While not every ultrarunner is vegan, there seem to be an awful lot of high-mileage fanatics who opt for a plant-based lifestyle. While there aren’t any hard stats available, with veganism as a general nutrition trend on the rise, it’s not surprising more fitness buffs are testing the waters.
Some of the big names in ultrarunning vegan lifestyles include Scott Jurek, the ultrarunning vegan who rose to fame by winning nearly every ultra in America and being featured in the cult classic “Born to Run,” then finally writing his own book all about — you guessed it — his vegan diet. There’s also former pro Ironman athlete and endurance runner Brendan Brazier, who popularized his raw vegan style of eating with his book “The Thrive Diet,” and famed podcaster and ultra-endurance racer Rich Roll, who espouses the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle on his weekly show. But it’s not just the big names in ultra who’ve opted for a plant-based diet.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
“There are lots of vegan ultrarunners — I happen to be one of them!” says Under Armour pro runner Sarah Cotton. “For me, it stemmed from wanting to be more knowledgeable about how food interacts with my body as an ultrarunner. The kind of training and racing we do asks a lot of the body, and, in my mind, it’s hard to ask your body to perform at its best when you’re not treating it well. Nutrition is major, for runners and non-runners. I’ve always cared about nutrition, but it wasn’t until I started ultra and trail running that I really started researching the properties of certain foods and how it affects your recovery and performance.”
For her, plant-based was the natural evolution. “I started learning that there was nothing I needed in animal products that I couldn’t get from plant-based foods, and I feel a lot better about eating an organic fruit or vegetable that I can trace back to the earth, than an animal product that was created with God knows how many chemicals and hormones and mistreatment,” she says.
“I think another big factor is that, as long-distance trail runners, we spend a lot of time with Mother Nature. Personally, this makes me feel more connected to earth, and I guess it just feels right to use Mother Nature the way it was intended. It feels good to eat so close to earth, and to know where your food comes from,” Cotton added.
Like Cotton, race director and ultrarunner Nick Brindisi was eating a more typical ‘meat and potatoes’ diet before he picked up ultrarunning. “Ultras definitely came first,” he says. “I basically was an omnivore but heard from some vegan ultrarunners and cyclists that it gave them more energy. I find that to be true in my case. Anecdotally I hear all sorts of miracle reports from other runners about how much more energy and how much leaner they are. In my case, I’ve always been 6 feet and between 150–160 pounds since high school. I went vegan at age 50 and at age 55 currently, I’m finding I seem to have stabilized around 155 and after a long training cycle leading up to a 100-miler, I get as low as 148 despite eating tons. That’s a bit gaunt but I add good fats from sources like avocado and calorie-dense foods including nuts to get the calories in.”
In California, ultrarunner Eimanne Zein made the shift to veganism after a brutal 50-miler for her first race showed her the meaning of suffering. She had been a pesco-vegetarian for 16 years when she ran that race in 2014, but ultras pushed her to really clean up her diet and go fully vegan.
“Ultrarunning definitely was the driving force in my trying veganism,” she says. “I was happy not eating meat, and I’d given up on dairy milk a long time ago as well, but like so many people, I always thought how hard it would be to give up things like cheese and eggs. I was tempted to try it for the health benefits and environmental sustainability factors, but what pushed me over the edge was Scott Jurek’s book, ‘Eat & Run.’ Honestly, I knew when I picked it up that it would probably be all the convincing I needed. I officially went vegan the same time I started training for my first 100-mile ultra race.”
After a “test month,” Zein was convinced. “I immediately got faster, I dropped 30 minutes off of my marathon time at the LA Marathon without even training for it. I stopped getting stomach cramps and aches from eating those cheesy meals. And I wasn’t getting as sore on my long runs, making it much easier to recover and be ready for the next long run!”
A NUGGET OF ADVICE
Her best tip for new vegans is to learn how to cook, versus reaching for the ultra-processed vegan alternative options that are now widely available in most grocery stores. “I greatly favor eating whole foods and eating homemade,” she says. “That’s just personal preference, but one of the reasons I feel so good eating plant-based is because it gives me this connection to the earth through my food that you don’t get from eating processed, store-bought junk. I love trying new recipes at home and eating them on my long runs. It helps just knowing how much care and consideration went into my meal and knowing that it will provide the right kind of energy I need on the run.”
READ MORE > 5 EASY NUTRITION TIPS FROM VEGAN RUNNERS
Of course, there are plenty of ultrarunners who don’t opt to eat a vegan diet: It’s definitely not for everyone. “It’s funny because there are two vastly different schools of thought amongst the ultra community,” says Brindisi. “Some say they are carnivores and eat lots of fat to create a sustainable fuel source via ketones, others, like myself, prefer to carb up and remove the added ‘bad fat’ from meat and dairy products from their diets.” So being vegan is certainly not a requirement for crushing ultras — but if you’re interested in it, it’s certainly not the worst dietary trend to test. Worst case, you’ll learn to eat more vegetables even if you shift back to an omnivore way of eating!