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Food & Health

Distance Running on Plant-based Fuel

Running a long way requires a lot of energy. We get energy from the food and drinks we consume. So far, this is not exactly complicated science. It’s a simple equation: the number of calories we take on board needs to balance the number of calories burned (which is likely to be upwards of 2500 for events of marathon distance and beyond). But an important question for those who choose to run in long events while following a cruelty-free lifestyle arises: if one is going to participate in an ultra distance race, or even “just” a marathon, how can sufficient plant-based energy be taken in, to sustain an effort that may last for hours or even days?

The answer is that it’s actually not too difficult, but it does take a bit of forethought and some practice! (Yes, part of training is practicing eating on-the-run). For a marathon, most runners won’t want solid food, but will get energy from sports drinks and/or energy gels. These are also good in combination with “real food” on ultras.

Sports Drinks and Energy Gels

There are lots of brands to choose from and most now have an ingredients listing on their website. The choice of drink or gels and the quantities of each will depend on personal preference. Sweat rates can be calculated, which dictate the appropriate amount of water to drink (though temperature and humidity will also have an effect), some of which may be in the form of an energy drink. The number of calories burned is proportional to weight, so a heavier runner will require more than a lighter runner. Sports energy drinks come ready-made or in powder form (the latter being particularly useful for longer events as it is lightweight and you may have to carry your supply in a pack for 24 hours or more, or over several days of a multi-day event, with only water available to mix it at checkpoints). Science in Sport do a good range of vegan drinks powders and gels (though several of their recovery drinks are not vegan). The gels from different companies can have very different consistencies. Some come in smaller packages, as they are more concentrated (so need to be taken with water). This can be good as they’re lighter to carry, but they tend to be gloopier, which may put some people off — but it’s a personal taste thing. The flavors are usually fruity, with a very wide selection available across different brands. My current personal favorites are made by TORQ (a U.K. Brand) – they are all vegan in dessert-themed flavors such as banoffee, strawberry yogurt and rhubarb and custard. Some gels contain caffeine or guarana for an extra boost. CLIF SHOT® Energy Gels are also vegan-friendly and so are Carb BOOM gels. While drinks and gels  sound innocuous, it’s worth taking some out to test them on long training runs, as some runners can find that certain products may cause upset stomachs. This is not something anyone wants to discover on race day!

Real Food For Longer Events

For longer events, it is likely that the runner will want to eat some real food, possibly in addition to gels and sports drinks, or maybe instead of these. This food may have to be carried for the duration of the race, or may be left in drop-bags at checkpoints along the route. This will affect the choice of food. You may need to consider products which won’t go off, are light weight, tasty, come in easy-open packaging (or can simply be repackaged into small bags), have a high calorie content, have a good balance of nutrients and can be eaten while running (or while walking – lots of runners take a walk break while taking on some food). As a general rule, variety is key. It can be surprisingly difficult to feel like eating anything when fatigue sets in, and having a selection should ensure that there’s at least something you fancy. Savory foods are often craved, especially as salt is lost through sweat. Again, this whole eating thing is something to be practiced.

Some tried-and-tested foods that have worked for me include salted peanuts and cashews, vegan muesli bars or flapjacks, tofu, cooked potatoes, vegan sausages, rice crackers, vegan cakes or biscuits, peanut butter sandwiches, vegan jelly beans and other sweets, dried fruit, pretzels… and I still keep discovering new additions to the list. Again, it is vital to try these out in advance. Your favorite food in normal everyday situations may become unexpectedly unpalatable while running.

Don’t Forget Your Electrolytes

Another consideration, particularly on longer or hotter events, is that a lot of salt is lost through sweat. If this is not replaced, then drinking too much water can become a potential danger. This can be simply avoided by adding electrolyte tablets to your water. Several companies now make these and most are vegan. They are usually flavored, some much more strongly than others. Again, running a 100 mile race is not the situation in which to try these out for the first time.

Check with the Race Organizers

And finally, it’s worth checking the situation with the organizers of the race in advance. At some events, there is a huge amount of food available to runners at checkpoints, but what proportion of this is vegan varies hugely from one event to another. Some race organizers will make a great effort to accommodate dietary requirements if they’re informed in advance, but at some events you may find that you have to be responsible for providing most of your own supplies.

Distance running can force you to look at food in a different way, thinking of it fundamentally as “fuel”. There is plenty of vegan fuel to choose from, so have some fun experimenting, hopefully leading to an enjoyable race day.

