Runners often want to know what to eat. Are there foods that improve performance and help you run faster and longer? Are there food runners should avoid? Is a plant based diet for athletes a viable option?
There are a lot of debates within the world of sports nutrition, and runners often find themselves trying to make sense of conflicting information. However, there’s one thing probably all sports nutritionists agree upon, it’s important to eat vegetables.
Therefore, a diet that puts vegetables and plants as the central focus must be somewhat healthy—and this is precisely where plant-based diets come into play.
Plant-based diets are among the best diets for athletes. Fueling your running on a plant-based diet is entirely feasible and can lead to improvements in your running as well as your overall health.
However, if you’ve been an omnivore all your life and are new to the plant-based athlete lifestyle, or feel like you’re struggling to fuel your running on a vegan or vegetarian diet, your plant-based diet may need a little tweaking to best support your training.
We have you covered. In this guide, we will address:
- What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
- The Benefits of a Plant Based Diet for Athletes
- What to Eat to Fuel Your Running On a Plant-Based Diet
- Foods Runners Should Avoid On a Plant-Based Diet
- Sample Plant-Based Diet Meal Plan for Runners
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about a plant based diet for athletes.
Ready? Let’s jump in!
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
It wasn’t that long ago that vegan diets and vegetarian diets were the only diets that excluded animal products and focused on eating plants. However, in recent years, “plant-based diets” have entered the scene, and an increasing number of runners are opting to follow one.
A plant-based diet is an umbrella term that describes any diet composed of mostly but not necessarily exclusively, plant foods. Although vegan and vegetarian diets certainly fall under the scope of plant-based diets, there is also more flexibility to include some amount of animal products as well.
Plant-based diets emphasize eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts, which should serve as the focal point of every meal.
A general “plant-based diet” doesn’t necessarily prohibit animal foods, so some dairy, eggs, fish, poultry, and even meat may be included occasionally or in very limited amounts. For example, ovo-lacto vegetarians consume dairy and eggs, though the bulk of their diet plants.
The Benefits of a Plant Based Diet for Athletes
A general plant-based diet strikes the ideal balance of providing the benefits of consuming nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy fats like the vegan diet but without the restrictions and limitations that may lead to nutrient deficiencies.
For example, some vegan runners struggle to get enough protein, zinc, iron, fat-soluble vitamins, and vitamin B12, but a runner following a more generalized plant-based diet has the latitude to consume eggs and dairy, or occasional fish, seafood, meat, and poultry.
The emphasis on eating whole, natural, plant-based foods and limiting processed foods makes it easy to fuel your running on a plant-based diet. The whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and tubers provide complex carbohydrates to keep glycogen stores topped off.
Fruits and vegetables can provide simple carbs for quick boosts of energy in a pre-run snack, and also enrich the diet with vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants to combat free radicals and the cellular damage from training.
Antioxidants can also reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension, according to research.
Protein from legumes, seeds, whole grains, nuts, and certain vegetables also help fuel your running on a plant-based diet and aid recovery after a workout.
A plant-based diet can also work well for runners trying to lose weight because foods like vegetables, legumes, and fruits are quite filling but are not particularly caloric. In other words, the caloric density of many plant-based foods is low, so you can eat a large volume of food without consuming many calories.
The high-fiber content of plant-based diets supports healthy digestion and is associated with lower cholesterol levels and body mass index (BMI). Moreover, studies show plant-based diets can also improve insulin sensitivity.
Lastly, a plant-based diet is often relatively anti-inflammatory compared to other diets, particularly when athletes focus on whole, unprocessed foods. Meat, dairy, and processed oils can cause inflammation.
What to Eat to Fuel Your Running On a Plant-Based Diet
The good news for runners looking to adopt a plant-based diet is that following a plant-based diet is blissfully easy because you can theoretically eat anything you want so long as plant foods are the center of your meal.
A plant based diet for athletes can technically still include some meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy, provided you’re aren’t following a specific, stricter iteration of a plant-based diet like a vegan diet.
However, the frequency or quantity of animal foods should be significantly less than plant foods.
To fuel your running on a plant based diet for athletes, focus on consuming the following foods:
- Vegetables: Spinach, kale, artichokes, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, peppers, cabbage, parsnips, celery, asparagus, sweet potatoes, squash, onions, etc.
- Fruits: Pears, apples, melons, oranges, plums, papaya, bananas, apricots, peaches, berries, bananas, grapes, guava, pomegranates, clementines, grapefruit, kiwi, coconut, tomatoes, dates, figs, etc.
- Whole Grains: Oats, whole wheat, arameth, barley, brown rice, quinoa, teff, farro, corn, etc.
