Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Distance Running on a Vegan Diet

There is one issue I haven't discussed on my blog for a couple of reasons:

1. I am definitely not the most qualified person to discuss eating habits.
2. I get tired of defending my decision to when the debates start flying.
3. I really love eating, and that means I will try anything that says "vegan" on it -- be it cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, potato chips, and everything else on that tempting end of the spectrum. We all know how great it is to fuel on junk, and I am just as guilty of it as anyone else.

I have received a lot of inquires about veganism and how I stay nourished in general, let alone while living an active lifestyle, and I've decided to loop these questions into one general post: fueling for distance running on a vegan diet. No moral debates, no questioning how I got here or why I stay here, no poking fun at what my food looks like, no nothing. This is simply how I use animal-free food for fuel.

I have been living a vegetarian lifestyle for more than 16 years, I'm coming up on 2.5 years of being vegan, and I have had little to no struggles living this way. But it did definitely take some playing around with my diet to the point where I didn't feel like I was going to pass out while running.

I am by no means an expert on nutrition, and all I can say with any certainly is that I've found food combinations that keep me satiated to handle distance running. The major key to this is eating a variety and eating often -- especially the day of a long run -- and trying to balance my food pyramid all the rest of my days.

A vegan food pyramid is different from a standard food pyramid in that the protein tier AND the dairy tier are comprised of tofu, soy, nuts, beans, and collard greens, rather than animal protein, milk, cheese, and yogurt. A vegetarian pyramid only has the substitutions to the protein tier, while the dairy tier still has free reign.

A standard food pyramid:
My food pyramid (others may get the better graphic, but at least I get a little sunshine!):
Every morning I physically draw a food pyramid, and once I eat something from its respective tier, I write it down and color that part of the pyramid in. I don't count calories, but I do try to watch how balanced my diet is.
After doing this for a few weeks, I realized I was sorely lacking in the calcium and protein departments, which is a.) not good for a woman, and b.) not good for an athlete. So I started incorporating simple changes to my diet that included these food groups. I found that it's much easier to combine food groups into smaller meals than trying to eat everything separately to cover my bases.

So what does a day look like for me? Probably a lot like yours, minus the dairy and animal protein. ;) But for days where I go on a long run (8+ miles, as anything lower than that I can do on my standard daily intake -- but that's just what works for me, as I've learned this from years of running), my eating changes drastically, and I basically follow a really boring script. Allow me to take you through my diet from this past Sunday.

Breakfast/Pre-Long Run
An hour before a long run (anything before an hour will leave me with side stitches), I eat a whole wheat English muffin with two tablespoons of peanut butter and a full banana. This way I'm getting a carb, a protein, and a fruit. Bam! Three food groups already scratched off, and a lethal food combo for maximum energy.
During the Long Run
During runs longer than 90 minutes, I bring additional carbs with me. I use Luna Moons, Jelly Belly Sports Beans, Clif Shot Bloks, or Trader Joe's Organic 100% Natural Fruit Wraps. They all are in small containers that are easy to shove in a pocket or safety pin inside my waistband. I usually take one at 60 minutes, and then every half hour thereafter, up until 30 minutes remaining of my workout. (e.g., For a 90-minute run I'll take one at 1 hour, and for a 2-hour run, I'll take one at 1 hour and another at 1.5 hours.)
I didn't use any on my 8-mile run this weekend since it took me 74 minutes, but I still bring it with me in case I have a hypoglycemic episode and need to eat something. This doesn't happen often but it has happened in the gym before, and I'm scared of the day I'm 3 miles from home and my body breaks down.

Post-Long Run
I used to never take anything post-long run, except downing a ton of water and taking a nap. But after I started adding more calcium and protein into my diet, I realized that taking those immediately after a long run helped me recover faster. Smoothies are an easy way to get nutrients that my muscles can feed off of, rather than eat away at themselves. As a result, I am rarely sore the day after a long run anymore.

