By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Every year around this time, athletes take a look at their previous training and start to scheme on better ways to improve their performance. Some will point to doing more miles (to which I will say train smarter, not harder), others to equipment (Nike Vaporflys, anyone?), and still others will want to bring on a coach (December and January are the busiest months with new athletes) or make a coaching change. After having the same conversation with several different athletes, the conduit du jour this year seems to be adopting a vegan diet. With prominent main-stream athletes like Cam Newton, the recent documentary The Gamechangers, and other influencers professing that a plant based diet has made them faster, stronger and better athletes, it’s an attractive proposition.
Caveat- Before you start throwing tomatoes at me, I am going to use the words ‘plant based’ and ‘vegan’ synonymously and interchangeably in this article. Yes, there are differences. But those differences are not fundamental to the context of this article. Oh, and since we’re on the subjects of caveats, no, I’m not going to discuss the environmental, social and political and aspects of becoming a vegan. We will leave that for another day.
In my coaching practice, I work with athletes who are vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous. I have no inherent preference. I simply want to see healthy athletes with good relationships with food, who then can perform at their best. I have seen athletes who eat meat perform better by adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, and I have seen vegans and vegetarians who get better when they incorporate animal products into their routine. I have also seen the opposite. Omnivores have gotten worse by becoming plant based and vegan athletes I work with have gotten worse by incorporating animal products into what they eat. All of these scenarios happen no matter how meticulous and thoughtful the process was. Don’t get me wrong, diet is not the only thing at play during these changes. But it is a big part. I have seen the changes back and forth, forth and back, better to worse and back again enough times to draw this simple conclusion:
There is no consistent correlation between reasonable omnivorous, vegetarian or vegan diets and performance that can be universally applied to all endurance athletes.
End of article.
Nonetheless, I bet many of you out there reading this are at least vegan-curious. Yes, I just made that term up (Did I? Someone fact check that). If you are, regardless of your motives, realize you are not alone. Just in the month of October, I answered nearly 50 e-mails, Tweets, Instagram messages and robocalls asking, ‘Should I become a plant-based athlete?’
As with many coaching answers, the answer is ‘It depends if….’
Without further ado, let’s run though the ifs…
If you are not injury prone, particularly with overuse and/or bone injuries, you can consider adopting a plant-based diet. Why? One of the bigger challenges in going plant based is consuming the necessary macro and micronutrients. It’s hard to get right, particularly right off of the bat when you switch to plant based. Diets lacking enough or the right types of macro and micro nutrients add fuel to the injury fire. If you are constantly injured or have a history of stress fractures, sorry, going plant based is probably not for you.
If you have a healthy relationship with food and do not have a history with eating disorders, you can consider adopting a plan-based diet. All too often, athletes with disordered eating or an eating disorder use an all plant diet as a way of controlling food (since it eliminates a whole category of foodstuff). This contributes to an unhealthy relationship with food, further perpetuating the disordered eating (which I also wrote about when discussing low carb/high fat diets).
If you are willing to invest the time to procure, prepare and cook high quality, plant-based foodstuffs, a vegan diet could be for you. Substituting meat for prepackaged ‘vegan’ (quotes intentional for sarcastic emphasis) junk food is not a healthy substitution. Technically, Oreos are vegan. More and more commonly, the grocery store shelves are stocked with vegan versions of what amount to gas station candy bars. In many cases, these are less nutrient dense than their counterparts that contain animal products. If you want to be plant based, be prepared to invest some time and energy to do it right.
OK, there are the ‘if’ categories of athletes that I feel are good candidates for a vegan kitchen makeover. If you are not at chronic injury risk, have a healthy relationship with food, and are willing to invest the time and energy into becoming a successful plant-based athlete, I still think you should take the following steps becoming plant based.
Step 1: Know how many calories you need
Very few athletes actually know how many calories they need in a particular day, or on a run. Adding to the problem, ultramarathon athletes’ caloric requirements vary wildly from day to day. For an average recovery run day, athletes might need as little as 2,800 calories to fuel their daily activities and run. For a 5-hour run, that total could more than double, which means more than double the volume of food that should be consumed in order to meet the caloric demands (which in turn will drive the necessary micronutrient and vitamin intake). Being that a plant-based diet is generally going to be energetically less dense than an omnivorous diet, staying on top of calories becomes problematic.
Here’s an easy way to do this, and one that will be far more accurate than the number on your watch (which is normally based off of heart rate. Both heart rate and energy expenditure are horrifically inaccurate when measured/calculated this way). Go out and run 10k at your normal endurance pace on flat terrain. Record the time. The number of calories necessary for that distance is 10X your bodyweight in kilograms. Convert the total number of calories and the time to a burn rate per hour. You can now use that formula for just about all of your runs, because most runs will be more or less of the same intensity, regardless of terrain. For example, if you weigh 70kg and run the 10k in 70 minutes, you will have burned 700 cal/70 min or 600 cal/hour. No, this is not some magic trick. It is based off of many studies that point to the energetic cost of running falls into a very narrow range of ~1 cal/kg/km.
Step 2: Talk to a Registered Dietician or nutritionist
Don’t take this step lightly. With increasing frequency, practitioners in the sports nutrition world are guiding athletes through the process of becoming plant based. Many of the professional athletes lauded in the mainstream media for going plant based have a dedicated nutritional professional guiding the process. This is a huge advantage and one that I don’t think most lay observers fully appreciate. Those professionals spend their entire day ensuring the athlete meets all of their nutrition demands. While you might not have access to a 24/7 nutrition team, a simple one-hour consult can go a long way, particularly when solving the caloric input side of the equation mentioned in Step 1.
Step 3: Talk to your coach and get your support team on board
You team has to be on board. While the rest of your family might not fully adopt a vegan diet, you are not going to be successful without their support. Similarly, if you have a coach, bring her into the conversation. While your training might not acutely change, your coach can better track the ‘am I better, worse or the same’ side of running.
Step 4: Go slow, see how you feel, then adapt and change
As a coach, I like to see athletes adapt and create changes in small, incremental steps vs. large and grandiose ones. Becoming a plant-based athlete is no different. Whenever athletes inquire about becoming plant based for performance reasons, I encourage them to do so in an incremental fashion by making the switch over a 30-day period. Why? As I mentioned earlier, some parts of becoming plant based are more problematic at first. The slow transition gives a little wiggle room to get any initial bumps out of the way. Also, many athletes actually end up doing worse on a plant-based diet. A slower transition helps mitigate this potential performance decline and if you (or your coach) is paying close enough attention to your training, you can catch it and make adjustments.
So, there you have it. Becoming a plant-based athlete is undeniably en vogue right now. However, it is not for everyone. Some athletes will thrive under a plant-based diet, others will not. In any case, if you are considering becoming plant based, do so deliberately and with a team on board. Track if your performances and how you feel. Don’t be afraid to adopt a plant-based diet, but don’t be afraid to change course as well.
I’d like to give a special thanks to CTS athlete and nutrition expert Stephanie Howe Violett and plant based endurance powerhouse David Clark for helping to elucidate this topic in a recent conversation (that will eventually come out in podcast form). Many of the concepts were fleshed out with them as a sounding board.