The Vegan Running Experiment

Two years ago I decided I was ready to take my running to the next level. It was time to get serious about what I put into my body and see where a clean, whole foods, plant-based diet could take me. Since I don’t like to half ass anything, I opted to try a vegan diet for one year, and then compare my lifestyle before and after that year to determine if veganism would be a permanent life decision.

In October 2010, I shared my goal with my friends, family, and Facebook. Just like that, I was committed, as I hate few things more than eating crow. 

I read countless books and blogs on athletes eating vegan and raw diets, but one book stood out above the rest for me and quickly became my handbook to becoming a vegan endurance athlete: Ironman triathlete Brendan Frazier’s book THRIVE: the Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life.

After absorbing the book, I enjoyed sprouting my own beans in the cupboards in mason jars and cheesecloth tops, making energy snacks out of coconut oil and crushed nuts for my long runs, and – because old habits die hard – taste testing various dairy-free ice creams. (To save you time and money, none of them are good. Just give up ice cream if you’re going vegan; if it’s isn’t the real thing, it’s not worth it.)

Over the next few months, I felt my taste buds change. They stopped craving so much of that unhealthy food I was addicted to, like cookies, flavored coffee creamer, ice cream, and a variety of candy. After about two months on the vegan diet, I noticed that apples, pears, bananas, strawberries, and blueberries were plenty sweet and flavorful enough to quench my craving. When I was hungry, the first thought in my head was a spinach salad with black beans, onion, peppers, carrots, and shallots. All I wanted for breakfast was some oatmeal and fruit. I had retrained my body to not only recognize good food again, but also love it.

What about my running though? When I made the switch, I had concerns about my energy levels dropping or not taking in enough calories to sustain long training runs. These proved to be non-issues.

I was pleased to discover that a handful of shelled sunflower seeds mixed with raisins worked just as well for a long run snack as the running gels had. It was easy to chew and the sugar from the raises entered my blood stream quickly, providing energy, while the protein from the seeds fed my hungry muscles and kept me satiated throughout the run. It also gave me a jumpstart on recovery. A recovery drink made with coconut, chia seeds, hemp protein, flax seeds, maple syrup, and coca powder tasted just as delicious as a tall glass of chocolate milk – but with far more nutrients for me.

If anything, I noticed an increase in energy, as I was recovering a lot faster from my long or intense training runs. I was also experiencing a lack of injuries – something very new for me. In the past, I’d always started getting injuries once my long runs reach the 19-20 mile mark. However, during my vegan months, I completed my first 50k (31 miles) ultramarathon and was regularly doing 14-19 mile long runs on the weekends.

I did not see any weight loss overall, but I did notice my body shape change slightly. My legs thinned out a bit and become more defined, while my stomach flattened. I had no complaints.

Despite all of these great outcomes, my vegan experiment ended early. The last week of March 2012, I learned that I was pregnant with my first child, so my husband and I agreed it was a wise decision to include fish and dairy back into my diet. It’s not that I don’t think vegan diets can sustain pregnancy – because I absolutely do – but the honest truth is that I was craving fish and a glass of milk. I didn’t feel that such a pivotal time in my life as pregnancy was the best time to be experimenting with my diet.

Two years later, what do I think? I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot and still eat many vegan foods. I remain a happy pescetarian (a vegetarian that eats fish), I feel healthy, and I have had no major running injuries since my Vegan Running Experiment.