So, immediately after a long run, I blend together a soy yogurt, a half cup of water, a bunch of frozen fruit, and two tablespoons of vegan protein powder. The protein powder is the newest addition to my diet. It's about $20 for a 1 lb. canister, but when you use it 2 tablespoons at a time (which has 17g of protein and absolutely no taste), it takes a looooong time to go through. Poof! One calcium, three fruits, and one protein colored in!
It's like Jamba Juice ... but cheaper!
I don't find eating smoothies after a short workout to be beneficial to recovery since my body doesn't need much after that. They are delicious and very nutrient dense, but for shorter workouts, simply replacing the water I lost usually does the trick.

First Post-Long Run Meal
I also found that eating salt helps me recover after a long run, probably because it forces me to retain all the water I chug to replace the water I lost. Because I'm kind of a cheap ... no, broke ... ermm, I mean "thrifty" person, I am a big fan of ramen noodles. However, there are very few brands of ramen that are fully vegan, as most of the seasoning packets contain beef tallow, chicken, or some kind of milk/whey.

Of the two vegan-friendly brands I can eat, I don't use the seasoning because of the insane amount of sodium. (It's a strange vegan thing ... I don't want to buy a product that has animal in it because I don't support that industry. So I will buy a vegetarian product, but then throw out the part that made it vegetarian. Weird?) Instead, I use a lower sodium vegetable-based soup broth that I mix in the water, and I always add whatever vegetables I have. Often that will include frozen vegetables, but it's all the same when it's being stewed anyway.
Mmmm... ramen! There goes one or two more veggies and a carb! I try to eat this within 2 hours of returning from a long run.
Post-Post Meal Post-Long Run (or something)
Because my body is still recovering from a couple hours of running earlier in the day, it's important to watch what I'm putting back in my body. I used to think my run was over so I could go back to eating whatever I wanted, but again, eating properly the rest of the day really helps with keeping my body fueled for the healing it's doing.

I also love cooking, so this is where I get to have some fun.

The many farmer's markets in Minneapolis are unfortunately very seasonal, but it's still easy to find fresh produce. I prefer to buy local, but when I can't, I resort to high-end markets for the best natural and organic selections. Fingerling potatoes, carrots, and rosemary, which I baked:
Brussel sprouts, which I sauteed in olive oil with cracked black pepper.
Shitake mushrooms, which I boiled in white wine, and my favorite ... raw heirloom tomatoes.
Voila! Carb, veggie, fruit galore! Here we've got three carbs, three veggies, a fruit, and a protein (I put more protein powder and squeezed an orange into the rice.) This also makes for a perfect "carb-loading" meal the day before a long run, and I had plenty left over for the next day.
The Rest of My Days
I eat similarly on my "regular" workout days, but I usually cut the portions sizes down and snack on fresh fruits, organic veggies, and whole wheat crackers. I also toss almonds and pecans, as well as dried fruit, into salads. I don't like to eat highly processed foods, but I do like Boca's Meatless Chik'n Nuggets, MorningStar Farms's Hickory BBQ Riblets, and LightLife's Smart Deli Roasted "Turkey" Style slices and enjoy those on occasion. I eat a lot of potatoes and rice as my remaining starches, and they can be very flavorful when mixed with peppers, chili powder, or curry. Burritos and sandwiches are a great way to combine a number of food groups as well.

Overall, I eat a lot, but I also try to eat a variety of foods and I really do make a concerted effort to cover my food groups. It took a lot of playing around with my diet to find what works for me, and I have learned that small changes have made a big difference in helping me stay fueled for both of my lifestyles: veganism and running.


  1. I say good for you!! I struggle all the time with what I'm eating and it is really annoying to me. I have had the benefit of eating whatever I want for a long time and I'm trying to teach myself differently now. I'd love to focus on having a more fruit n veggie rich diet but I struggle with not feeling like I have enough time and eat more "on the go" items.

  2. Veganism is very interesting - I've always thought it seemed limited and complicated but you made it look easy! I think eating healthy just requires a little extra planning which I need to do a better job of. Thanks for sharing!

  3. In answer to your shoe question: I can wear the new Cascadias and like them pretty well but generally like a shoe with a touch more support on long trail runs. I have been loving the Asics 2150 Trail. Steve can't wear the new models of Cascadias but loved the first couple of incarnations of them. But overall, we both just plain LOVE shoes!!! You can NEVER have too many shoes! :-)