Fueling The Vegetarian Endurance Athlete - Part 1

By Marni Sumbal

What do Bart Yasso, Scott Jurek, Rich Roll, Dave Scott, Brendan Brazier, and Hilary Biscay have in common?

They have all achieved greatness as endurance athletes, all while consuming a plant strong diet (reports state that Dave Scott is no longer a strict vegetarian). Being a vegetarian is a choice.

Unlike the brand of shoes you prefer, or your favorite color, however, choosing to eliminate meat from the diet is a lifestyle that many individuals and athletes choose to make for reasons other than what’s hot, new, or popular. Because it is a lifestyle, it requires commitment and knowledge to make the diet work for personal health and performance goals.

This article is not persuading you to become a vegetarian athlete to boost performance, nor is it telling you that your health and performance will automatically improve should you choose to remove meat from your diet.

marni-on-bike-450x263This article is simply an informative way to help you understand how to eat to be a healthy endurance athlete if you choose vegetarianism.

All endurance athletes must understand the importance of consuming a balanced, wholesome diet and this article will clear up any confusion you may have in regard to how to nourish your body as you fuel for performance. But, even for the omnivorous endurance athlete reading this article, hopefully you can use the following information to fill in any nutritional gaps that may be keeping you from reaching your full fitness potential.

Why not vegetarianism?

With so much published research connecting diet to health, performance, body composition and longevity, a plant-strong diet is heavily acclaimed for its many health, performance-promoting, and disease-preventing benefits. Although it is not necessary for you to avoid meat to be healthy, to improve performance, and to reduce the risk for disease, it is certainly advised to learn to appreciate whole foods.

Research advocating vegetarianism demonstrates many health benefits of a diet free, or limited of meat, such as reducing the risk for many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, a well-balanced vegetarian diet has been show to help with weight maintenance and improved longevity. For example, Seventh-Day Adventists advocate a plant strong diet and research has demonstrated an increase in longevity alongside their extremely unique, healthy, and active lifestyle.

vegetarian-balanced-meal2-450x300Maybe you dislike the taste of meat and fish, are unable to afford (or have access to) quality meat on a consistent basis, or perhaps you have personal ethical, health, moral, or religious reasons for abstaining from meat. There are many reasons to be drawn to vegetarianism, especially when a full or semi-meatless diet is becoming more mainstream and accessible.

Despite naysayers believing that endurance athletes must eat meat to be a healthy and strong endurance athlete, there is no shortage of high level athletes, achieving great endurance accomplishments, by thriving off a plant strong diet.

The Diet of An Endurance Athlete

As an endurance athlete, you place a tremendous amount of intentional stress on your body in order to meet your fitness goals by race day. Therefore, it is important to have an appropriately planned diet to support your athletic development.

Any diet that is restrictive (e.g. paleo, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free) or lacking in variety (e.g. you rely on fast food, you don’t like to cook, etc.) may demonstrate potential nutritional deficiencies.

Thus, all endurance athletes should consider working with a dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition, especially if desiring to make dietary modifications/swaps.

For any athlete who is seeking a change in the diet, be mindful that if there are underlying dietary clinical issues (e.g. IBS, food allergies, gluten intolerance/sensitivity, Hashimoto’s, PCOS, etc.) those should be considered first in an effort to create the most balanced, varied diet possible.

As a guideline or starting point, a balanced diet for your endurance body should include around 30% daily calories from fat, around 5-12g/kg body weight from carbohydrates, and around 1.2-1.8 g/kg body weight of protein per day.

What This Looks Like

As an example using these numbers, if you weigh 145 lbs, that's approximately 66 kg.

Protein = 66*1.2 = 80, 66*1.8 = 119
You would need to eat between 80-119 grams of protein

Carbs = 66*5 = 330, 66*12 = 792
You would need to eat between 330-792 grams of carbohydrate

Starting on the lower end, that would be 80 grams of protein and 330 carbs. Since protein and carbs both have 4 calories per gram, that's 1640 calories (80 + 330 = 410, 410*4 = 1640).

Because fat should make up ~30% of your diet, you know that the 1640 calories should be approximately 70% of your diet. So to find the calories left for fat, you divide 1640 by .7, which = 2,343 calories.

2,343 - 1640 = 703 calories should come from fat.

Because fat has 9 calories per gram, you divide 703/9 = 78 grams of fat.

So on the low end, a 145 lb. endurance athlete should be consuming 80 grams of protein, 330 grams of carbohydrate, and 78 grams of fat a day.

A balanced distribution of macronutrients will help with meeting the demands of training (in a periodized training plan), boosting recovery, as well as supporting the immune system and improving overall health and performance.

The diet of a Vegetarian Endurance Athlete

There are many apprehensions by athletes, coaches, and outsiders who question the athletic potential (or lack thereof) of vegetarian endurance athletes. Within a restrictive diet, there will always be concerns for nutritional deficiencies so it would appear that vegetarians are undoubtedly lacking key nutrients by not eating animal protein.

There are often concerns of anemia or iron deficiency, inadequate consumption of quality dietary protein, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and B12 and an alleged inability to eat “enough” calories/energy from plants. But, let’s not pick too hard on vegetarians. Remember that an under-fueled and undernourished athlete will always under-perform.

So, if you have recently made an extreme change in your diet or adhere to a restrictive style of eating, it doesn’t matter where you get your protein (animal or from the earth), because all endurance athletes must provide the body with a variety of vitamins and minerals in order to meet the demands of your training regime.

Remember, a deficiency in iron and B12 isn’t limited to the vegetarians.

A vegetarian meal can be lentils with grilled tempeh, steamed veggies tossed in tahini paste, and basmati rice, or it can be pizza and a Coke, so let’s remember that your goal as an endurance athlete is to focus on a diet that can improve your health as you enhance performance.

