The pull to become vegetarian caught me by surprise, and the idea didn't come with much appeal for me at first.
A connection with a pet, several books I had read about consciousness and evolution, and those Vegan Outreach fliers kids pass out on college campuses had all conspired to awake a compassionate side of me that, quite honestly, I wished would go back to sleep.
There was a reason I simply could not become vegetarian: I was a runner. A marathoner on a mission to get fast enough to qualify for Boston.
Endurance training can be brutal on the body. Everyone who knows anything about nutrition, I thought, knows that if you don't get enough protein, you won't recover from your workouts. And where does a marathoner get his or her protein? Easy---meat.
So after a few half-hearted efforts to eliminate the meat from diet, I put the idea to bed and went on with my training. I did manage to cut the red meat out of my diet, but in my kitchen, no chicken or fish was safe. I got my protein and I was happy, even if I felt a little guilty about eating animals.
My marathon times declined, albeit slowly, and they eventually settled comfortably to rest about 10 minutes slower than what I needed to qualify for Boston. I started to wonder if maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew with such an ambitious goal. It would take a three-hour, ten-minute marathon to qualify. Having taken almost five miserable hours to complete my first one, I had come a long way. And maybe, I thought, it was time to take pride in my improvement and be done with it.
How Being Vegetarian Can Help Endurance Athletes
Right when I needed it most, I learned the information that changed my life as a runner.
At a health seminar, I was first exposed to the idea that animal protein is difficult to digest. Really, this shouldn't have been surprising: Almost all runners are vegetarian while they're running. During a race, during training runs, and even immediately afterward, runners eat food that the body can digest without expending excessive amounts of energy. A lot of it is sugar, but smart runners also fuel with complex carbohydrates and protein in forms that get into the system quickly and easily---and almost none of it comes from animals.
I came to learn that several top endurance athletes already knew this, and were fueling their professional careers with plant-based diets. I learned that a marathoner or ultramarathoner can get everything he or she needs from plants, and in addition to eating in a way that's good for the environment and compassionate to animals, one might actually become faster by choosing to avoid animal products altogether. Not just while running, but in between runs as one's day-to-day diet.
This came as music to my ears, but I was skeptical. I agreed to try it for a month, but at any sign of weakness or loss of speed, I was done.
A year and a half later, I'm still a vegetarian. I'm also the owner of a 3:09, Boston-qualifying marathon time, and I'm now an ultramarathoner as well: Along with two 50K's, I recently ran my first 50-mile trail race, and all on a vegetarian diet.
Does the change in diet deserve credit for the results? I think so. Little else about my running has changed in that time, yet my race times keep getting faster, and my race distances longer. I believe the diet I now eat (vegetarian, mostly vegan) is responsible for increased energy and motivation, the need for less sleep, quick recovery from workouts, and freedom from injury.
Back to the Protein Thing
The primary concern of athletes or fitness freaks who are thinking about going vegetarian is protein. "Where do you get your protein?" is something of a joke among vegetarian athletes, who are asked the question more than any other.
The funny thing is that the vegetarians and vegans I know don't focus on protein. Sure, you can't just eat pasta and bagels every day and hope your body won't notice. But if you become vegetarian the right way---not simply removing the meat from your diet but replacing it with a range of whole foods that you might have never considered eating---the protein takes care of itself, as do most other nutrients.
I get protein from a wide variety of sources, and I try to include one in every meal. Lentils, chickpeas, black beans, quinoa, nuts, whole grains, even certain vegetables like broccoli and spinach. And of course, the old soy standbys: tofu and tempeh both play a role in my diet, but one no larger than any of the other quality vegetarian protein sources.
The one meal of the day that's difficult for me to sneak protein into is breakfast, since I rarely eat eggs and never drink milk. I drink a smoothie every morning, so I find that the addition of Living Harvest Organic Hemp Protein protein powder is the simple solution.
Why choose hemp protein, when whey and soy protein powders are cheaper and pack higher protein numbers? For me, it comes down to processing. If there's one thing both vegetarians and non-vegetarians agree on, it's that the more processed a food is, the worse it is for your body. Yet so many health-conscious, active people forget to apply this thinking to the supplements they take. For example, many protein powders are protein isolates, not whole-food protein, and I believe that the further a food is from its natural state, the less good it can do your body.
One of the reasons I use Living Harvest Organic Hemp Protein contains nothing other than low-temperature milled hemp seeds. To me, the fact that it needs to be refrigerated is a plus, since foods that live forever in a pantry without spoiling scare me. If bacteria are unwilling to eat your food, that's a pretty good sign there might not be much in there for you, either.
I try hard not to preach vegetarianism, and to inspire instead through example. Eliminating meat from my diet has worked wonders for my running. If you're stuck in your training like I was, it's worth considering, even if for you that means starting out with just a few meatless meals per week. Do some research on vegetarian endurance athletes, check out books on the vegetarian diet for athletes, and then try it for a short amount of time to see if it works. Just don't be surprised to find yourself still eating that way years later, with a lot of accomplishments to show for it.