The tribe of vegan runners continues to increase around the world, yet there is a fair bit of scepticism amongst the larger audience primarily due to conditioning, culture, habit and taste.
Eating vegan (a.k.a plant-based, whole foods) diet is getting a lot of attention in recent years. The underlying idea from a runner’s perspective is to attain optimum health, recover faster and reduce exercise-induced inflammation through eating fruit, grains and vegetables excluding all animal and its by-products.
The tribe of vegan runners continues to increase around the world, yet there is a fair bit of scepticism amongst the larger audience primarily due to conditioning, culture, habit and taste. Anyway, I am not writing this to espouse the virtues of veganism but just to share my personal experience of how this way of eating has been beneficial to my training. I have been a vegan for close to 10 years now and a runner for 5. All these years I have been running injury free despite running longer with low mileage. Again, not something I recommend but it works for me and I will get to that later.
A few common questions that are often asked are: “Do I get enough protein?” or “Where do you get your calcium from if you don’t drink milk”. A lot of this has to do with the false advertisements propagated by dairy/meat and supplement industries. When you’re eating an abundance of fruit and vegetables, it is difficult to be deficient in most minerals. You get plenty of proteins if you eat the standard Indian meal of vegetables, pulses etc. I never count macros but I easily eat 50-80g proteins daily via balanced WFPB (Whole Foods, Plant-based) way of eating. The same with Calcium and Iron etc.
Isn’t it funny nobody talks about manganese, phosphorus, zinc, selenium etc. that are equally important. You get all of it and more via plants.
A lot of what I notice amongst new/popular runners in the race to be faster/first by any means with absolute disregard to their bodies. A PB must come at any cost even if that means getting injured and subsequent layoff for months. People want to be fast but actually, lose health and vitality in the process. A 3:30 marathoner must be a healthier person? Yes? Not necessarily. While fitness certainly plays a great role but it doesn’t make one healthier by default. If you are often down with cough/cold, fever, inflammation, and injuries (bones or muscles) despite being a “cosmetically” fit person. The first thing I’d say is – look into what you put inside your mouth. Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. Not only food keeps you away from diseases, but it has the potential to cure/reverse illnesses.
Had it not been for right foods, with my athletic ability (or lack thereof), my body would’ve broken down with the minuscule mileage I put in for long ultras. But then I enjoy the sport, the mountains, the trails and not so much the rat race. I rate myself as an average runner with not-so-average food habits. And that has worked in my favour. I take my food seriously and this is perhaps the reason I have been able to push myself injury-free for years.
I will briefly touch upon a few things I deem important from a running perspective. I don’t claim to follow all of these (at all times) but I make a conscious effort to adhere to the most, whenever I can:
Natural alkaline foods not only reduce inflammation (free radicals/oxidative stress) caused by running but also improves muscle efficiency. It’s often said that the more alkaline food you put into your system, your less prone to falling ill. So, what are alkaline foods? Most fruits especially those rich in potassium. Fruits such as banana, avocadoes, tomatoes, dates, papaya, mangoes, oranges are some I regularly use. Green leafy vegetables – Beetroot, basil, most green leafy vegetables, cabbage, brinjal, beans, bhindi are my picks.
Calcium is not only the foundation of bones but also helps in strengthening and repairing the stress caused by running. Besides that, it plays an important role in muscle contraction. The more active you are, the more intake of calcium your body requires.
Dairy causes calcium leeching to balance the body’s pH imbalance. The free-flowing calcium in the blood is slowly leached out via urine as body tries to counter the acidity dairy causes in one’s system. This is the chief reason why despite we being the world #1 consumer of dairy, we’re the #1 nation suffering from arthritis and osteoporosis. Now compare that with healthier Japanese and Chinese populations known for their longevity. They barely take any dairy.
Plants, nuts and seeds provide the best source of calcium. It is better absorbed since it comes in conjunction with magnesium, unlike dairy which is poor in Mg and therefore very poorly absorbed. Vitamin D also maximizes calcium absorption.
When our body’s physical activity rises, it needs extra oxygen. This causes cellular oxidation, which in turns create free radicals. Free radicals are like a poison which deteriorate the cell’s life span, triggers cell degeneration, premature ageing and some form of cancers. Running fast and/or long causes inflammation in your body. We see so many runners falling sick with such alarming frequency and the cause for this is the released toxins which if left unchecked manifest themselves into cough, cold, pain, weakness, headache, acidity, infections for runners, It’s like an epidemic. Most runners are clueless, breaking their tissues but not doing enough to heal it with the same frequency.
Antioxidant-rich natural foods help us flush out these free radicals. Heavily marketed supplements, pre/post supplements do very little to undo the harm. Fruits/veggies are your best ally for your antioxidants needs. I usually have a sattu drink or a fruit smoothie soon after my run. If the run is hard, I’d occasionally top-up some pea/hemp protein. My favourite is dark green leafy vegetables. I almost take organic spinach soup or smoothie on a daily basis or just blanch it and throw it on my salad or dals. That’s the easiest thing, right? Takes just 5 minutes and it is nutrient dense. I aim for at least one citrus food every day. Antioxidant-rich foods not only build immunity but flush out accumulated toxins.