- Legumes: Soy, beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, etc.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts, kola nuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Healthy Fats and Oils: Olive oil, avocados, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, hemp seed oil, etc.
- Herbs and Spices: Basil, sage, thyme, cilantro, pepper, cinnamon, mint, clove, nutmeg, ginger, salt, garlic, rosemary, cumin, curry powder, chili powder, etc.
Foods Runners Should Avoid On a Plant-Based Diet
Any plant based diet for athletes should focus on consuming whole, unprocessed vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils.
In order to best fuel your running on a plant-based diet, you should limit all processed foods (even plant-based ones), along with animal products. However, these foods aren’t prohibited or banned entirely; they can be eaten in moderation as you see fit.
Plant based diets for athletes should limit the following foods:
- Refined Grains: White bread, sugary cereals, biscuits, croissants, etc.
- Processed Sweets: Cookies, pies, pastries, doughnuts, jellies, jams, pudding, sweetened juice, fruit snacks, candy, soda, etc.
- Fried Foods: French fries, onion rings, etc.
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Trans Fats and Hydrogenated Oils
- Meat: Beef, pork, venison, bison, veal, lamb, hot dogs, deli meats, sausages, etc.
- Fish and Seafood: Salmon, lobster, trout, cod, caviar, sardines, tuna, mackerel, crab, scallops, sea bass, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, etc.
- Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck, capon, quail, etc.
- Eggs: Chicken eggs, turkey eggs, duck eggs, emu eggs, quail eggs, etc.
- Dairy Products: Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, butter, yogurt, buttermilk, cheese, ice cream, cream, cottage cheese, etc.
Again, it’s important to stress that animal foods can be healthy and incorporated soundly into a plant based diet for athletes in limited amounts.
For example, cage-free eggs, organic Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, free-range chicken or turkey, wild-caught salmon or other fish, and even small amounts of organic red meat can provide high-quality, nutritious protein, iron, B vitamins, and other minerals in plant based diets for athletes.
Plant-Based Diet Tips for Runners
Plant-based diets tend to be high in fiber and, as mentioned, often include bulky or voluminous foods.
This can cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea when you run, particularly if you eat your pre-run meal or snack too close to the time you head out.
To reduce potential stomach discomfort and digestive issues running on a plant-based diet, make sure you’re eating a lower-fiber snack or meal before running, or taking in energy-dense fueling options.
For example, opt for rice cakes or fruits like bananas instead of fibrous options like whole-grain bread and cruciferous vegetables. They will digest and clear your system faster than fiber-rich options.
Similarly, dried fruit, nuts, or vegan protein bars can provide the calories and macronutrients you need to fuel your workout without weighing you down or filling your stomach as much as large volumes of fresh fruit and grains of an equivalent calorie content.
Sample Plant-Based Diet Meal Plan for Runners
What does a plant based diet for athletes look like? Below we share a sample three-day meal plan with examples of how to fuel your running with a plant based diet:
- Pre-Run Snack: Banana with 1 tbsp. of peanut butter, water
- Breakfast: Overnight oats made with almond milk, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp protein powder, blueberries, cinnamon, and unsweetened coconut flakes.
- Lunch: Hummus with whole-grain crackers, carrots, pepper strips, celery, and cucumbers; red grapes.
- Snack: Greek yogurt with low-sugar granola and raspberries.
- Dinner: Grilled tofu over cauliflower rice, baked sweet potato, spinach salad.
- Snack: Banana with almond butter.
- Breakfast: Coconut milk yogurt with sliced bananas and peaches, granola or muesli.
- Snack: Apple with almond butter.
- Lunch: Brown rice with grilled tempeh, roasted Brussels sprouts, spinach, walnuts, and sesame seeds.
- Pre-Run Snack: Trail mix with dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and cereal.
- Dinner: Curried lentil dal with rice, onions, and wilted greens. Greek salad on the side.
- Snack: Dark chocolate and fruit.
- Pre-Run Snack: Rice cakes with peanut butter.
- Breakfast: Smoothie made with banana, spinach, strawberries, pineapple, hemp seeds, almond milk, and rice protein powder.
- Lunch: Whole-grain bread with avocado spread, grilled tofu, kale, and sliced tomatoes. Pear.
- Snack: Baked sweet potato with almond butter.
- Dinner: Black bean burrito with brown rice, peppers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, corn, and vegan or regular cheese.
- Snack: Blueberries and pistachios.
If you’ve been thinking about basing your diet on plant-based foods you now have a ton of different options to try out. If you are looking at vegan options, you can take a look at this story on training for a marathon on a vegan diet!