What does it take to run 26.2 miles? A lot of training, fortitude, and the right nutrition. Running gurus stress the importance of protein when training for a marathon, but often suggest animal-based sources as a means of getting it. Living vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean you have to forsake your love of running: it just means you may have to get creative with your pre-run menus.
The Protein Problem – And Why It Isn’t
Your body needs protein to build muscle, which is crucial to having the stamina and strength necessary to run a marathon. If your body doesn’t get enough protein while engaging in high-energy activities like training for a marathon, it’ll pull protein from your muscles to burn as extra energy. If you’re eating a nutritionally solid diet, you probably get all the protein you need to maintain your body’s muscle mass with enough left to spare to build up some extra muscle.
Aside from maintaining and building muscle, the reason many fitness and running experts tout protein as the way to go when training for a marathon is because it’s one of the densest forms of caloric energy: a little bit of protein carries the same amount of potential energy as a larger amount of energy from carbohydrates. Simply put: you’d have to eat more pieces of toast to get the same amount of energy as a glob of peanut butter.
Potential energy from protein is also processed differently by the body than potential energy from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are easily broken down and consumed by the body, whereas protein is more of a long, slow burn. When you’re training for a marathon without using animal-based food sources, you need to eat more frequently to compensate for that lack of slow-burning energy.
What to Eat Before Running
Vegan and vegetarian runners can listen to the running experts on this one: carbohydrates are where it’s at. Carb-loading, the process of eating extra carbohydrates before engaging in strenuous physical activity, is the best way for vegans and vegetarians to get the energy needed to run a marathon.
The type of carbohydrates you eat matter. Sugars from fruit provide a quick jolt of energy, while some runners find that the carbohydrates found in starchy grains like bread are too bulky on their stomach to allow them to run comfortably.
Many vegetarian and vegan runners, like Alina Zavatsky of Vegan Runner Eats, swear by dates as the perfect pre-marathon meal. A handful of dates provides all the energy you’ll need to run the first 5 to 10 miles. Supplement the dates with a little bit of protein and extra sugar from peanut butter (or eggs, if you’re a vegetarian and not a vegan).
What Vegans and Vegetarians Eat While Running
Most marathoners need to eat while running: it’s just a fact of life. But veggie marathoners really need to keep their energy up while in the middle of a marathon. Again, dates are recommended for their quick energy jolt: some veggie and vegan runners even make their own energy paste or “goo” by mixing a source of protein, carbohydrates, potassium and electrolytes – which is basically protein, sugar, potassium and salt. Peanut butter, date syrup, molasses and salt are good foundations of a squeezable goo you can grab and go on your marathon.
Other options for mid-marathon snacking include fruit leather and salted raisins. Anything that gets your blood sugar up and keeps your salt replenished is a good bet for a mid-marathon snack. Avoid trail mix, because while peanuts are packed with protein, they’re also a choking hazard and trying to spoon it into your mouth can cost you precious minutes on your time.
The Power of Hydration
Perhaps even more important than what you eat while training for and running a marathon is what you drink: water is great, but it won’t replenish the salt your body loses from running such a long distance. Sugary sports drinks are an option, as they contain salt, but they might not be veggie-friendly depending on the dyes used – even then, they aren’t the most healthy or balanced option. Mix your own electrolyte solution by mixing maple syrup and salt with your water. The individual ratios needed vary from person to person, so test any mixture you decide on while training and far in advance of your goal race. If you’re not staying hydrated and not getting the right sugar and salt mixture, you’ll feel fatigued and foggy-headed after a race.
Commercially available electrolyte tablets and gels to mix with water also exist, but not all of them are vegan. Check the ingredient list and ask the manufacturer about any questionable sources. Many veggie runners find these to be perfectly valid options, and they take the guesswork out of staying well-hydrated.
What Do Veggie Marathoners Eat?
Veggie marathoners eat what they need to fuel their bodies for a high-intensity, endurance activity. Plenty of carbohydrates at regular intervals mixed with vegetable-based proteins found in a nutritionally solid diet keep your body primed and ready to run. Staying hydrated is part of the health and nutrition of running. As always, speak to your doctor or nutritionist before altering your diet and embarking on a marathon training program; they can advise you of any requirements specific to your individual body and needs.