Can the consumption of a vegetarian or vegan diet in an endurance athlete impart a competitive edge over a non-vegetarian athlete? And if so, what are the considerations of consuming a plant-based diet and the advice offered to endurance athletes ready to make that change? In this two part series on fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete, we’ll address those important questions.
An endurance athlete is someone who trains to condition their aerobic system for endurance and stamina primarily for long distance events ranging from the half to full and ultra marathons (13.1 to greater than 26.2 miles), sprint to Ironman and ultra distance triathlons, duathlons (two endurance disciplines), metric, century or double century cycling events, and even marathon or ultra-long swimming. Energy needs for these individuals vary greatly and are dependent upon the frequency and volume of training, body size, body composition, gender and specificity of training environment (i.e., swimming in 56-degree Fahrenheit waters for 45 minutes or cycling over 134 miles in altitude of the Sierra Nevada’s).
Although vegetarian (or vegan) endurance athletes reportedly struggle to maintain sufficient energy needs to fuel their sport, the consumption of a vegetarian or vegan diet has also been show to in increased benefits of ones health. Because many vegetarians and vegans must consumer greater amounts of whole plant based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds) to meet daily energy requirements as well as macro and micronutrients needs, consumption of a plant based diet increases intake of dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and vitamins, while minimizing saturated fat and cholesterol intake. The health benefits associated from consuming a vegetarian over a non vegetarian diet has been shown to lower the risk of chronic diseases and death, including high cholesterol (LDL), type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and certain types of cancer.
Yet, despite the health benefits associated from consuming a plant-based diet, existing evidence supports neither an advantage nor disadvantage in endurance performance. Regardless of what research and science demonstrates, some vegetarian and vegan athletes credit their athletic performance and recovery to the benefits attributed consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Most noted for their athletic accomplishments and performance, some of these highly successful non-meat eating athletes include:
· Carl Lewis (vegan): 9-time Olympic Track & Field gold medalist
· Dr. Ruth Heidrich (vegan): 6-time Ironman triathlon finisher, national age-group winner, marathon runner (>60 completed) and cancer survivor
· Brendan Brazier (vegan): Former professional triathlete and 2-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon champion
· Martina Navratilova (vegetarian): Professional tennis player and 18-time winner of the Grand Slam singles
· Scott Jurek (vegan): Competitive ultra runner; 7-time winner of the Western States 100 and 2-time winner of Badwater 135-mile ultra marathon
Endurance sports are no longer reserved for the well-trained, conditioned elite athlete. Triathlon, for example, has seen an immense increase in popularity since its Ironman debut in 1978. Triathlon and marathon running alone has become more alluring and accessible. Through the increased number of charity based and local club group training programs, the number of age group competitors has skyrocketed. As the realm of endurance sports continues to grow and individuals inquire to learn more about fueling their sport, many will chose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Whether turning a new leaf towards a plant based diet or continuing to improve upon an already implemented plan, our role as professionals is to assess and counsel the vegetarian and vegan so that deficiencies remain at bay. Importance is placed on the planning and preparing of consuming a plant based diet while ensuring that specific energy, vitamin, and mineral needs are met.
In part II of this post, we’ll dive into what those macro and micronutrients needs are and the energy requirements associated with endurance athletics.
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(3) McArdle, William D., Frank I. Katch, and Victor L. Katch. "Of Concern to Vegetarians." Trans. Array Sports and Exercise Nutrition. . 2nd. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005. 73-73. Print.
(4) Nieman, David C. "Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation?." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 17.3 (1999): 570s-575s. Print.
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Affectionately known as “Coach D2” by her athletes, Dorette is a Senior Dietetics Student at San Francisco State University specializing in whole food, plant based nutrition, and sports nutrition. She holds coaching credentials with USA Triathlon and USA Track and fields provides coaching to endurance athletes through Trifiniti Endurance. She was the head coach and designed training programs for the Nike Women’s Marathon, the San Francisco Aid’s Foundation’s “Be Greater Than One” San Francisco Marathon and Half Marathon training programs, and has lead numerous runners and triathletes to PR’s, Boston Marathon qualifying finishes, and the Ironman finish line. Her training tips have been published in Runner’s World, Shape, and Women’s Health Magazines. As a competitive age group endurance athlete, her racing accomplishments include 1st in division at Ultraman Canada, representing Team USA at the ITU Long Course Triathlon World Championship, and being a 5-time Ironman finisher and two time Boston Marathon qualifier.