Can I actually recover and perform well as a vegan runner? This sentiment tends to be echoed frequently throughout the running community. While the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, that ‘yes’ often comes with an asterisk.
There are a few overarching issues that vegan runners should be aware of when looking at eating for their recovery and performance.
The Issue: Energy Intake
The number one area of concern for any vegan runner when it comes to recovery should be overall energy intake. While this may seem straightforward, many vegan runners do not have a good concept of the volume of food they need to be eating. Many plant-based foods are lower in calories and therefore, must be eaten in larger quantities to meet nutrition needs. They also tend to be higher in fiber, which can cause higher levels of early satiety. Undereating can cause a number of issues including poor sleep, illness, poor recovery, reduced training adaptations, hormone irregularities, and increased injury risk.
The Solution: Increase eating frequency. Aim for a baseline of three meals a day with snacks built in. Ensure that all macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) are present in every meal. Be sure to include more calorie-dense foods, such as nuts, seeds, oils, and avocado.
The Issue: Protein Intake
While this macronutrient has been a source for debate, endurance athletes do have higher protein needs than the average person. Recommendations from the ACSM and IOC range from 1.4-2.0g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For a 150lb athlete, that’s 95-136g of protein per day. Prioritizing quality protein intake can be critical to recovery, as it plays a key role in muscle protein synthesis, immune support, and neurotransmitter support.
There are several great vegan-friendly sources of protein, including chickpeas, beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), nuts and seeds. The important part is getting enough of them.
Additionally, many plant-based protein sources are considered incomplete proteins due to their lack of specific amino acids that the body needs, like lysine and methionine. Eating a variety of vegan protein sources can ensure that vegan athletes avoid amino acid deficiency. (As a note, these amino acids do not need to be consumed in the same meal for them to be utilized in the same way by the body, but athletes should aim to get the complete spectrum every day.)
The Solution: Familiarize yourself with plant-based proteins and assess your overall diet to make sure you’re eating enough of them. Include a variety of plant-based protein sources and be sure to bump up protein intake with increases in training volume or intensity.
The issue: Micronutrients
Although sometimes overlooked, micronutrient intake can be a key area for runners to focus on for recovery and performance. Specifically, B12, iron, calcium and Vitamin D are important micronutrients of concern for vegan runners.
B12, or cobalamin, plays an important role in nervous system function and red blood cell production. Unfortunately, vegans have very few options for getting B12 from food sources (nutritional yeast and fortified foods being notable exceptions). B12 supplements can help ensure that athletes are getting enough of it.
Iron, with its key role in red blood cell production, can also be difficult to get due to the fact that it can be harder for the body to synthesize from plant-based sources than the iron found in meat. Runners with low iron can experience fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased exercise tolerance. Female athletes can be particularly at risk for anemia, so increased intake of vegan iron rich foods should be included and supplementation can be considered if iron deficiency becomes a persistent issue.
For long term bone health, calcium and Vitamin D are king. Plant-based calcium sources include leafy greens and beans, but sufficient volumes need to be consumed to reach the recommended 1,000 mg per day. Vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption and bone strength, often needs to be supplemented in vegan runners that do not receive sufficient sun exposure.
The Solution: Evaluate overall micronutrient intake by examining your main food sources of micronutrients and aiming for a diverse vegan diet. If you’re having trouble, consult your doctor about potential supplement options.
Creamy Apple Pie Recovery Smoothie:
- 1 Apple (medium, peeled and chopped)
- ½ Banana (frozen)
- 4 Ice Cubes
- 2 tbsps Vanilla Protein Powder
- 2 tbsps Oats
- 1 tbsp Almond Butter
- 3/4 tsp Cinnamon (ground)
- 1 cup Unsweetened Almond Milk
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a glass and enjoy!