Although the "meal" pictured could be considered vegetarian, this is not the type of meal that a vegetarian athlete would be consuming regularly to best fuel their body for health and performance.

Vegetarian or not, a poorly planned diet with an extreme exercise routine is not a winning combination.


Where do you get your protein?

If you are choosing to avoid or limit your intake of animal protein, it’s important to prioritize the most ideal sources of plant-strong protein to help support your individual health and fitness needs. Be mindful that every time you eliminate a food (or food group) from the diet, it’s in your best interest to seek an alternative food to replace the nutrients that you eliminating.

The obvious is opting for a whole-food replacement, but the easy way (and not-so-healthy) is opting for highly-processed products.

As an endurance athlete, minimally processed foods, created by mother earth, should weigh heavy in your food choices when it comes to composing a healthy plant strong diet.

Quality protein builds muscle and helps rebuild tissue. Adequate protein consumption keeps you satisfied at meal and snack time. Eggs, dairy, whey, and soy are a few lacto-ovo vegetarian options of “complete protein” (containing all nine essential amino acids which are not synthesized within the body), so be sure to include variety with your food options in order to encourage consumption of all essential amino acids throughout the day.

It is not necessary to make complete proteins every time you eat but you should be eating frequently enough throughout the day in order to continuously nourish the body.

Plant-strong protein choices are not limited to just vegetarians:

  • vegetariansoup-450x300Tempeh/natto, ½ cup: 15 grams
  • Soybeans/edamame, ½ cup: 15 grams
  • Cooked lentils, 1 cup: 18 grams
  • Tofu, 4 ounces: 10 grams
  • Hemp seeds, 2 tbsp: 10 grams
  • Cooked peas, 1 cup: 9 grams
  • Spirulina (dried seaweed), 2 tbsp: 8 grams
  • Peanut butter, 2 tbsp: 8 grams
  • Almonds, ¼ cup: 8 grams
  • Tahini, 3 tbsp: 8 grams
  • Quinoa, 1 cup (cooked): 8 grams
  • Soy milk, 1 cup: 7 grams
  • Bulgur, 1 cup (cooked): 6 grams
  • Brown rice, 1 cup (cooked) : 5 grams
  • Potato, 6 ounces: 4 grams
  • Chia seeds, 2 tbsp: 4 grams
  • Cream of wheat/rice, 1 serving: 3 gram

Nutritional Concerns for Endurance Athletes

If you consume an unbalanced diet, eliminate one or more food groups, or restrict energy/adhere to extreme weight-loss methods, you may be at risk for a nutrient deficiency. Macro and micronutrients play a very important role in energy production. As an endurance athlete, your exercise routine is quite extreme which inevitably stresses many metabolic pathways where micronutrients must be appropriately available.

No endurance athlete is immune to vitamin and mineral deficiencies as the body of an endurance athlete thrives off many key nutrients that must be obtained by the daily diet or supplemented as needed/prescribed. A few of the most common nutrients that may be inadequately consumed or deficient in a restrictive diet include B12, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and iron.

Adequate intake of B vitamins will ensure optimal energy production. Additionally, B vitamins are required for red blood cell production, protein synthesis and tissue repair.

Plant-strong sources of Vitamin B12 include: eggs, milk, nutritional yeast, and fortified foods.

Adequate intake of zinc will assist in the growth, building, and repair of muscle tissue as well as boosting the immune system and supporting energy production.

Plant-strong sources of zinc include: legumes, nuts, soy, whole grains, and seeds.

Adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D are important for bone growth, maintenance, and repair, as well as, to assist in muscle contraction, nerve conduction and healthy blood clotting. Inadequate intakes can increase the risk of low bone mineral density and stress fractures. Amenorrheic female athletes or athletes with popular restrictive diets that avoid calcium-rich-containing foods should be concerned about their bone health.

Plant-strong sources of calcium include: yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, milk, mushrooms, fortified foods, dark leafy greens and soybeans.

Adequate intake of iron is necessary for energy production. For endurance athletes, oxygen carrying capacity is critical and iron supports normal functioning of the nervous and immune system. Specific to female endurance athletes, low iron can be very prevalent for a number of reasons. Female endurance athletes and runners often demonstrate low ferritin levels with or without low iron (e.g. iron deficiency anemia or iron deficiency, respectively).

Iron deficiency can impair muscle function, increase risk for injury and illness, and limit athletic potential.

vegetarian-balanced-meal3-450x300There are many reasons for low iron/low ferritin levels so female endurance athletes should routinely (every 3 to 6 months) monitor and assess iron levels (e.g. ferritin, Hgb, Hct, TIBC). Athletes should not supplement with iron unless advised by a physician, based on a lab test.

Plant strong sources of iron include: fortified foods (e.g. cream of wheat/rice cereal), dark leafy greens combined with vitamin C for maximizing absorption, Brussels sprouts, lentils, beans, tofu, potatoes, dried thyme, molasses, dark chocolate, cooked spinach, and raisins.

Note from GGS: Of course, a vital part of any successful endurance athlete's training is strength training, using a balanced and sane approach. Want to see how we do it?

Check out Part 2, where I discuss my 5-step system for becoming a healthy vegetarian endurance athlete (including a sample meal plan!)

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About the author:  Marni Sumbal

Marni Sumbal RD, holds a Masters of Science in Exercise Physiology, specializes in sports nutrition, and is a triathlon coach, writer, and speaker. She’s the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, a business dedicated to helping athletes learn how to eat for fuel and for health, to reach personal and performance goals. Marni is a 22-year lacto-ovo vegetarian and will be competing in her 10th Ironman this year at the World Championships! Learn more about Marni on her website, http://Trimarnicoach.com and find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trimarnicoach

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