Vegan Diet for Runners
It is important for runners following a vegan diet to have a sports nutrition plan in place to help them with meeting their nutrition needs.
Let’s take a look at what following a vegan diet means. Then we will explore key nutrients runners should include in a vegan diet plan.
What Does Following a Vegan Diet Mean?
A runner who follows a vegan diet does not consume any animal-based or animal-derived products. This includes beef, chicken, turkey, pork, seafood, dairy products, eggs, and butter. Honey is also avoided by some individuals following a vegan diet (1).
Thus, runners consuming a vegan diet get all of their nutrition from plant-based sources, including:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
Runners following a vegan diet can successfully meet all of their sports nutrition needs from a variety of plant foods (2). However, it is important they carefully plan their meals to ensure all their nutrient needs are met.
Vegan Diet for Runners: Carbohydrates
Similar to gas in a car, carbohydrates provide the body with the energy needed to perform at its best. Therefore, carbohydrates should be at the foundation of a runners’s meal plan.
A runner’s daily carbohydrate needs will vary based upon the intensity and duration of their workouts (3). Runners need to consume more carbohydrates on days when they will be exercising more intensely or for a longer duration than on low-intensity workout days or off-days.
Runners following a vegan diet can add carbohydrates to their diets from a variety of sources, including: fruit, grains, starchy vegetables, beans, and legumes.
Fruit: Nutrient-Rich Carbohydrate Option for Runners
Fruit is a nutrient-rich way for runners to add carbohydrates to their diet. In addition to carbohydrates, fruit contains vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.
Different varieties of fruit contain different nutrients. Thus, runners should aim to include a variety of types of fruit in their meals and snacks.
Runners can benefit from incorporating fresh, frozen, and dried fruit into their meal plan. Ideas for adding fruit to a vegan diet for runners include:
- Enjoy a banana, applesauce, or small piece of fresh fruit before a morning run for a quick source of energy.
- Make a healthy fruit smoothie with frozen fruit and sliced banana to drink with your post-run breakfast.
- Pair fresh fruit with nuts or nut butter for a balanced afternoon snack.
- Add dried fruit to overnight oats, trail mix, and salads to boost the nutrient content of your diet.
Grains in a Vegan Diet for Runners
Runners following a vegan diet can also enjoy a wide variety of grains in their sports nutrition meal plan. In addition to carbohydrates, whole grains provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals, as well as a small amount of protein.
Grains in their natural form come from plants, thus they easily fit within a vegan diet. However, when purchasing items such as pasta, bread, breakfast cereal, baking mixes, crackers, and bars, runners should read the ingredient label carefully.
It is important to verify the item you are purchasing does not contain added animal products such as milk, eggs, or honey.
Starchy Vegetables, Beans, and Legumes
Another great way for runners following a vegan diet to increase the carbohydrate content of their meal plan is with starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and winter squash
In addition, beans and legumes are a nutritious choice for runners. They provide runners with carbohydrates, along with protein, fiber, B-vitamins, potassium, iron, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, and antioxidants (4).
I consider canned beans to be an essential vegan pantry staple for runners. They can be enjoyed as a side dish or added into vegan soups, chilis, grain bowls, and salads.
Similar to packaged grain products, athletes should read the ingredient label on canned beans carefully. Some canned beans and legumes include animal products, such as bacon and ham, in the preparation.
A Note on Fiber
Beans, legumes, starchy vegetables as well as whole grains all contain dietary fiber. Fiber is an important part of a well-balanced diet.
Consuming an adequate amount of fiber in the diet is associated with many positive health benefits (5). However, when planning a vegan pre-workout meal, runners should limit foods high in fiber close to the start of their run.
Prior to a workout, runners want to provide their bodies with easy to digest carbohydrates that provide a quick source of energy. Fiber slows down digestion, thus high-fiber foods are not ideal in the hour or two leading up to exercise.
In addition, consuming high fiber foods too close to a run may result in GI distress during the workout (3).
Vegan Diet for Runners: Protein
Consuming adequate protein is important in the diet of runners following a vegan diet. Protein has many important roles in the body, including supporting runners with building and repairing muscle.
To get the most benefit from protein intake, runners should aim to spread their protein consumption throughout the day with their meals and snacks. In addition, runners should include protein in their post-workout meal to support their recovery nutrition needs (6).
Protein is composed of 20 individual building blocks called amino acids. Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are considered essential. The body cannot make the 9 essential amino acids; thus, they must be consumed in the diet (6).
