Within the endurance sports world, there are a lot of myths surrounding being a vegetarian and, or vegan athlete. Whether it be, “You can’t get enough protein” or “It’s too hard to find vegan places to eat at races,” the number of myths are endless.
Lucky for us, we asked vegan athlete and UESCA coach Becca Menke about these myths and a lot more!
Whether or not you’re thinking about adopting more of a vegetarian/vegan diet, have clients that are vegan/vegetarian or you just want to get more education on the topic, Becca provides us with a lot of valuable information!
As a vegan athlete, what are some of your ‘go to’ foods before, during and after a race?
I am an atypical runner – I don’t like pasta. Instead, leading up to a race I load up on sweet potatoes, quinoa or rice, beets, kale and black beans. I also love incorporating miso soup and ramen (I got into that habit when training for the Tokyo Marathon). My morning pre-race meal depends on the distance. For a half marathon or under, I’ll have a slice of toast with some almond butter, strawberries and mango. For a marathon, I’ll increase that to two slices. For my ultra marathons, I love adding avocado to the meal. I would eat that before long trail runs (3+ hours) as well.
During a run, I either use Huma Gels or my own Becca Bites for fuel. I aim for about 100-120 food calories an hour plus some from Nuun (hydration). I will also use salt pills every 60-90 minutes depending on weather.
After a race, I will typically drink tart cherry juice to help with inflammation (I drink it prior to a race as well). If I am able to, my favorite thing to drink after a race to jumpstart recovery is a tart cherry and beet juice protein smoothie. It tastes WAY better than it sounds!
There are still a lot of people that don’t think an athlete can get the required nutrients for training/racing while eating a vegan diet. Why do you think this myth exists?
There are a lot of reasons for that myth, but it comes down to how nutrition is presented in education and media. A lot of the messaging says that you need milk for strong bones and meat is the only protein source. Those ads, or the research studies they’re based upon, are funded by the dairy and animal agriculture industry (think the “Got Milk” campaign). If that’s the messaging we as a society are exposed to, it’s no wonder the myths exist.
Don’t believe everything you hear, there are hundreds of athletes who either have never EVER eaten meat (Nimai Delgado, pro bodybuilder), or who have been successful after switching to a vegan diet (Dotsie Bausch, Olympic cyclist). Check out the Switch4Good.org website for some myth-busters.
Piggy backing the prior question – I’ve found that the main point of contention that a lot of people have with a vegetarian/vegan diet is that they don’t feel you can get enough protein. While untrue, what are your favorite protein sources?
I think the most important place to start is not with the question, “How can I get enough protein,” but instead with the question, “How MUCH protein do I actually need?” Using the UESCA guidelines, endurance athletes need .6-.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (strength athletes need higher). Once you calculate that, then you can start seeking out protein sources. Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, different grains, nuts and seeds are staples in my diet.
Even vegetables have protein in them! Not only are those foods rich in protein, they are also high in vitamins, nutrients and phytonutrients. This means that you get even more health benefits (which translate into better athletic benefits) when you choose plant-based foods over animal-based products.
Is eating a vegan diet challenging when traveling to races and if so, how do you prepare for that?
I’ve always had positive experiences traveling to destination races as a vegan, I just returned from a two week trip in Europe for the Berlin Marathon. Both cities I visited, Berlin and Amsterdam, were very vegan-friendly. Just walking down the street there were restaurants with vegan written on signs and menu boards – total heaven! Last year, I had a similar positive experience when I went to Tokyo.
When I am planning my trip, I use the app HappyCow to search for vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants. I also will search Instagram hashtags (ie: #veganberlin) to see if anyone has posted from specific restaurant locations. Facebook groups are a great way to search as well; I frequently post in the local vegan or local running groups asking for restaurant recommendations. They know best after all! Traveling to a foreign country where I don’t know the language, I will also make sure to look up words like “milk” “eggs”, etc so I know what to avoid on menus or on packaged goods.
The other thing I do, which I recommend to all the athletes I work with, regardless of their food preferences, is bring snacks! Snacks will save runners during travel and ensure they have at least something familiar to fall back on while searching. For overseas travel, I will check a bag with oatmeal, peanut butter, bars and Becca Bites so that I am covered for hangry emergencies. For all my athletes, I also recommend staying in Air BnBs for kitchen access. That way, you can control the pre-race meals (and save some money).
What are some of the health and athletic benefits you’ve found from eating vegan?
Just like you pay attention to your training schedule, the same care should go into what you use for fuel. A plant-based diet causes less inflammation in the body. This means it can focus on just recovering from workouts instead of having to fight workout and dietary inflammation. My recovery time dramatically improved and I had more energy. I am able to train harder and recover faster, leading to more athletic gains.
I’ve since qualified for Boston, and my stamina has improved enough to allow me to participate in and place in 50k and 50 mile races. Not only is it a cleaner source of protein, but a plant-based diet provides many more vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants. These all come with their own health benefits that improve fitness.
What would be your advice for an athlete looking to switch to a vegan diet?
If you’ve never run a marathon before, the distance seems daunting. But you work up to it. Similarly, the idea of changing one’s diet can seem daunting. I don’t expect someone to switch to a complete plant-based diet overnight. It took me a year to transition away from meat and dairy into this healthier way of eating. Gradual changes form long-lasting habits.
I recommend starting with one meal, for example breakfast. If you typically make an omelette with eggs, try a tofu scramble. The vegetables will be the same, it’s just the protein that changes. Look up recipes in cookbooks or online bloggers (mine is Rabbitfoodrunner.com) for the way to prepare the dish – about 90% of the recipe will be the exact same as what you already do.
– Becca, thanks for the great info! To learn more about Becca and her tips on training and competing as a vegan athlete, please check out her blog!