Guest Post: Matt on Vegetarian Running

by Gena on February 16, 2011

Hey all!

As promised, I’m welcoming a super special guest to CR today. Matt, better known as the No Meat Athlete, is one of the most impressive bloggers I know. Not only does he write a professional, informative, and passionate blog, but he’s also a full time grad student in applied math, a husband, a father, and a ultramarathoner. In the last year, Matt worked on his blog, published an e-book, worked on his Ph. D., became a father, and qualified for Boston.

And I thought I was good at multitasking.

If you’re tempted to think Matt’s a superhero, I don’t blame you. But if you were to ask him, he’d simply say that he fuels his life, his running, and his passions with the power of plants. Few athletes are more passionate or informed about the remarkable benefits of a plant-based diet. He and I don’t always agree: for example, there was the great juice fast debate of 2010 ( in which I took the vehemently anti-fast side and Matt took the hesitantly pro). And there’s our caffeine war, which we’ll fight till the bitter end (Matt takes Brendan‘s example to heart, and minimizes coffee while he can; I indulge, and then some). But for the most part, we’re in sync about our dietary values.

I’m such a fan of Matt’s work that, when he asked me to be a part of his new e-book, Marathon Roadmap, I said yes instantly. It’s a user-friendly and informative guide to running one’s first marathon. I’m so proud to have written an entry for Matt on the raw food diet. If you like what you read below, check out Matt’s site for more details!

Without further ado, Matt Frazier on vegetarian running!

Not so long ago, if you told someone you were a vegan athlete, they’d look at you like you had just said you put Yoo-Hoo in your car’s gas tank.

A plant-based diet was an unfortunate affliction for an athlete be dealt — a handicap that would prevent her from ever reaching her true potential. But that’s all becoming a thing of the past.

The ‘vegan weakling’ image is dead

Today, vegetarians and vegans are doing all the things we “shouldn’t” be able to do.

There’s a vegetarian running across the United States. There are vegan triathletes winning Ironman triathlon competitions — that’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a marathon — and placing highly in the Ultraman, a multiday event that’s roughly double the already-insane distance of an Ironman. Even the 24-hour American distance record for running (165 miles!) is now held by Scott Jurek, a vegan and one of the greatest ultramarathoners of all time. And of course, there’s Brendan Brazier, the former pro-triathlete and ambassador of vegan sports nutrition to the mainstream world through his book Thrive.

And it’s not just endurance sports. There are bodybuilders, mixed martial artists, baseball players, and Olympic-medalist snowboarders who do it all on a plant-based diet.

You name it; chances are, there’s a vegan or vegetarian kicking ass at it. So what is it about a plant-based diet that allows these folks to excel in sports, when so much emphasis in the past has been on getting enough protein, which “everyone knows” you need meat to get?

The #1 advantage plant-based foods offer

I’ve had the privilege of talking to several of these incredible athletes about their diets and their reasons for choosing to fuel with plants. While they all have different approaches to nutrition, I’ve found that they cite one particular reason, time and time again.

The advantage of a vegan diet is in speed of recovery from workouts. Recovering faster means you can workout again sooner, with a lower risk of injury or exhaustion from overtraining.

Without fail, the athletes I’ve talked to have told me that plant foods, especially raw, allow them to recover more quickly from workouts and become more resistant to injury than they can from an equivalent caloric intake of animal products.

It’s easy to see from these world-class examples that a vegan or vegetarian diet doesn’t have to be an obstacle in training for sports. And that’s an understatement: The athletes I’ve mentioned are making a strong case that it might actually be an advantage.

3 guidelines for getting what you need

So what if you’re looking to train for a marathon, a triathlon, or just step up the intensity and make the most of your time in the gym? Does this mean you won’t need to make any changes to your already-healthy vegan diet?

Not quite. While there’s no reason to add animal products, there are still several nutrition aspects you’ll want to focus on. Follow the three guidelines below to make sure you’re getting the fuel you need.

Make sure you’re eating enough food.

As a vegan, you probably consume less overall than someone who eats meat, eggs, or dairy. These foods are dense in calories, so your diet is likely lower in total calories than average. Great if you’re looking to lose weight, not so good if you’re putting in 50 miles a week during marathon training.

Make sure you’re getting enough. Pay special attention to what you eat before, during, and after your workouts, as your intake during these periods — especially in the half-hour window after you finish a workout — is crucial for recovery. Throughout the rest of the day, recognize that you simply must take in more calories while you’re training intensely than when you’re more sedentary.

Shoot for half a gram of protein per pound of body weight each day.

Yes, I know you’re sick of being questioned about where you get your protein. So am I. But when you’re putting your body through intense training and expecting it to rebuild lots of muscle tissue, protein is not something you want to ignore.

There are endurance athletes, like the Fruitarian, who thrive on diets made up of very little protein. If that appeals to you, it’s certainly worth researching. But I find that I have the most energy if I get a bit more than 10% of my total calories from protein—I try to get 0.5 grams per pound of body weight daily, and that’s in line with what most of the athletes I’ve talked to suggest.

Some great vegan protein sources are beans and legumes, nuts, hemp protein powder, tofu and tempeh, and even some grains. Don’t forget green vegetables, either—spinach, broccoli, and others have lots of protein by weight.

But don’t go crazy with protein. Carbohydrates and healthy fats are absolutely essential to endurance training as well. People are making all different balances of these macronutrients work, but nobody’s ignoring any of them completely.

Eat lots of raw fruits and vegetables.

This shouldn’t be too tough a sell to Choosing Raw readers! There are only a handful of all-raw athletes that I know of, but most vegan athletes suggest incorporating raw foods to a large extent.

As I’m sure you know, it’s very possible to eat vegan and eat junky. Eating raw and eating junky, though, are almost mutually exclusive.

Raw fruits are easy and should be a big part of your workout-day diet, since they also provide lots of easy-digesting carbohydrates you can use for immediate energy. Salads and raw vegetable sides and snacks are also fairly convenient. And don’t forget raw nuts and sprouted beans and seeds — they’re almost always more nutritious than their cooked counterparts.

Ask yourself: What’s your incredible thing?

Maybe we can’t all be superathletes. But each of us has the power to do something. Something that, by our standards, is amazing, astounding, phenomenal, and that serves as an example of the power of a plant-based diet for others to see.

In just a few months, I’ll be running the Boston Marathon for the first time. For me, it’ll be a celebration, the reward for seven years of working harder than I ever have at anything else in my life. And even with all that work, I don’t think I’d be there if I hadn’t discovered how much better my body runs on a vegetarian diet.

Going vegetarian is what it took for me to qualify for Boston. Prior to that, I was a frustrated runner, doubting that I’d ever be able to shave the final ten minutes off of my marathon time that would get me to down to three hours and ten minutes (7:15 per mile for 26.2 miles), the time that was necessary to get in.

And yet six months after I phased out the meat, that’s exactly what I did. Qualifying for Boston is incredible thing a plant-based diet allowed me to do. And now it’s on to the next.

What’s your incredible thing?

Matt Frazier is a vegetarian marathoner and ultrarunner, currently training for his first 100-mile ultramarathon. Matt writes the blog No Meat Athlete, where his latest project, Marathon Roadmap, is helping first-time marathoners train and fuel for the distance on a plant-based diet.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea February 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Gena,

Thanks for posting this guest post. I’ve recently upped my activity quite substantially, and I’ve been feeling incredibly hungry, all the time. This is great advice for someone who is simply a less meatatarian as well!

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Maryea @ Happy Healthy Mama February 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm

My incredible thing is feeding my family an 85% plant-based diet and raising my daughter to love fresh, whole foods. :-) Great post.

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Ela February 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Thanks so much for sharing this and good luck with your ultramarathon!

