup pinto beans — 11g
- 1 cup soy milk — 8g
For reference, 3oz of chicken has 28g of protein and 1 egg has 6oz of protein.
If you’re not vegan, you still have the options of cheeses, milk, yogurt, and eggs as sources of proteins. A meatless high-protein diet isn’t easy, but it’s definitely possible. High-protein might not even be what you’re after.
4 Pointers for Meat-Free Endurance Athletes
1) Replace what you remove.
Think of your diet, your body, your food intake all like math. It’s all just a big equation. You know that as an active athlete, your body has certain demands for certain nutrients. If you’re eating meat, you’re getting certain things out of it. If you stop, you’re no longer getting it. You have to compensate with the replacement, and that might mean eating more of that replacement.
Finding the right balance may take time. Sometimes it’s as easy as listening to your body. You’re still looking for that “comfortably full” mark at mealtime. You don’t want to deprive yourself and you don’t want to binge. See how you perform on your runs and make adjustments as needed.
Also, remember that your body will take time to adjust to any new diet. Give yourself time to adjust.
2) Try new cuisines.
No matter how you eat, it’s going to get boring if you never change it up. If you find yourself stuck on the same meatless recipes, get yourself a vegetarian cookbook. Look up some recipes on Pinterest. Try some meat-free versions of international favorites, like stir-fry and curry. (Note: I don’t recommend curry, or anything spicy, for race day!)
3) Keep it simple on race day.
When it comes to races and intensive training, try to keep it simple. You don’t have to overthink your food. Your breakfast can be oatmeal and a banana. You can have buttered pasta. Snack on hummus and peppers, or peanut butter and crackers. Leaving out meat isn’t as limiting as a lot of diets people subject themselves to—like I said, I just kind of fell into it by accident! I wasn’t even trying to quit meat.
4) If it’s not working, try something else.
Lastly, troubleshoot. If you’re not enjoying your meals, cook something else. If you don’t have enough energy, look for a new source of protein or increase your caloric intake. You can always adjust and rearrange your eating habits. I don’t think anyone needs to totally deprive themselves or be so rigid with a diet that they’re miserable.
Your relationship with food should be a good one. If you find yourself stressed, tired, and hungry all the time after your adjustment period should be over, you should probably adjust! You should be enjoying your meals and be able to enjoy your life—as an athlete and as someone who likes to eat.
Are you an athlete on an alternative diet? Share your experience in the comments.