When I tell non-vegans that I’m vegan, I’m met with a lot of reactions like, “Oh, I could never do that!” and “Where do you get your protein?” And when the average overweight and out-of-shape American is suddenly concerned about the adequacy of your plant-based diet, there’s not much point in saying that you’re also an ultramarathoner and, well, you guess you find the 3,500+ calories that you burn at most 50k trail races somewhere.
It’s a different story among fellow athletes. Most of us competitive runners, vegetarian or not, pride ourselves on being able to eat whatever, whenever, without gaining weight. Therefore, when the conversation comes around to how a marathoner (for example) who wants to go vegan will be able to make veganism work with his or her marathon training plan, he or she can expect to hear a lot of nonsense like this, which I saw recently, almost verbatim, in a forum where a veg-curious runner asked how to make it work.
(Here, let me blow it up because it’s so stupid it deserves extra-special attention:)
Forget it, I tried it and there’s no way you’ll be able to consume enough calories to train for a marathon.
And as you might already suspect since you’re still here reading, anyone who contends that it’s impossible to be a vegan marathoner or ultramarathoner would be wrong. I’m living proof: every event that I’ve run since the start of 2012, including my second-fastest road marathon and ALL of my ultras (to date, seven 50ks and one 50 miler – and numerous 25-mile training runs in between) were trained for and completed on a vegan diet. No corporate sponsors, no personal chef or nutritionist attending to my caloric needs. It’s just been me, myself and I in the kitchen and on the roads and trails.
Seriously. Show me someone who thinks it’s impossible to take in enough calories on a vegan diet to run a full marathon, and I’ll show you someone who’s never been introduced to vegan German chocolate cake. Or vegan pecan pie. Or vegan banana pudding. Or any of the other awesome desserts that I brought to Thanksgiving dinner in 2017 and that got eaten by all seven or eight adults and two small children present without a second thought.
Not only is it possible to consume enough calories on a vegan diet, there might actually come a point where, if you’re not running at least 50 miles a week (which I seldom do anymore except the week of an ultra), you actually have to think about cutting back to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight. Trust me, I’m often there myself – it’s one of the pitfalls of loving to run and cook equally.
As a vegan distance runner, though, you’re not looking to dessert as the primary means of fueling your workouts. If adequate caloric consumption is a concern for you (due to a naturally high metabolism or for any other reason), then certain foods in the plant world should meet your needs in relatively small volumes. We’re talking high-fat, high-carb and high nutrient density.
So with that, I give you…
#1: Nuts and seeds
I’ll put nut butters in this category too, since they are just as calorically dense as the nuts they came from. Nuts, seeds and nut butters are rare in the plant world in that they provide a huge amount of fat. Like, two or three times as many grams of fat as protein or carbs. This is why birds flock to suet feeders in the dead of winter: they’re shoring up to stay warm and often for a long migration, and plant sources of fat are how they are able to keep their wings constantly flapping over hundreds or even thousands of miles. Likewise, as a vegan distance runner, you can look to these and other high-fat and/or high-carb foods as a means of fueling even the longest, most grueling training periods.
Have you ever had a simple dessert of half of a ripe avocado and delighted in how smooth and creamy the flesh was as you scooped it out of the skin with a spoon? Well, all that smooth creaminess was avocado oil, and that avocado half gave you 12 grams, or 108 calories, of monounsaturated (“good”) fat. But it also gave you some important nutrients, including vitamin K, pantothenic acid, folate and copper. (The list goes on, but these are the top four.) So the next time you find yourself worrying that fruit for dessert won’t sustain you during your next workout, know that avocados are also considered a naturally fatty fruit!
No sweet tooth? No problem! Enjoy avocado in creamy guacamole the next time you go out for Mexican, or snack on guac and corn chips whenever. Remember – as a competitive distance runner, you can pretty much eat whatever, whenever!
Okay, okay. By definition, oils are not food, nor will you likely see much benefit from consuming them by the spoonful. (One possible exception is coconut oil; more on that topic here and elsewhere on the Interwebs.) However, every tablespoon of cooking oil that you use for sautéed dishes or in baked goods adds 14 to 16 grams of fat. That’s an additional 126 to 144 calories per tablespoon. If you use the same number of tablespoons of oil as the projected number of servings (when batch-cooking or cooking for your family), that’s how many more calories you can expect to take in with each portion from that meal than the plants alone would have given you.
As low-carb dieters the world over will gladly tell you, bread is very calorically dense. One little slice of bread in your kid’s sandwich contains 60 calories of mostly carbs (plus a little protein and fat for good measure). For many higher-quality whole-grain breads, the calorie count from all of the above is higher per serving. In combination with olive oil and/or vegan butter like Earth Balance, you can make up a calorie deficit in no time!
C’mon, you’re a runner. If you haven’t already hit on this one…
Pasta, like bread, is mostly carbs plus a little protein. A mere 2-oz serving contains 75 calories, but seriously – who only eats 2 ounces? Multiply times at least four to get a more realistic runner-style portion size. Here, too, there’s no shame in piling on more and/or using extra olive oil and/or vegan butter if you need more calories.
And here’s the thing: since the body wants to store fat for later and use carbs now, a diet heavy in both will give you calories for now (i.e. quick energy for your run) and calories for later: to burn through while you sleep, for the afterburn after a long run or workout, and whatever else you may need additional calories for. So think about that the next time you make a big batch of pasta primavera: between the cannellini beans (should you choose to use them), vegan cheese (also fairly high in fat), cooking the veggies in an ample amount of olive oil (pour in a quarter-cup or more if you know you need the calories) and then serving all of that over a heaping bowl of pasta, you should be getting more than enough calories for your marathon training, and you will most likely do so before you start to feel full.
Be advised, though, that there’s more to the vegan athlete lifestyle than just taking in enough calories. Quality counts, and it’s important to check labels to make sure you’re getting key nutrients and avoiding excessive quantities of sugar (which contributes to both inflammation and dehydration) and other cheap fillers that are common in processed foods.
I’ll be discussing some key nutrients in the near future, but for now, go forth with this information and prosper!
Do you have any favorite guilty-pleasure or high-calorie-necessity vegan foods that others might like to know about? Please share in the comments below!
And if you have any favorite high-calorie non-vegan foods that you would like to know how to veganize, let me know that as well, and I’ll be happy to share some ideas for vegan substitutes!