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Can plant-based eating improve running performance?

Thanks to the many health benefits of plant-based eating, more elite athletes are turning to plants to boost heart health and reduce the risk of chronic illness. With additional athletic advantages (such as leaner body composition, improved tissue oxygenation, and reduced oxidative stress), it's no wonder runners are turning to plants. Learn more about how plant-based eating can improve running performance.

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
10 mins
Plant-based diets have gone mainstream. A 2020 survey published by the International Food Information Council notes that 28% of consumers are eating more protein from plant sources, 24% are consuming more plant-based dairy, and 17% are eating more plant-based meat alternatives [1]. Why the change? More and more people now see plants as the key to a long, healthy life. Plant-based diets have been associated with lowering overall and ischemic heart disease mortality, supporting sustainable weight management, reducing medication needs, lowering the risk and severity for most chronic diseases and conditions, and even possibly reversing advanced heart disease and type 2 diabetes [2].
But plant-based eating isn’t just for people trying to lose weight, lower heart disease risk, or eat more sustainably. More and more elite athletes — including US Olympic sprinter Kaylin Whitney and ultramarathoner Scott Jurek — are also turning to plant-based diets, in part for the long-term health benefits but also for potential performance advantages.
Before we dive into plant-based eating for running, let’s first take a look at what a plant-based diet is and some of the pros and cons of eating more plants and less meat. 
broccoli, zucchini, and carrots in baskets at a market

What is plant-based eating?

The term “plant-based” refers to  eating foods sourced primarily from plants (such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, plant-sourced oils, whole grains, legumes and beans). Emphasis is put on food quality and wholeness, and refined and highly-processed foods are typically avoided. 
However, following a plant-based diet doesn’t always mean saying no to meat, eggs, or dairy products. Being “plant-based” simply means you choose to eat more foods from plant sources.

Types of plant-based diets

Unlike the keto diet, which has some strict food and nutrient requirements, there are several different variations of a plant-based diet. If you identify as eating plant-based, you may fall into one of these categories: 
  • Flexitarian (aka semi-vegetarian): Includes eggs and dairy with occasional meat, poultry, fish, and/or seafood
  • Pescatarian: Includes eggs, dairy, fish, and seafood; no meat or poultry
  • Vegetarian (aka lacto-ovo vegetarian): Includes eggs and dairy; no meat, poultry, fish or seafood
  • Vegan: Plant-based foods only; no dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, fish or seafood; often also avoids leather and other products made with animal-derived ingredients
  • Raw vegan: Only uncooked plant-based foods; no dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, fish or seafood; typically avoids leather and other products made with animal-derived ingredients
green salad in bowl with tofu, cucumber, carrots, cabbage, and cilantro

Pros & cons of eating a plant based diet

Like any diet, plant-based eating has its positives and negatives. Here are some pros and cons of going plant-based:

Pros of eating plant-based

The potential health benefits are huge.

Adopting a whole-foods, plant-based diet is not only good for achieving a healthy weight, it can also lower your risk and reduce the severity of numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes [2]. Plant-based diets have also been shown to reduce medication needs, help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and improve blood sugar control [2]. A growing body of evidence suggests vegan and vegetarian diets may help reverse advanced coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes [2]. 
The reason for these health benefits is two-fold. First, the phytochemicals and fiber found in plants have numerous intrinsic benefits — from improving gut and heart health and enhancing immunity, to reducing inflammation, cancer activity, and more. Interestingly, plants are the only sources of these health-promoting nutrients — they are completely absent in animals. 
Not only is a plant-based diet rich in health-promoting compounds, eating this way also crowds out the unhealthy components of animal-rich diets, including dietary cholesterol, saturated fats, antibiotics, carcinogenic compounds created during high heat cooking, and more. 

It’s easier to adopt and stick with than other diets.

As far as “diets” go, many plant-based eaters say this eating pattern is  pretty easy to adopt.
Think of the plant-based diet as a spectrum, with flexitarians on one end and raw vegans on the other. There’s a lot of flexibility and freedom with this approach to eating, which is likely why many find plant-based eating to be one of the easiest diets to stick with. Sure, you can go all-in, but there’s no need to quit meat (or eggs or dairy, for that matter) all at once. Many people start their plant-based journey with just one meatless meal a day and gradually find themselves choosing more plants than meat over time. 
Other appealing aspects of a plant-based diet? There are also many more foods you can eat on this diet, than should be avoided. Thanks to protein sources like canned beans,  quick-cooking tofu, plant-based protein powders, and meat alternatives, the meal choices are endless! 

Plant-based is easier on the environment.

Adopting sustainable eating habits, like a whole food, plant-based diet, can help reduce your environmental footprint (regarding greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and land used for factory farming) while also greatly reducing the pollution caused by food processing, manufacturing, and packaging.  
A systematic review of 63 studies showed diets containing the least amount of animal-based foods (such as vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian diets) produced the largest environmental benefits. According to the study, shifting from a Western diet pattern (which is rich in meat and dairy products), to plant-based eating could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and land use by 70% and water use by 50% [3].
washing vegetables at the sink

Cons of eating plant-based

Planning and prep is involved.

A plant-based diet will likely require a bit more planning and prep, since it entails cutting back on prepared and processed foods. Whether it’s getting in the habit of meal planning, spending a few hours a week on food prep, or making an extra stop for your favorite veggie burgers, it won’t seem quite as convenient as grabbing something to go. At least, at first. While there is plenty of room for take-out and convenience foods in a plant-based diet (takeout pad thai with tofu is a great option), there are other delicious, easy options that you can cook at home as well. Whether it’s frozen brown rice, pre-chopped veggies, or smoothie bags, there are so many flexible ways to make this diet work within your lifestyle. 

It can take some getting used to. 

While increasing intake of fiber-rich plants is good for GI function and can even reduce bloating and gas, it can take time for your body to adjust to this new eating plan. If your usual diet is relatively low in fiber and higher in refined grains, carbohydrates, and sugar, consider increasing your plant consumption gradually to minimize excessive toots, burps, and bloating early on.

You may fall short on some nutrients.

Although nutrient deficiency is a common concern for many people when eating a more plant-based diet, it’s important to know that, with the exception of vitamin B12 and possibly vitamin D, all nutrients can be found in plants. Based on this and the substantial research to support their nutritional adequacy, plant-based diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes [2]. 
That being said, there are some important nutrients you might fall short on, particularly if you’re a competitive runner and/or lean more towards the vegan end of the spectrum. The big ones are Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iron, and calcium.
  • Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient not directly available from plants. It’s typically found in meat, organs, eggs, and dairy, so if these foods are not a part of your regular diet, consider a supplement of 1000µg 2-3 times/week . 
  • Vitamin D is commonly added to milk and yogurt but otherwise is not widely available from foods. Although it is synthesized in the skin upon exposure to sunlight, most of us do not get adequate sun exposure to produce enough of it. A simple blood test can let you know where your vitamin D levels fall and whether you might benefit from a supplement. Here’s how you can optimize your vitamin D levels.
  • Iron comes in two forms, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in meat and animal foods and is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, the type found in plants. Non-heme iron is also more susceptible to compounds that inhibit its absorption — like phytates, tannic acids from tea, fiber, dairy-derived calcium, and certain spices. In addition to these challenges, athletes, especially females, have elevated iron needs; thus vegan and vegetarian athletes are more likely to fall low on iron intake/absorption and require supplementation. For mild iron deficiency in recreational runners, a multivitamin containing 100% of the DV for iron (8mg/day for males and 18 mg/day for females age 19-50) may be adequate to boost iron levels back to normal levels. For more serious deficiency, especially in females and competitive runners, iron-only supplements that provide much higher amounts of iron, might be needed. 
  • Calcium: Research shows vegans and vegetarians are twice as likely to experience  bone fractures when compared to omnivores [7]. Because calcium is so important for bone health and less abundant in plants than animal-based foods like dairy, plant-based eaters should be mindful they’re getting enough. Calcium-rich plants include kale, turnip greens, and bok choy, as well as calcium-fortified tofu, almonds, tahini and figs. Whether consumed through foods or supplements, calcium, in the presence of vitamin D and K2, may also help mobilize calcium to bones and thus decrease risk of fracture down the road. Aim to get 1,200 to 1,500 mg of calcium daily from food or supplements. 
Other micronutrients vegans and vegetarians tend to be at greater risk for deficiency are omega-3 (specifically EPA & DHA), iodine (for thyroid health), selenium (an antioxidant that protects against cellular damage and thyroid hormone regulation), and zinc (for immune function and healing), all of which can be obtained via oral supplementation.
Runner in a teal top lacing up running shoes

Plant-based eating and running

Do plant-based diets hurt or help performance?

Vegan and vegetarian diets have been heavily studied for their impact on overall health, but are they fit for athletes? Whether you’re a recreational or elite runner, the answer is yes. Research shows well-planned and implemented plant-based diets are compatible with high-performance and competitive sports [4]. 
We know what you’re wondering — vegans too? Yep, vegans too. A smaller study that tracked 76 recreational runners for six months found no differences in exercise capacity between vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and omnivorous participants [5]. These results suggest plant-based diets of all types can be suitable for ambitious recreational endurance athletes, but what about competitive athletes? 
Elite runners Kaylin Whitney (who will be running the 400-meter in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics), ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, and other top athletes have achieved peak performance while following a plant-based diet. Not only are elite athletes able to meet nutrient needs and maintain exercise capacity, but a plant-based diet may also come with some other performance perks. 

