Fiona Oakes, Scott Jurek, Rich Roll, Jason Lester, Madi Serpico, Nate Diaz, Tia Blanco, Enes Kanter, Torre Washington, Brendan Brazier, Alex Morgan, and Leilani Münter make up a tiny fraction of a long, growing list of vegan athletes. Some people/athletes go vegan for health reasons, while others go vegan for environmental ethics, human rights, animal-protection reasons, or all three connections. On January 1, 2013, I went vegan for animal-protection reasons (after going vegetarian 6 months prior). I was severely bullied when I was a child for being the fattest kid in school; I lost much of my family within a short period of time; I have scoliosis (resulting in degenerative disc disease and pain every time I run, cycle, sit, stand, etc.); I have a failed flat foot correction in my left foot (resulting in an abnormally-shaped foot that doesn’t fit in shoes properly and pain every time I run); a nasty fall, while running in Forest Park, resulted in a metal plate and screws surgically inserted into my left shoulder; I have a bone spur, osteoarthritis, and missing cartilage in my left knee; I’ve run a marathon with IT-band syndrome; I participated in the 2020 Backyard Ultra with Achilles tendonitis and a partial tear in my Achilles tendon; for the past few months, I’ve been running with cracked ribs (cycling accident) and Achilles tendinopathy. But the mental and physical pain I’ve been through wouldn’t even show up on a pain-radar of what a factory-farmed animal goes through daily. Human or not, another sentient being is just a being in another body. If I have a choice not to harm another being, then that’s the avenue I’ll take, hence why I’m a vegan.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve lost a lot of weight… twice. The first time that I lost weight due to childhood bullying drove me to develop a pretty bad eating disorder and nearly starving and drinking (alcohol) myself to death (literally). The second time that I lost weight was shortly after I became a vegan. When I became a runner, veganism was purely an ethical choice. Running was purely a passionate choice. Neither resulted from a desire to lose weight. Even today, as I write this, I struggle to talk about my weight loss and do my best to keep it tucked away in a mental closet. One, I REALLY don’t want to be known as “the guy that lost all that weight.” I don’t weigh myself very often because it’s pointless since it changes daily, and I am so much more than a number, a body size, or just a body. For example, I recently went to the doctor for a broken-rib checkup, and it turns out that – because of my scoliosis, I’ve “shrunk” about 1.5 inches in height over the past few years. The doctor pointed out that my body mass index (BMI, determined by height and weight) crossed over into the “overweight” category. As ridiculously silly and pointless this was, it was still mentally triggering for me. Two, diet culture has left nasty scars on me physically and mentally, and diet culture leaves a bad taste in my mouth. True, the second time that I lost weight was in a much more intuitive and healthy way. Still, after having everyone (including doctors) ignore everything else about me and tell me, “good job,” for losing weight (even though I nearly killed myself the first time), I try to stay away from diet talk. Therefore, I don’t talk about it much, I don’t diet, and I quickly exit a conversation centered around body size and image.
Whew, that was deep. Now on to a more fun topic… I run, cycle, and hike, but primarily, I’m a runner. I don’t necessarily call myself a “road” or “trail” runner because my feet see every surface and terrain. I started running during the Spring of 2015, so I can’t necessarily say if going vegan would have actually made a difference in my running or not, but I’ve heard and read that it made a difference for other athletes. I’m not a nutritionist, but the one big obvious difference between a plant-based diet (the diet of a vegan) and a SAD diet (Standard American Diet) would be the amount of bad cholesterol. I suppose that if a vegan ate coconut oil by the jar-full, it would be possible for them to raise their bad cholesterol level to concern levels. The bad thing with a high “bad” cholesterol level is that it could inhibit proper blood flow, which can cause several issues. Before I went vegan, my cholesterol level was at a dangerous level. It’s possible that it was still high by the time I started running. I say this because, when I started running, I recall experiencing a sensation that my veins and arteries wanted to jump out of my chest and arms. This feeling eventually went away, and now my cholesterol levels make my doctor jealous (true story). I have my blood drawn and checked at least once per year; more frequently if any numbers fall out of their ideal ranges.
If you’re considering going vegan and/or adopting a plant-based diet and you’re not sure where to start, I highly recommend working with a vegan-friendly nutritionist and joining a local support organization (see references below). Everyone’s body is unique, so your experiences may be different than mine, but here’s what stands out to me the most about being a vegan runner. B12: b12 is an essential vitamin produced by gut bacteria that promotes healthy cell growth. Since factory-farmed animals live in horrendous conditions, factory farm workers give their animals heavy doses of antibiotics, which kills bacteria, including gut bacteria. Because of this, factory farm workers give their animals B12 supplements. B12 naturally grows in plants, but because of the cleansing and sanitizing process, most plants are stripped of B12 nutrients. Because 99.9% of our food comes from an industrialized system and I do not eat animal flesh, I take a B12 supplement every other day and every day when I reach the peak of a training macrocycle. Iron: this probably has nothing to do with a plant-based diet, and it’s natural for most athletes to have a lower iron level than the non-athletic population, but it’s something that’s taken me a long time to dial in. Where do you get your protein? Ah, the popular question that every vegan hears. The fact is, protein is in nearly everything – beans, quinoa, nuts, lentils, chickpeas, edamame, tofu, tempeh, seitan, nutritional yeast; hell, even broccoli has a ton of protein in it (compare nutrition facts of these foods vs. meat, and you’ll be surprised, I know I was!). If you don’t have a high running volume and you eat a beautiful rainbow of foods (like I do), you’re probably not going to need much more protein than what goes in your tofu-hole, but again… everyone is different, and I’m a fan of working with reputable nutritionists.
I noticed that the more active I became, the more cravings I had, without ever feeling satisfied, no matter how much I ate. After a few months of trial and error and working with a nutritionist, I discovered that I needed to add a protein supplement to my diet. According to my nutritionist, vegan athletes do not absorb protein as well as other athletes (perhaps it’s because of the amount of fiber in a plant-based diet?), so they tend to need more. Since I started adding plant-based protein powder to my plant-based milk and smoothies on the days I run 5+ miles; my cravings have drastically decreased. Fiber: although fiber is a good thing, its timing is not always optimal (think pre-race fiber gut). While it’s tough for vegans to avoid fiber, I find myself reading labels and planning race week meals (in no way do I find joy in GI symptoms during a race). The night or two before a big race, I usually trade veggies and beans for an extra helping (or two) of brown rice, followed by satisfying chocolate and nut butter, or bananas and nut butter, or whatever will give me lasting energy (such as complex carbs) and comfort my mind without the bloat. Last, but not least, magnesium: my body does not do well in hot, humid conditions! If I do not take a daily magnesium supplement, I cramp A LOT! Vitamin-D: not vegan-related, but as most Portlanders do, I routinely take a vitamin-D supplement, especially during the winter months.
Other than what I mentioned above, I personally do not experience any other diet-related hurdles. I do not take prescription medications. My blood count numbers are fantastic (except my iron level used to be a challenge). My blood pressure is normal, my resting heart rate is athletically-low, and I tend to recover from injuries pretty quickly for someone my age.
Veganism is purely an ethical choice. Just as a vegan can eat jars of peanut butter, doughnuts by the dozen, entire pizzas, gallons of ice cream, and liters of beer for every meal while being sedentary, a non-vegan can eat healthily and obtain unnoticeable differences. Since I have been a vegan longer than I have been a runner, I can’t say for sure what the transition would have done for my running performance. Realistically, I can’t imagine adding a piece of chicken here or there making much of a difference. I can imagine a big difference if I switched my nut milk for cow’s milk or if I started eating animal flesh or chicken eggs daily. When I started running, I quickly realized how certain foods affected my runs and how I felt positively and negatively. If I downed oily veggie burgers and French fries with a bottle of wine the day before a track workout, you better believe I’m going to feel it. On the other hand, if I downed a mostly raw, colorful tempeh salad with a couple of glasses of water, I’m definitely going to have a great track workout. Based solely on my experience and education (and not a sales pitch), the closer you mimic a vegan lifestyle, the closer you will be living a lifestyle that is healthy for the planet and all of its inhabitants, simply because veganism is a solution to all of their interconnected problems.
My wife is a VERY talented chef; below are a few of my favorite, made-from-scratch, meals.
- My Strava profile: https://www.strava.com/athletes/16388784
- My Instagram Handle: @pdxVeganRunner
- My website: https://www.SolutionaryRunning.com/
- My email address: SolutionaryRunning@gmail.com
- My wife’s website: https://www.VegfulLife.com/
- Recipes for some of my favorite meals and snacks: https://vegfullife.com/recipes/
- Northwest Veg: https://nwveg.org/ (everything you’d need/wants to know about veganism in Portland)
- Vegan running shoes: https://www.peta.org/living/personal-care-fashion/the-ultimate-guide-to-vegan-running-shoes-men/
- Vegans of Portland Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/271312243364599
- Portland Vegans Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/portlandvegans
- Vegan Couvre Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/109385152504944
- B12 article: https://www.forksoverknives.com/wellness/vitamin-b12-questions-answered-2/
- High protein plant-based dishes: https://minimalistbaker.com/14-high-protein-plant-based-dishes/
- If you ever have any questions or need help, don’t hesitate to contact my wife or me…
- Marisa Michael: https://www.realnutritionllc.com/ (she’s not a vegan, but she’s my nutritionist, and she’s great!)