Vegan Marathon Training: How to Fuel Up on a Plant-Based Diet
With the New York Marathon coming up this Sunday. And with 50,000 runners about the toe the line, this year more of them than ever are training a plant-based or vegan diet. The reason more runners are avoiding animal products is that they're learning that plant-based fuels contribute to overall health and reduce inflammation, which allows for quick recovery times, according to new research. Eating plant-based can also lead to weight loss (if that's a goal for you) and keep your body burning clean fuel through the long mileage weeks and even the race itself
That’s why more and more runners are turning to plant-based fuels to power their performance. Vegan and plant-based eating is a growing trend in the running community and there are more options than ever when it comes to fueling up on and off the course.
But making plant-based foods work within your training diet takes proper planning and know-how, especially for a marathoner. (I know this, as someone who just ran the Chicago marathon a few weeks ago, which has helped me bring my personal training and running experience to my practice as a nutritionist who works with athletes.)
Running a marathon burns on average 2,500 calories depending on your weight and speed, and plant-based foods tend to be lower in calories than animal foods. That means in the final weeks of marathon training, it’s critical to take in as many calories as you burn to prevent unintentional weight loss, which could negatively impact performance. As you plan your fueling strategy for a marathon, follow these plant-based nutrition tips so that you can go the distance and feel great throughout the full 26.2.
What to eat the week before the marathon
If you’re just a week out from your race, carbs are the main energy source for exercise. Luckily for plant-based eaters, there is no shortage of carbs on a plant-based diet, so it shouldn’t be an issue to eat the recommended 3 to 4.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight in the weeks leading up to the marathon.
To endure the bodily wear and tear of training, eat plenty of nutrient-rich carb sources, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Balance those with plant-based proteins, such as beans, legumes, and soy products and healthy fats, like oils, nuts, seeds and avocados to eat a well-balanced diet. Although a treat is warranted every once in a while, avoid filling your diet with unhealthy carb-rich foods, like plant-based ice creams, packaged snacks of fried junk. These don’t provide the proper nutrients for fueling or recovery and can cause you to feel weighed down and lethargic during training.
What to eat the day of the race
You’ve put in the many months of training, and now it’s time for the big day. Don’t let your nutrition sidetrack your efforts. Follow these guidelines to fuel properly before, during and after the race.
Before the race
Two to four hours before the race, make a balanced breakfast with complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. The combination of these macronutrients takes a long time to digest, so you will feel full but not weighed down. Try 2 slices of whole-wheat toast with almond butter, berries and a drizzle of maple syrup, and pair it with a large glass of water. If you prefer a hot breakfast, a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, nuts, chia seeds, raisins and a sprinkle of cinnamon works.
On your way to the race or while you’re waiting in the corral (about 30-60 minutes before the starting gun), have a carb-rich snack. Two portable options are fruit, like a banana, or dried fruit, like dates or raisins. These simple carbs will deliver quick energy into the bloodstream for the start of the race since it’s likely been a while since you left home to get to the starting line.
During the race
Fueling during a marathon is essential for performance, and to avoid bonking in the second half. Your body stores carbs in the muscle and liver in the form of glycogen. These stored carbs and any carbs you ate before the race are the primary fuel source during your run, but they only last for about an hour. After those 60 minutes, it’s important to take in fuel to avoid ���hitting the wall”.
Fueling with 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour helps maintain blood sugar levels and delays fatigue and brain fog. Most sports nutrition products, like sports drinks, gummies and “gus,” have about 20-30 grams of carbohydrates, so start fueling with your product of choice about 45-60 minutes into your runs and continue to fuel at regular intervals every few miles (or every 30 minutes).
Make sure you check the ingredients and look out for animal products like gelatin or dyes. There are plenty of plant-based sports nutrition products, but here are some of our favorites. Here are a few plant-based ones to try:
When consuming any of these products, do so with a few sips of water.
Drink plenty throughout the race. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) both recommend drinking 2 to 3 milliliters per pound of body weight in the 2-4 hours before exercise. That translates to a 120-pound woman drinking a cup and a half every few hours.
There's no need to overcomplicate this--it's simply 2-3 big gulps of fluid every 15 minutes or so during competition. Mix electrolytes with water to keep your salts from getting depleted.
After the race
Immediately after the marathon, you may not feel like putting food in your stomach but it’s an essential part of recovery. A well-balanced meal of carbs, protein, and healthy fat is needed to replace glycogen stores, repair muscle tears, and control hunger.
During intense exercise, your muscles breakdown, and protein aids in muscle recovery. Research has found that the combination of protein and carbohydrates may promote glycogen synthesis and muscle repair more than just protein or carbohydrates alone. It’s best to eat within 60 minutes after your run to reap the most benefits to recover faster. During this time, your body can quickly utilize the nutrients you ingest to refuel your carbohydrate stores and promote muscle repair quickly. Research suggests that 20 to 30 grams of protein is the max amount you need for recovery. So no need to overdo it but eat soon after your finish line, to get back out there and start running again!
Below are some easy plant-based recovery options.
Chocolate soy milk -- high in protein
A handful of nuts and air popped-popcorn
Tofu scramble with veggies
Avocado toast with sunflower or pumpkin seeds
A smoothie with frozen fruit, pea protein powder, and nut or soy milk