Salts like calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chlorides are some of the minerals we lose during prolonged physical activities and these must be replenished during the course of the activity. These are necessary to reduce muscle fatigue and maintain regular heart, nerve and cognitive functions. I carry salt caps for long runs and make sure I keep sipping something to replenish the salts. Lime water with sugar and salt usually does the job for me. ORS solution or any cheap electrolyte powder essentially does the same as a heavily marketed supplement. Personally, I am brand agnostic and I’d pick whatever comes cheap. Brands won’t make much difference to your performance. Your training definitely will.
Essential Fatty Acids
EFA (ALA->EPA -> DHA) are very important for optimal cardiovascular functions, brain functions, blood pressure regulation, and immunity and for repair and regeneration. We call them ‘essential’ because our bodies can’t make it. When carbohydrate reserves deplete during a prolonged exercise, the body looks for sources of fat to generate energy. Did you know that fuel shift is triggered by EFAs? One needs to have sufficient reserves to do the switch-over function. But that’s just one reason to have them. The benefits go way beyond sports.
I usually am a big fan of avocados, coconut, nuts & seeds, walnut, sesame, flaxseed, chia, subja seeds and seaweeds. How much omega 3 and omega 6 and in what ratio is another complex topic but don’t worry too much about it. I’ve occasionally used Unived plant-based EFA called Ovegha but not too much.
Iron maintains the health of RBCs by facilitating the transfer of oxygen-rich blood to aid athletic performance. Extreme physical activity can cause RBCs to break down and thereby lowering one’s iron levels. It is very important to ensure one supplies enough Iron to the body for optimal athletic functions. Sufficient iron in your body will make a difference to your running and you’ll find a notable shift in your energy levels. Again vegetables, nut and seeds, hard crust dals, almonds are your basic ally.
All type of fruit and vegetables have phytonutrients. Some have it more than others. So simply eating many servings on a daily basis will boost one’s cardiovascular function. Have at least 5 fruits in a day.
Cooking kills enzymes and nutrients that aid digestion. I look for ways to consume as raw as I can during the course of a day. I understand it requires a little cultural unlearning but over a period of time, one loves to eat raw. There has never been a day when I didn’t have fruit for breakfast. I have spent days eating papaya/watermelon for breakfast. Include nuts and seeds, soaked almonds. More energy, better digestibility, less energy expenditure. More returns.’
Sleep and Sunshine
Sleep and sunlight are very important factors for recovery. 7 hours of sleep is desirable. Many consider their training plan as a holy grail and often cut down on sleep to get up early for a run. It’s just a matter of time before the body will give up on them. Sleep is paramount and I can’t stress enough on it. Skip the training if you haven’t slept enough.
Also, it is very important that one exposes their body to sunlight frequently. I get about 5 hours a week. Long runs are usually a sunny affair. During a high training load, I supplement with D3 supplements. Fortunately, we get plenty of sun across all the seasons in Bangalore. The other supplementation I have been taking regularly is B12. I have not had meat for a decade but my B12 count has stayed optimal which speaks volumes about right supplementation.
Bonus topic – THE PROTEIN
Sadly, no discussion on nutrition is complete unless the protein question pops up. The same protein is sold for weight gain and for weight loss – For bodybuilding and for running. You got it – it has been marketed to death. There’s always a new crop of gullible sportspeople whom protein is thrown at. Protein is important. But the truth is you nearly don’t need as much protein as recommended unless you are a competing bodybuilder who wants to grow to unnatural proportions or somebody who is regularly putting their body to extreme duress.
This protein misinformation was mostly perpetuated by the American bodybuilding craze of the 1970s which has since spread like a wildfire and sort of taken a life of its own. It’s an epidemic fueled by crazy levels of marketing. Another misinformation that is thrown around is that you need animals for protein. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am sure many of you have heard (common in the gym parlance) that not all proteins are created equal. And I completely agree. Decades of scholarly research and peer-reviewed scientific literature has conclusively proven that animal-based proteins propel one towards cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancers, increased cortisol, tissue inflammation leading to an increase in the c-reactive protein levels.
I’d like to think I get about 50-80g of protein from plants easily with no elaborate planning and I have never counted protein as my protein intake. Just mixing and matching daily food gets me there. Animal proteins are difficult to break down and in the long run cause harm to your system. It causes acid influx and leads to chronic acidosis (years of abuse) at the molecular/cellular level which is a trigger for some forms of cancer.
I usually mix and match stuff like Sattu powder (chickpea powder and popular in eastern India) which is my staple. 4 tablespoons give you about 20g of protein. I consume hemp powders and/or pea powders occasionally as a top-up after super long runs which I usually added in my fruit smoothies in roughly 4:1 or 5:1 carb to protein ratio. On normal days, I get my RDA from pulses (3-5 katori of dal over the course of a day). Selected dals (usually thick crust) have 15-20% protein by ratio, the added benefit is no cholesterol and almost no saturated fat, Chickpea is my favourite, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are a staple. Want more? wheat germ, spinach, green peas, mushroom, broccoli, cauliflower, tofu, avocados and I can cite 30 more things which have fairly good protein. Even tomato and potatoes have protein. Protein is everywhere. Try not to have it in a bottle or a glass, have it in a plate – in your meals that is. The natural protein which comes from whole foods. The one that grows on the soil and not genetically altered in labs. You get fibre in natural proteins.
This is pretty much what I have learned and I thought I’d share to whoever cares to read. Remember, you have one life. Run well, eat mindfully. Take it easy.