Many plant-based sources of protein are deficient in one or more of the 9 essential amino acids. Thus, runners following a vegan diet should aim to include a variety of plant-based protein sources in their meal plan. This will help to ensure adequate quantities of all of the essential amino acids are included in the athlete’s overall diet (1, 2).
Plant-Based Sources of Protein for Runners Following a Vegan Diet
There are a variety of ways runners following a vegan diet can add protein to their meals. Here are suggestions for plant-based proteins that vegan runners can enjoy:
- Beans, legumes, and lentils
- Hummus, chickpeas
- Nuts, nut butters
- Seeds, seed butters
- Soy products: Soy milk, tofu, tempeh, edamame
- Quinoa, buckwheat
- Vegan egg substitutes
- Plant-based, high-protein milks and yogurts
Consuming a variety of these sources of proteins throughout the day will help ensure runners following a vegan diet meet their protein needs. If you need additional snack ideas, check out my blog on high-protein vegan snacks for athletes.
Vegan Protein Powders for Runners
Plant-based protein powders, such as pea protein and soy protein, have become increasingly popular in recent years. I am frequently asked by runners if they need to purchase a protein powder to meet their protein needs.
While protein powders can be a convenient way to supplement a runner’s meals/snacks when time is limited, they should not take the place of real food in the diet.
I encourage runners to focus on eating real food to build the foundation of their sports nutrition meal plans. The use of protein powders should be saved for those situations when athletes have minimal time and a quick option is needed.
For example, adding a vegan protein powder to a post-workout smoothie may be a convenient way for a runner to meet their sports nutrition needs before heading to school or work.
Supplement Safety Concerns
In addition, runners need to understand that sports supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the same way that food is. Supplements may contain banned substances that could be harmful to the athlete’s health or make the athlete ineligible for competition.
Thus, I recommend runners only purchase protein powders that have been third-party certified. Supplements that are third-party tested have an outside organization evaluate the supplement for accuracy of ingredients. Two companies that evaluate sports supplements are NSF International Certified for Sport and Informed Sport.
Vegan Diet for Runners: Healthy Fats
In addition to carbohydrates and protein, runners should focus on including healthy, unsaturated fats in their vegan meal plan. Dietary fat plays many important roles in the body.
The body needs fat for the absorption, transportation, and storage of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K). Fat provides an energy source for the body, helps protect internal organs, and provides structure to cell walls. Essential fatty acids are also necessary for optimal brain function.
Ideas for foods containing healthy, unsaturated fats that runners can add to their diets include:
- Nuts, nut butters
- Seeds, seed butters
- Olives and olive oil
- Liquid vegetable oils: Canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower
Vegan Diet for Runners: Key Nutrients
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
Runners following a vegan diet may be at particular risk for a Vitamin B12 deficiency, as it is found almost exclusively in animal foods. Runners should incorporate B12-fortified foods (breakfast cereals, plant-based milks, nutritional yeast) into their daily meal plan (1, 2, 7).
In addition, runners should consider visiting with a sports dietitian nutritionist regarding their nutrition needs. The sports dietitian nutritionist can assist the runner with developing an individualized vegan meal plan that ensures all of their nutrient needs are met.
Vegan Diet for Runners: Avoid Underfueling
It is important for runners following a vegan diet to consume adequate calories to support both their health and training needs.
Runners often expend a high number of calories through both exercise and activities of daily living. When daily caloric expenditure exceeds dietary intake of calories an imbalance occurs. We refer to this imbalance of calories as low energy availability (8).
When prolonged, low energy availability can result in a syndrome of health concerns that can have negative impacts throughout the body. In addition, the caloric imbalance can negatively impact sports performance and increase one’s risk of injury (8).
This syndrome of health and performance concerns related to low energy availability is clinically diagnosed as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport or REDs. It is important to note that REDs can occur in both male and female athletes (8).
Health Concerns Associated with REDs
- Increased risk of illness, infection, and injury
- Low bone mineral density leading to an increased risk of stress fractures
- Disruption of the menstrual cycle
- Alterations in hormone levels
- Impaired cardiovascular function
- Unfavorable blood lipid profiles
- Impaired GI function
- Sleep disturbances
- Mental health concerns and depression
For these reasons, it is a top priority for runners to avoid underfueling and to ensure adequate daily caloric intake through meals and snacks.
Vegan Diet for Runners
You are now set with ideas for how runners following a vegan diet can meet their nutrient needs to support both health and optimal performance.
For additional nutrition tips for athletes following a vegan diet, check out my blog with tips on how to gain weight on a vegan diet.
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About the Author
Mandy Tyler is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation.