What I've learned over the course of 3 years as a plant based person and serious amateur runner is that there is an ideal diet that works well for me. I'm not entirely sure every person has the same requirements or that we are all carbon copies of each other as far as what is ideal so experimenting with yourself is important. I do have times in my life when I worry less about what I eat (when on vacation or not training seriously) and times I pay close attention to it. I think like in training there should be an ebb and flow to your life, not a consistent dogmatic regimen.
There are some things I've learned in the past that I do think you should pay attention to if you are a plant based athlete:
- Not eating enough: Generally if you are living off of whole plant foods (not processed foods) your nutrition is high but your calorie intake and possibly fat intake are very low. You need to fuel properly for the activity you are doing. It's a balance, you can of course eat too much and gain unwanted weight too which is somewhat common with marathon trainers. I'd say if you're honest with yourself and you are actually avoiding processed foods but eating whole plant foods then you should lean toward eating more, not less. I've made the mistake of under eating and I feel it cost me muscle loss during my attempt at the 2014 Vancouver Marathon. I've also seen vegan athletes return to meat eating when they didn't eat enough food and felt something was missing from their diet.
- Eating too many high calorie processed foods like nut butters, cookies, jams, powders, shakes, sweets etc. I'm not trying to suggest you should cut out nut butters, I still eat them (without added oil or sugar) as you may need the calories, but when I was a newer runner I'd often come home seeking highly satisfying (filling) foods and before I knew it I'd eat twice as many calories as I'd just burned. Planning ahead helps, I often know what I'll eat roughly after a workout and have it ready. If Skippy and Smuckers jam sandwiches are a twice a day reality for you you're probably on the wrong track.
- Eating at the wrong time: I've learned that for me a large wholesome breakfast (like a big bowl of oatmeal) helps me get off on the right foot each day. A lot of people skip breakfast which I feel is a mistake. Having a larger breakfast helps me begin my day with the energy I need when I'm busiest. As my day goes along I tend to eat less and I tend to choose less filling foods. For my last meal of the day I like to eat a big salad (or something light) at least 3 hours before bed. Avoiding food before bed helps me get a good nights sleep and has me waking up hungry and ready for another big breakfast. You may want to consider timing your eating around your workouts as well. I like to leave at least 2 full hours before a run, although if I'm really hungry I can often tolerate a banana or some dates before heading out the door. I also like to eat protein and carbs quickly after a workout to help replenish what I've burned and begin recovery. Recently started focusing on hydrating a lot after my run, drinking about twice as much as I used too.
- Snacking with the wrong snacks: I used to eat a lot of dried fruit, nuts with oil added to them and dried foods like corn nuts etc as snacks. I'd end up making my own trail mix of sorts and eat it throughout the day. When I realized how low a lot of those foods scored on the nutritional scale and how high on empty calories (from added sugar and oil) I dropped them from my diet. Fruit is now my main source of snack food or raw vegetables. If you take a close look at what you're snacking on throughout the day you may be surprised to find you are eating more between meals than at them. That may be ok for you, but its worth paying attention too.
Those are the things I've learned from the past three years. Before this training cycle I've decided to try a few new things to see how they help:
- I've ditched oil: I can't be perfect about this as eating out makes it hard to avoid oil, but at home I've stopped using oil altogether. I've also stopped buying foods (like hummus or nuts) that have added oil. Raw nuts are easy to find and hummus is easy to make. After reading "Eat to Live" by Dr Fuhrman I've decided limiting oil intake is a good idea and essentially takes away empty calories that have very little nutritional value.
- I'm ditching sweets: I love baked goods. Cinnamon rolls, pies, squares, cookies.....I love them all. They are my nutritional downfall and I'm saying goodbye to them. At least until after the marathon. I've also eliminated any foods that have added sugar (like jam or salsa) to avoid the empty calories.
- I'm not drinking (alcohol): I'm not much of a drinker but for the next 6 months I'll be avoiding any alcohol altogether. This one isn't hard for me, and I see it as needless empty food. Drinking also tends to create a mood for me where I lack motivation to get up early and train the next day, not an ideal mindset.
- I'm trying a dial back day: Inspired by Sid Garza Hillman and my previous dabbling with fruitarianism I'm eating fruitarian on Mondays for that one day per week. The thing I found about eating fruitarian is that I had a hard time keeping up with the amount of food I should eat (which is why it isn't for me every day) but I did find that I felt refreshed and energetic. I figure after a weekend of hard training and presumably higher calorie intake from recovery food my body could use a break.
Secondly I want to manage my weight. I'm hesitant to write that because I'm very much against dieting. I hate diets (and I'm not on one I eat as much as I want too). They don't work. And, frankly, I'm pretty thin. I have no need to lose weight. Here is what I'm getting at though. If you look at the average endurance athlete (marathoners in particular) at the top of their sport they are very lean with low body fat. This serves the purpose of their sport as muscle helps them perform while carrying extra fat just slows them down. A professional marathoner of my height would weigh about 130 to 140 pounds. I weigh 148 pounds. This isn't a problem, it puts me in a very healthy weight range, one I actually feel healthy at and I think I look my best at. I've dropped as low as 137 (and been as high as 155 when vacationing and eating a lot of junk) in the past and to be honest I felt I looked too gaunt. But to each sport we make sacrifices if we want to perform at our best.
For the Vancouver marathon where I qualified for Boston I weighed 145 pounds at the start line. I felt I went through training not losing muscle, but maybe just a few pounds of fat. That helped my cause. For this marathon I'd like to see if this approach to eating can get me to the start line closer to 140 pounds without losing muscle mass. I figure the five pounds will shave a significant amount of time off my race even if training goes no better than last year. Imagine carrying a 5 pound dumbbell around a 42km race for 3 hours? It makes a difference. I do however have no intention of getting myself at elite marathon runner weight. I also plan on a celebratory apple pie post marathon. And yes, I mean the whole pie.
Food is a tricky issue for runners and all athletes. Making sacrifices during times of training is fun for me, not really a burden. I look at it as part of the process, but not an ongoing life choice. For you, the choices may be different depending on your goal.
I've avoided the number one issue most athletes love to talk about and that is protein. Partly I've skipped it because I'm tired of talking about it. What vegan doesn't incessantly get asked about protein? But also I think I need to write another post about supplements and that plays into the protein thing a little. To offer a quick opinion on protein though I'd say this one thing, it's not worth obsessing over. You are not protein deficient so long as you are eating enough food, even if all you eat is plants. It's time to get over it.
As with my marathon training plan I'll be sure to update how things are going with food for me as training progresses. In the past two weeks since ditching sugar and oil and increasing my intake of very large salads I've noticed an interesting drop in appetite. This isn't totally without precedent for me as I find my appetite oddly decreases when I run a lot, but I'm also curious if my body is turning off hunger signals as it feels it has the nutrition it needs very early in the day. Either way I continue to eat past hunger and my weight has still dropped somewhat but I feel fantastic and ready for each training session. Lets hope that continues.