For various reasons more and more runners and athletes are starting to adopt a plant-based diet, but does it affect your performance?

The diet change can be made as a means to improve overall health, animal welfare, as well as a means to reduce the impact on the environment.

As a performance dietitian, one of the main questions I am asked regarding a vegan diet is; will it be sufficient and complete to support a training program? My answer is always yes, but it does need some careful planning and a lot more thought put into meal plans.

Key guidelines for a vegan runner and athlete

Vegan diets must provide a minimum of 400mg but preferably, 700-1000mg of calcium a day in order to be beneficial to bone health. Soya products and tofu are your best vegan sources of calcium as well as being high in protein and isoflavones, which have a positive effect on your heart health.

While green leafy vegetables and nuts such as almonds are often portrayed as good sources of non-dairy calcium it is important to highlight that a large plate of broccoli (150g serving) provides 70mg of calcium; a handful of almonds 52g of calcium compared with a 200ml glass of soya milk that provides 240mg.

Vegans need to ensure a mix of grains and pulses at meal times so that they can obtain all essential amino acids, which can only be provided through diets. Good options include rice and lentils; beans on toast and chickpea curry with couscous.

Try to include a small serving of walnuts or walnut oil daily as these provide ALA, an essential fatty acid that can be used in the body to make omega 3 fatty acids which are important for reducing inflammation after heavy training and also reducing fatigue levels.

While a balanced vegan diet will provide the majority of nutrients required by the body, there are some that will be completely devoid and will require supplements.

Main nutrients to be aware of

  • Vitamin B12 –this cannot be obtained through a plant-based diet alone due as it is only available in animal products. This is definitely one supplement all vegans need to take.
  • Vitamin D – this is not just specific to vegans, most individuals in this country are low or near deficient in Vitamin D. It plays an important role in bone health, immune health and muscle recovery. I always suggest a supplement through the winter months specifically.
  • Iron – is one to watch but with a well-balanced diet containing beans, pulses, dried fruit and fortified cereals you should not necessarily find it difficult to achieve through your diet.
  • Calcium, as suggested previously, is critical for bone health and muscle contraction so ensuring you are replacing dairy with soya is important.

Tailoring a vegan diet to training

So once you have established the fundamentals of your vegan diet, the next step is working out how to put this into practice around training.

For example, on a hard training day, it is critical to ensure sufficient available carbohydrate so that the higher intensity paces can be maintained, as well as prolong endurance.

Equally making good recovery choices will be instrumental to maintain a consistency in performance through all your sessions thus leading to progression.

As a guideline, here is one way you can ensure you are meeting these requirements:

B/F: oats made with soya milk, topped with fruit and toasted nuts or seeds
M/M: sliced banana topped with 20g serving nut butter
L: whole grain bagel with houmous and salad with a mug of tomato soup; followed by soya yoghurt and fruit
M/A: 2-3 oatcakes topped with half an avocado mashed
E/M: quinoa with roasted vegetables and chickpeas; followed with soya and fruit
B/T: hot chocolate made with soya milk and 2 large squares of dark chocolate melted in.

Planning plays a huge part in any performance diet but even more with vegans.

The main tip I would suggest is sitting down on a Sunday, looking at your training and working week ahead – identify potential times in the week where fuelling may be a challenge, possibly due to lack of time and plan for that.

Some strategies

Bulk prepare food- thinks like soups, casseroles, couscous can all be made in advance and kept in the fridge for up to 3 days. Or freeze individual portions and then defrost as and when you need.

Make a kit list of suitable snack options that you keep at work or in the car so that you can fall back on. This might include things like oatcakes, a jar of nut butter, cereal bars, dried fruit and nuts, flavoured soya milk.

Consider planning your week’s menu in advance so that you can then do an online shop and ensure you always have food available. This will mean you are less likely to make poor choices when you are tired and hungry.

A few vegan recipe ideas can be found here.

About the Author
Renee McGregor RD SENr is a Performance Dietitian and author who works with elite athletes, coaches and sport science teams to provide nutritional strategies to enhance performance and manage eating disorders. She is the author of Training Food, Fast Fuel books and Orthorexia.