Does being vegan affect your running performance?

Every year, like many people, I try to give up something for lent. In previous years I’ve tried to give up Google (failure) and late-night cartoons (success, and significantly more sleep). This year I went vegan. After a bumpy start – three days of Marmite on toast before I had time to do a big shop – I rather enjoyed it. But the question remains: did it actually do me any good?

I’ve been vegetarian most of my life, and am proud of the fact that despite what some people perceive as a restricted diet, I very rarely get sick and have plenty of energy for sports. I run marathons, swim, cycle, hike and rock-climb. I spend very little time resting on the sofa. So, would a vegan diet help or harm my fitness level, or indeed make no difference at all? With a marathon in May and the Lakeland 50 in July, this experiment could have very real consequences.

My meat-eating friends maintain that however fit and healthy I am, I’d be fitter, healthier, faster and all round “better” with a bit of meat in my diet. The main perceived “lack” in a vegetarian or vegan diet is that of protein, especially for vegetarians who take part in any form of strenuous exercise.

The science around the importance of protein is not clear at all, but societies that consume high levels of animal protein do have higher levels of cancer – though whether this is caused by the excess meat or a reduced consumption of cancer-fighting foods such as fruits and vegetables is not known. The International Agency for Research on Cancer reports that the regions with highest incidence of cancer are Australia/New Zealand, western Europe and northern America, all of which consume high levels of meat and dairy. Those with the lowest incidence of cancer are eastern Asia, northern Africa and south-central Asia.

According to “… populations around the world that consume diets loaded with animal protein such as the US, England, Israel, Finland and Sweden all have high rates of osteoporosis. The countries that consume low amounts of animal proteins (including dairy foods), such as African and Asian countries show very low rates of osteoporosis.”

Meanwhile in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Dr Luigi Fontana pronounced that “many people are eating too many animal products – such as meat, cheese, eggs and butter – as well as refined grains and free sugars.” He believes diets would be healthier if we ate more whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables and far fewer animal products.

So far, so much common sense. But what about some actual runners? Scott Jurek, a vegan ultra-runner, recently published the autobiographical Eat & Run, where he explains why he turned vegetarian and then vegan: not for ethics or health, but to run faster. He ran the Minnesota Voyageur 50-mile race three times before he won. The only difference he identified on that third occasion was diet:

“I won the Voyageur on my third try, eating more plants and less meat. I didn’t run harder. I was right: I couldn’t run harder. But I had learned something important. I could run smarter. I could eat smarter.”

He is far from alone: other noteworthy vegan runners include the Brits Fiona Oakes, Sally Eastall and Jack Maitland, and the US track-and-field legend, Carl Lewis. Several nutritionists, though, have noted, in reviewing Jurek’s book, that his previous diet had been pretty bad, so any conscious change would have to be good – whether vegan or not. Maybe there’s something to that: giving more thought to what we eat, considering its provenance and assessing how it makes us feel as runners could lead to changed and improved diets, whether we’re vegan, vegetarian or omnivores. Such awareness of what works for our bodies can undoubtedly help us towards that holy grail of faster running times.

As for my own experiment? Well, I cannot honestly say I have stayed 100% vegan. I’ve found eating out pretty tricky and have actually ducked out of a couple of social events rather than face the hassle of protracted conversations with a waitress or a meal consisting of side salad and chips.

On the flipside, I’ve enjoyed cooking up some really tasty new meals and learning the joy of eggless baking. More importantly, I have been running faster, with less effort, sleeping better and finding my energy levels to be at least as high as usual. I know this could all be complete coincidence, or psychosomatic – but I have to say it’s pretty cool.

So, I’m going to move further in the vegan direction, not ruling dairy out of my diet completely, but not relying on it for essential nutrients which also exist in nuts, pulses and grains. After all, we’re the only mammal that routinely consumes the milk of another mammal, which if you stop and think about it is a very odd thing to do.

The proof will be in the (vegan) pudding though, and with my two big races coming up I can’t wait to see how I’ll do.

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