Potential performance advantages of plant-based diets

Apart from being good for overall health and easier on the environment, plant-based diets may offer athletes some additional performance advantages that are worth highlighting. These include [6]:
  • Leaner body composition: Plant-based diets have consistently been shown to reduce body fat, leading to a leaner body composition. 
  • Favorable glycogen storage: Plants are generally high in carbohydrate and thus promote and support glycogen storage (the muscle’s preferred energy reserves during exercise). 
  • Improved tissue oxygenation: Plant-based diets reduce blood viscosity and improve arterial flexibility, and thus might improve vascular flow and tissue oxygenation. 
  • Reduced oxidative stress & inflammation: Whole food, plant-based diets are typically rich in antioxidants, and low in pro-inflammatory fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates. Together, this combination can reduce oxidative stress and decrease inflammation that can hinder performance and impair recovery.
With a strategic sports nutrition approach and appropriate supplementation, plant-based diets of all kinds can meet the unique dietary and performance needs of most athletes, elite or recreational — and may even offer a performance edge. 
assortment of colorful hummus recipes with veggies and bread

Tips for plant-based runners

If you’re a runner and considering going plant-based, here are some tips for a smooth transition: 
  1. Focus on quality, whole foods. A plant-based diet can have significant health benefits, and maybe even give you a performance boost, but it has to be nutritious. Focus on on nutrient-dense whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, plant-based oils, and plant-based protein like legumes, beans, nuts and soybeans. Limit refined and processed foods as much as possible.
  2. Make sure you eat enough energy. When you replace calorically dense foods with foods that have more volume and fewer calories, you may feel like you’re eating the same amount but that may not be the case. To avoid unwanted weight loss and keep your performance up, make sure you’re taking in an adequate amount of energy. Including plenty of healthy fats, complex carbs, and veggie-heavy meals in your daily diet will help. 
  3. Keep eating like an athlete. In order to perform like an athlete, you’ve got to eat (and fuel) like one. The foods you eat may change a bit, but the macronutrient composition of the foods you eat pre- and post-exercise should continue to support exercise performance and recovery. Here are some of the best recovery snacks for vegan runners.
  4. Consider supplements. Even the most meticulously planned diets, vegan or omnivore, can fall short on certain nutrients. Whether it’s a twice weekly dose of B12, a daily Vitamin D or a morning multivitamin, supplements can help bridge the gaps and ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs. Before you start a supplement regimen, chat with a dietitian or doctor to make sure you’re taking the right supplements in the right amounts.
CTA 3: Fill your nutrient gaps

Summary

Plant-based eating is a dietary approach that involves eating primarily (but not necessarily only) plants. Plant-based diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, plant-sourced oils, whole grains, legumes and beans, and have heavy emphasis on both food quality and wholeness. There are several different variations of a plant-based diet: flexitarian (or semi-vegetarian), pescitarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, vegan, and raw vegan. Whichever type appeals most to you, a well-planned and implemented plant-based diet can be suitable for both recreational and elite runners, and may even offer athletes a performance edge. From leaner body composition to reduced inflammation, there are many athletic benefits to eating more plants. By focusing on high quality, nutritious food, a good supplement routine, and getting enough energy, runners can improve their performance without sacrificing their nutritional needs.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose or replace personalized medical care. 

Key Takeaways:

  • There’s a lot of flexibility and freedom with plant-based eating, which is likely why many find it to be one of the easiest diets to stick with.
  • Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce medication needs, help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and improve blood sugar control [2].
  • Research shows well-planned and implemented plant-based diets are compatible with high-performance and competitive sports [4]. 
  • Plants are generally high in carbohydrate and thus promote and support glycogen storage (the muscle’s preferred energy reserves during exercise). 

References

  1. International Food Information Council. (2020). 2020 Food & Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/IFIC-Food-and-Health-Survey-2020.pdf
  2. Hever J. (2016). Plant-Based Diets: A Physician's Guide. The Permanente journal, 20(3), 15–082. https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/15-082
  3. Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E. J., Smith, P., & Haines, A. (2016). The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PloS one, 11(11), e0165797. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165797
  4. Katharina C, W. (2020). Vegan Diet in Sports and Exercise – Health Benefits and Advantages to Athletes and Physically Active People: A Narrative Review. International Journal of Sports and Exercise Medicine, 6(3). https://doi.org/10.23937/2469-5718/1510165
  5. Nebl, J., Haufe, S., Eigendorf, J., Wasserfurth, P., Tegtbur, U., & Hahn, A. (2019). Exercise capacity of vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian and omnivorous recreational runners. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 23. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-019-0289-4
  6. Barnard, N. D., Goldman, D. M., Loomis, J. F., Kahleova, H., Levin, S. M., Neabore, S., & Batts, T. C. (2019). Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients, 11(1), 130. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11010130
  7. Tong, T. Y. N., Appleby, P. N., Armstrong, M. E. G., Fensom, G. K., Knuppel, A., Papier, K., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R. C., & Key, T. J. (2020). Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMC Medicine, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-020-01815-3