Browse through some recent posts below:

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2 comments on “Distance Running on Plant-based Fuel”

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Doug S. (AKA The meatless marathoner)
4 Months Ago

PS "It’s a simple equation: the number of calories we take on board needs to balance the number of calories burned" While getting enough fuel (calories) is critical, in my experience, the source, density, and timing (foods have different resynthesis rates) are far more important than just the number of calories ingested.


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Doug S. (AKA The meatless marathoner)
4 Months Ago

Interesting reading. Something I didn't see anything about was whole foods. A vegan diet isn't just about avoiding animal products. IMO, central to veganism is eating whole foods. In that respect, all commercial products--including Clif bars--are nothing but a chemical slurry. This is a note i wrote back in October the day after running my first vegan marathon. There are links at the note to exact recipes: Running a vegan marathon October 21, 2013 at 1:46pm Before yesterday, I had run one marathon. It was the most miserable experience of my life. I smacked hard into the wall at mile 20, walked the last two miles, finished at 6:20:06, and could barely walk for weeks. By contrast, I sprinted the last mile of yesterday's Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco (a far more challenging course), missed my stretch goal by only 8 minutes, finished a full 42 minutes faster than my PR, and am barely sore today. This is no fluke. The big difference is that I went #vegan a short 6 months ago. Of course, I could no longer fall back on traditional fuels like bagels, gu, sports drinks, and other chemical slurries. So I spent hours of research crafting my nutrition plan for training, in-race, and recovery--continually reassessing things that worked, didn't work, etc. for five long training months. In the end, this is what worked for me on marathon day. I'm posting this in hopes that other people can "go to school" on me, in the same way I went to school on Matt Frazier, Brendan Brazier, etc. Training I started the season as usual: a big bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and shunning any fuel but water during long training runs. That worked until I got to about 10 miles. To stretch that, I started working on my long workout breakfast. If you've been following my journey, you might remember that I was working within a few parameters: carb/protein ratio, no solid food (makes my body happier), and personal preference. I've got a huuuge sweet tooth. I came up with something that fit all my guidelines and tweaked it almost weekly. The basic formula was this: Frozen fruit (mostly bananas and mixed berries) Lots of greens (mostly kale, fiber juiced out) Rice milk Vega One and Performance Protein powders Natural sweetener like agave nectar. The week before race-day The race was on Sunday, so I ate a 70/30 carb:protein ratio the previous Monday - Wednesday and an 80/20 ratio on Thursday - Saturday. I carefully planned my meals the day before, figured out the nutritional information, then tweaked it during the day with snacks of peanuts (protein) or extra helpings of grains (carbs). This made it pretty easy to do. If anybody wants to see the actual recipes and meal plans, I'll post them. Race-day breakfast The last month of the training season before tapering, I spent a lot of time tweaking my training breakfast. Here's the final recipe, nutritional information, and a few observations: In-event fuel In those last few weeks, I also added a home-made gel with Chia seeds from Matt Frazier. It's sticky making, but it's nutritionally identical to Gu. The differences are that I could adjust the amounts for my personal requirements (I used about 1.5 servings/baggy) and I can pronounce all the ingredients and I had no need to alter the recipe one bit. There was one small hack-of-a-hack that I made. Matt recommends putting each one-ounce serving of gel in a ziploc bag, then just biting off a corner of the bag when you're ready to eat it. Problem: I couldn't get everything out of the bag, so a lot went to waste. So after putting the gel in a ziploc, I squeezed the air out of it, zipped the bag closed, smoothed it all to one corner, then I tied it with a twisty-tie to keep it all in one place. This way I didn't waste anything and it was easier to work with on-the-run. Bottom line: My killer breakfast, these gels, and plenty of water got me through my longest training run (18 miles) and are why I was able to sprint the last mile. Recovery Before going in to my recovery, I want to address the chocolate milk phenomenon. Yes, it's the perfect ratio of carbs to protein. But aside from not being plant-based, it comes with three strikes against it for any runner: Dairy is notoriously hard to digest. Intense exercise creates an acidic environment in the body. Animal products are also acidic. For your muscles to recover, you have to ingest alkaline foods like greens. Chocolate milk often contains high fructose corn syrup. That aside, I put so much thought and time into the perfect breakfast, that this was almost an afterthought. To get enough protein and carbs in the right ratio, I ate two cups each of untoasted peanuts and dried dates--eaten 30 minutes after finish and basically snacking on them as all of my fuel the rest of the day, except... To get the right micro-nutrients where they had to go fast, my initial recovery was mostly a Lemon Lime Recovery Drink from Thrive. I had one or two of these every hour or two hours after finishing. Here's the note with links to the recipes: https://www.facebook.com/notes/the-meatless-marathoner/running-a-vegan-marathon/556618341074081


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