Benefits and Challenges for Plant-based Runners

Even though only 2-3% of Americans are vegetarian and about 0.5% are vegan (according to a poll in 2017), the interest in plant-based eating for health and the environment is steadily increasing.

And more runners are becoming plant-based too! Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, for example, are plant-based ultramarathoners. Robbie Balenger is also a plant-based ultra endurance athlete who recently completed his trek across the U.S. running 3,175 miles in 75 days fueled all on plant-based foods. His journey was to promote plant-based eating! Way to go Robbie!

According to the Academy Position Paper on vegetarian diets, “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for prevention and treatment of certain disease” and is “appropriate for athletes.”

I often hear the question: “I’m plant-based, but worried about fueling for my runs. Can I still be plant-based?” Yes! But it’s also important to understand the benefits and challenges/disadvantages of a runner eating plant-based.

The health benefits for anyone on a plant-based diet include lowering risk of cancer and Diabetes, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, reversal/prevention of heart disease, increased energy, and better weight management.

Good news for runners is that a plant-based diet may even help you to perform and recover better. According to a recent review in the journal of Nutrients, there is a possibility that a plant-based diet may contribute to improved performance due to the intake of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables which may reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.

But along with benefits, there are always challenges or disadvantages.

Nutrient deficiencies, not eating enough calories, or too many carbohydrates can be a challenge.

For anyone transitioning from the standard American diet to a plant-based diet, it may be challenging to know how to get the proper nutrients your body will may longer get through foods. Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, zinc, iodine, riboflavin, and omega 3s are all nutrient deficiency risks without a well planned diet and possibly supplements.

It may be difficult to eat more food to get the calories you need to fuel your runs. And may be challenging to eat the right amount of carbohydrates if you are running for weight loss.

If you are a runner interested in transitioning to plant-based or a plant-based runner struggling to fuel your runs, make sure to reach out to a sports dietitian or nutrition professional that can give you the guidance, so you get the benefits of a plant-based diet and lifestyle without hindering your performance.

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Kayla Slater