I especially appreciated your point that we’re not all superathletes. I’ve been vegetarian/vegan almost my whole life, except for an experiment with animal products a couple years ago, at a time when I was trying very hard to ‘become athletic.’ It turns out that I was my strongest and fittest during the animal products experiment, but I also pushed myself way too hard, got really sick, went back to vegan to get better, and have been accepting since then that that is not me: my talents and passions lie elsewhere. I think it’s important to look at the ‘before’ and the aftermath in any dietary experiment, to understand the whole picture.
thanks,
Ela

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Gena February 16, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Great point. I love Matt and I love Brendan, but honestly, I’d rather get root canal than run a marathon (though I do love my short runs). It’s fine to pick and choose our challenges in life.

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Andrea February 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm

I think it takes a certain brand of crazy to want to be a runner. (Speaking as someone who’s planning on running the Army 10-miler this year) and Grandma’s Marathon in 2012. At a young age, I got a taste for pushing my body to limit and the sense of accomplishment I got when pushing past my perceived physical limitations. I actually think that’s because being an athlete did not come naturally to me. I had to work harder at it than I did at school or art.

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Freya February 16, 2011 at 3:10 pm

I love this post :)
My incredible thing is that I bounced back from the brink after a long ED battle, and ran my 1st marathon 1/2way across the world on a vegan diet, all alone. I’m proud of myself :)

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Lauren Slayton February 16, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I am so glad to see this post and NMA and Choosing Raw coming together (2 of my favorite sites). Matt you manage to express complicated/confusing topics so clearly. You empower food and diet. It sounds hokey but I see it all the time, with nutrition clients, that changes to our diet (diet meaning what we eat) can lead to other, bigger changes. Part of this is fueling and part of this is showing ourselves that we can change and improve. My incredible thing? I have an ultra on my bucket list, I have a marathon time I’ve never been able to achieve (and so many more things). Thanks for the inspiration to go after all of them.

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Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) February 16, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Thanks, Matt, for your tips and perspective. I wouldn’t consider myself and endurance athlete per se, but I do run daily (used to run 5 & 10ks and half’s very frequently before I had a child and had more time to just run)..and I do yoga, lift weights, do pilates, (not all on the same day!) but in general I am a very active person and thrive on a plant-based diet.

My incredible thing is just finding the time to work out and squeeze it into life because between a FT job, a FT family to care for, my blog, my friends, and oh yes, sleep…it’s incredible to carve out my time to workout and decompress from life for awhile :)

Congrats on Boston!

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Mindy February 16, 2011 at 3:34 pm

What a great post. I will definitely be subscribing to the No Meat Athlete Blog.

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Tim Woodbury February 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I’ve been working my way through the NMA Marathon Roadmap, and really enjoying it! I’ve also been moving closer to vegetarianism over the last year (since I started following NMA).

One thing I’m curious about though. What is it about a vegan diet that speeds recovery?

I injured myself pretty badly via over-training last season, so anything that improves recovery sounds good to me.

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Andrea February 16, 2011 at 4:54 pm

You should check out Thrive by Brendan Brazier. He gives a really good explanation of the connection between a plant-based diet and recovery.

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Tim Woodbury February 16, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Thanks, Andrea! I’ll have to check that out! :D

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Elizabeth@The Sweet Life February 16, 2011 at 4:20 pm

It’s been an interesting journey for me to realize that the vegan lifestyle doesn’t mean weak, “odd”, different, totally earthy-crunchy, etc. I’ve enjoyed learning that, like most things in life, you can “be” something–wife, mother, banker, vegan, etc.–and not “be” the stereotypes that define those words.

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Katelyn @ Chef Katelyn February 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Ahhh thank you for this post!! I love reading posts from bloggers that have similar ideals about athlete nutrition to Brendan Brazier, raw foods alllll the way!:)

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Christin@purplebirdblog February 16, 2011 at 6:52 pm

What awesome information! I have no desire for long distance running AT ALL, but I love knowing that so much can be accomplished on a plant-based diet (as I strive to get there myself!)

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bitt February 16, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Thanks for being a strong, veggie man, and proud of it!

