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Increasing numbers of runners are choosing plant-based diets for a variety of reasons. Athletes often report that they recover quicker, perform better and achieve their weight-loss goals, while others choose a plant-based diet for ethical or environmental reasons. Below, three elite trail runners who are longtime plant-based eaters share their stories.
Canaday is a professional runner and winner of the 2014 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships, Speedgoat 50K (2013, 2014, 2015), and the 2013 USATF 100K National Trail Championships. Canaday, 30, of Boulder, Colorado, a vegetarian since birth, appreciates both the ethical and environmental benefits of his vegetarian diet. He also believes a plant-based diet provides all the nutrients an athlete requires and greatly helps with performance and recovery.
“It helps keep me lean, and I’ve never had a problem with protein or any real long-term injuries from running like stress fractures or serious muscle issues,” says Canaday. “I’ve run year round for 16 years and up to 150 miles a week, so I put a lot of stress on my body and burn a lot of calories!”
Canaday recognizes that it is easier nowadays to eat a plant-based diet. “There are so many alternatives to things like cheese or milk, so making things like a vegan pizza is easier now than it used to be. Also, when I decide on my next meal, or am trying a new recipe for dinner with my girlfriend, Sandi, I always think: ‘Does this meal have a little protein source?’ Usually it does, and it comes from beans, rice, tofu, soy, nuts or lentils. If it doesn’t I’ll add one of those sources.”
Canaday also says it’s not about being perfect but having variety and balance. “I don’t view my diet as being strict or extreme. It’s a set of lifestyle choices, and I knowingly indulge in things that I know are not healthy, e.g. corn chips, baked goods with refined sugars and things with more processed grains, at times. But I generally now follow a whole-foods, plant-based diet. It lends itself to being a high-carb, low-fat diet because of the macronutrient nature of the many veggies and fruits I consume.”
Canaday’s Advice: Focus on whole foods and mix it up. “I try to find new recipes and explore cuisines where vegetarian or vegan dishes are easy to make or order (e.g. curry, Mexican food and Asian food). Make sure at home you always have a variety of colorful, fresh veggies on hand, as well as some fruit.”
Sage’s Faves: My favorite pre-race meal is sourdough bread with almond butter and a banana, and a cup of coffee.
My favorite post-race recovery meal is for sure pizza and beer! Post race, I also try to get in some fruit and veggies chock full of antioxidants. So ideally I’m eating a vegan pesto pizza (my favorite) with a salad and a tall beer!
A vegetarian since 1995, Wardian is a hugely prolific competitor—in 2014 alone he raced 54 times, including 18 ultramarathons, and finished in the top 10 in all but 10 races. His ability to consistently race fast and recover incredibly quickly seems superhuman to most people.
“A vegetarian diet has expanded my world view and palate, as I’ve found tons of things that I could eat,” says Wardian, 41, of Arlington, Virginia. “I don’t look at what I can’t eat but all the cool things I can eat.”
He chose to go vegetarian simply to see if he could—starting by eliminating red meat, then chicken and pork, followed by seafood. “I liked how I felt. Eating vegetarian makes me feel good and in turn helps me to be motivated to train, race and compete,” says Wardian, adding that it helps his recovery.
Wardian’s Advice: “Just go for it. If it doesn’t work, go back to what you are doing, but you might find an amazing new food that you didn’t know about before. It is so fun to learn about different food sources and how your body responds to them.”
Wardian’s Winners: Pre-race, I keep it super simple. For a morning race, I try to get up three hours beforehand and eat plain oatmeal, honey and toast, then about an hour before the race, I have some Vitargo. If it is a night race (lots of European/South American Races are), then I try to eat about four hours before and have some super-plain carbs like white rice, pasta with olive oil and salt.
Post race, I give my body whatever it is craving and usually that is fresh fruit, almond butter and lots of fresh juice and salad. If I am home, it is a lot easier.
One of the most decorated and consistent ultrarunners in the world, Greenwood has twice been named North American Ultrarunner of the Year. She won the 2014 Comrades Marathon. She has won the IAU World 100K championships in 2010 and 2014 and is a repeat winner and course-record holder of the Western States 100. Greenwood, 36, of Vancouver, British Columbia, has been a vegetarian for almost 20 years.
“It is hard to tell if eating a vegetarian diet improves my performance and recovery or both,” she says. “I am not vegetarian for athletic-performance reasons. I choose to be vegetarian for environmental and ethical reasons, and even if studies showed that eating meat or fish benefits athletic performance, I would not change my diet—some things are far more important than shaving a few seconds off a race finishing time.”
Many people believe that a vegetarian diet is complicated or restrictive. Greenwood explains, “I find being vegetarian very simple. The only challenge is when travelling to countries where vegetarianism is not so popular as in North America, but even then I can usually find what I need at a grocery store.” Greenwood also doesn’t believe there are any nutrition limitations to being vegetarian and does not take supplements.
Greenwood’s Advice: “Make the transition over a period of weeks or even a couple of months, especially if you have previously eaten lot of meat. Think about what you are removing from your diet and how you are going to replace those nutrients with possibly new-to-you foods.”
Ellie’s Ideals: I don’t have a set pre-race meal, especially when travelling to races. That said, I stick to plain and simple options—rice, pasta or potatoes, with veggies and maybe some tofu or beans. I stay away from dairy in the days leading up to a race, because I find it can upset my stomach.
For recovery, I don’t eat anything special, as, again, it is not always feasible when traveling. But I try to rehydrate and eat soon after a race. I’m not too fussy, usually just whatever is available at the race finish line.
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.