Endurance athletes need to pay particular attention to their nutrition because of all the strain their bodies are put under. You’ll have to worry about appropriate calorific intake, balance your macros, and not skimp on your micronutrients. Is it doable on a vegan diet? Of course it is, as long as you understand what your food can do for you.
All the info below is meant for general education purposes. That means that if you have special needs, you will need special attention as well. The most accurate information you can get will come from a dietician who will know how to read your bloodwork and your medical history.
Calories. Big mac calories
Vegans often get fewer calories on average due to their high fiber diets. Fiber is fantastic and is super important for the overall health of your digestive system, but it’s also very filling. This means that you may feel full before you get all the calories you need.
Not getting enough fuel while exercising will lead both to bad performance and a whole host of health issues.
Make a few swaps in your menu – avocados are higher in calories but have many of the same macronutrients as other greens. Or switch out the high water content low-cal fruits like berries or watermelons, with bananas and mangos that are a lot higher in calories.
White rice, pasta, and noodles are less filling than their whole-grain counterparts, so pick them when you need to pile up your plate.
In a regular setting, your body needs protein to repair and grow tissues. But as an athlete, your protein intake needs to jump up. At least the good news is that you don’t need an extremely large amount of it, at least when compared to most other professional athletes.
You may need slightly less than some – bodybuilders and other competitors who need to build mass require up to 0.75 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. You, on the other hand, will need anything between 0.55 to 0.65 grams per pound. The higher the intensity of your training, the higher you should be on that scale.
Plants with the highest amounts of protein are soy/edamame, lentils, beans, and peas, but you’ll also find lots of it in quinoa, rice, greens, etc. And if you need extra help, a lot of brands now offer vegan protein powders.
Fat. Buccal fat removal
First, vegan diets tend to be a lot lower in fat, which can have a significant impact on your immune system and overall health and performance. On the other hand, some research has shown that those who consume plenty of healthy fats have a better ability to maintain their energy levels and can tap into their fat stores easier. This is the reason why Keto diets gained so much popularity amongst athletes in recent years.
Make sure that you are not skipping all the fatty goodness of avocados, nuts, seeds, and even chocolate (most 70% cocoa solids chocolates are vegan, so go for it). However, you will struggle with getting enough omega-3 called DHA from plant food sources, so you will have to supplement for that one.
Carbs in broccoli, carbs in onions, carbs in zucchini, carbs in cabbage, carbs in green beans, carbs in honey, carbs in asparagus, carbs in cheese, carbs in lettuce,
A vegan diet will always come with more carbs than a vegetarian or carnivorous one, so it will be impossible for you to avoid them altogether. You are also very likely to get the “good stuff” since yours will come with lots of fiber and nutrients.
However, there is such a thing as too many carbs, even for an endurance athlete. If you’re overloading on carbs you may experience sudden weight gain, even if your calorific intake did not change by much. Cramps, indigestion, bloating and constipation may also come over to make friends, especially if you’ve eaten too many bananas and pasta.
And speaking of pasta, overconsumption of wheat can give you gluten-intolerance. So, be vigilant, and don’t get lazy with your food choices. A diverse and colorful diet should be enough to deal with this issue.
Training vs performance
You can gain an edge by switching up the types of carbs you eat when you train and make another switch when you compete. Simple carbs give you quick bursts of energy making them ideal as fuel mid-marathon, triathlon, etc. The effect can be even more explosive if your body “forgets” them.
You can achieve this by eliminating them from your diet for a significant amount of time before the main event. And how long should that be? That depends on you and the way your body reacts to carbs, but some numbers that are usually mentioned are 10 days or 2 weeks.
It may be less painful to also take a week or so to phase the simple carbs out, instead of cutting them out immediately.
The Notorious B12 and D
If you have been vegan for longer than a day, you’ve heard everyone and their mother tell you that you can’t get these two guys from your regular diet. And it’s true. B12 is necessary for the health of the nerve system and the red blood cells, while D helps with calcium absorption that you need for healthy bones. Deficiency in both of these becomes even more obvious when you are very active.
The main symptom of B12 deficiency is fatigue, but in the case of vitamin D, add to that depression, pain, and hair loss as well (to name a few).
You will have to supplement with pills. For vegans, it may be better to take them apart, but if they are bundled together, check that there’s enough of both. In your case, you will need 20 micrograms of vitamin D and 2.4 micrograms of B12 daily.
A multivitamin should not hurt. If you make a point of eating as healthy as possible, you may get almost everything you need from your food, but if you need to take an insurance policy, go for it. If not all the time, at the very least during the times when you’re experiencing additional stress, either due to enhanced training or because everyday life is catching up with you.
Creatine and Beta-Alanine should also be on your radar. Vegan athletes show smaller amounts of both creatine and carnosine (for whose development you need beta-alanine). You can find both in your friendly local bodybuilding supplement store, in both capsule, pill, or powder form. Usually, they are synthesized from non-animal based materials, but give the bottle in your hands a good look, just to be safe.
Zinc is essential for healthy cell repair and growth and has a hand in your overall recovery. As a vegan endurance athlete, you are facing two issues here. One, food with the highest amount of zinc are oysters. Second place? Red meat. And it takes a few more spots before veggies start making an appearance.
The second issue, and a bit more important, is that the zinc from plants doesn’t absorb as easily as the one that comes in meat. This is mostly due to phytates, a type of salt that appears in those foods.
Solution? Soak them to “rinse” out as much of that salt as possible. And since some of the plants that are very high in zinc are nuts, seeds and legumes, that should not be too big of a problem. But, if you’re still struggling, consider supplementation.
Unlike zinc, you don’t have to reach for red meat to get a lot of iron from your food. But just like zinc, you may have an issue with absorption. So, if you’re eating your dark leafy greens and fortified foods but you still experience fatigue, it’s time to do things a bit differently.
First, legumes also contain quite a bit of iron, but you also have to worry about phytates again. Remember to soak them again, if you rely on those lentils or edamame for your daily intake.
Another thing that can help is a change in habits. Mostly when it comes to drinking tea and coffee. As in, try to avoid drinking them very close to your meals since the tannins can prevent the absorption of iron. Some herbal teas might be okay, but any tea that comes with a color in its name is a total no-go.
You will need calcium for muscle and bone health. There will be quite a bit of it in various plants, and quite a lot of it in seaweed, but… Phytates. Again. So, soaking. Again.
Soaking will not help much with dark leafy greens (which are literal gold mines for all minerals, except gold), but still, pile them high up on your plate.
Also, a lot of vegan products are fortified with calcium, so you may want to rethink making soy or almond milk at home, and instead pick up some at the store next time.
Since fish and dairy are the main food sources for this mineral, vegans usually don’t get enough of it. However, it is very important for growth and development, as well as thyroid function and metabolism.
You can it from seaweed, but practice moderation – some vegans who overcompensate end up thyroid problems. Sprinkle some nori or wakame on your food to add some iodine as well as umami to your food.
Also, you can switch out your regular salt with that iodized stuff. Or better yet, mix iodized salt with ground-up seaweed and dry porcini mushroom powder for the ultimate umami seasoning.