I appreciate your saying to eat enough food. It’s one of the biggest mistakes I see people doing when they try to eat a raw diet, is not eating enough.

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Kelsey @ Unmitigated Grub February 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Thanks Matt (and Gena) for this post!! I LOVE that Matt and so many others are showing how it’s not only possible to be vegan AND an athlete–it’s maybe even ideal.

I know the list wasn’t comprehensive by any means, but based on my experience as a runner, I would add one extra guideline particularly important for women athletes: increase your iron intake, especially as you increase your activity level.

If all goes well, my incredible thing will be my first marathon this fall–and I will definitely refer to this great info! :)

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Alyssa February 17, 2011 at 12:43 am

Thanks so much for this post! I have been making a switch to a mostly Raw diet and possibly vegan but it has been a little interesting on trying to make it work for my workouts and runs. This gives me hope that I can do both. I know that it is going to be some trial and error on what works for my body. I am really excited to look into your Marathon Roadmap! Right now I am not even close but I am so interested in someday doing a marathon.

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Johanna February 17, 2011 at 6:37 am

My incredible thing is that I last fall admitted to myself that I suffered from ED and this time got help to recover from it. I also have opened myself up for my family and friends, sharing both what’s good and bad. AND I’m starting to put more effort and time to be at better dancer – not because I have to, just beacuse it’s fun and I love doing it! :)

A great post and I really felt good when I read about being able to recover more quickly when fueling up with greens – I think it’s important for me (and for anyone else) to take care of one’s body when exercising a lot and recover from ED. To be able to love your body, so that you’ll give the nutrition it needs. And thanks for pointing out that you’ll have to eat enough food. May seems like an “obvious” advice, but sometimes it’s so easy to forget it!

Good luck in Boston! :)

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tweal February 17, 2011 at 7:43 am

Great post, thanks for sharing! I have flirted with running in the past but I never got really serious about it. It would be nice to start up again this spring – there are few things as nice as running outside on a cool morning when the mist is rising and the sun is just peeking out. That could make even a non-runner want to run!

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Karen February 17, 2011 at 8:25 am

“What’s your incredible thing?” LOVE that!

Terrific post, Matt!

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Dani @ Body By Nature February 17, 2011 at 8:35 am

So happy you posted this! I just registered for my second 1/2 marathon and discovered Matt’s website last night!

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thefruitpursuit (Sabine) February 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

Matt, I love you :)

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R_M February 17, 2011 at 9:40 am

I find your protein recommendation confusing: if I eat a half a gram per pound of body weight that’s 75 grams (FDA recommendation for a 2000 cal per day diet is 65 g) and figuring out 10% of my total calories (which as a woman is around 1700) is advanced mathematics for innumerate people like me, unless I am actually supposed to take 1700 and multiply it by 10% but that seems insane. Can you clarify?

Both numbers seem really high; even my rock climbing girlfriend doesn’t aim for protein numbers like that.

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R_M February 17, 2011 at 9:42 am

I should add, I’m already vegan so nutritional numbers like that don’t intimidate me. I’ve run marathons in small towns where my recovery food has been the only vegan offering in the town, Utz Potato Chips, and been fine. I’ve never had a nutritional hang up about protein, and I’ve never really “gotten” why other runners do.

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Gena February 17, 2011 at 9:45 am

RM,

Actually, 75 grams vs. the 65 isn’t such a vast difference of margin. And remember that part of what Matt’s saying is that an athlete in training may need to creep above the FDA recommendation. So I typically get 45-60 grams daily (this varies quite a bit), which is about a half gram per pound–give or take a bit–but I’m also not an athlete in training. If I were, I may go up to 65 daily, or thereabouts.

As for the 10% law, it’s 10% of your daily calories from concentrated protein. So you’re eating 1700 daily — that’s about 170 kcal from protein in a concentrated form or an aggregate of protein throughout the day. 1 cup of beans would be more than enough; so would 8 oz tofu. It’s actually quite modest a suggestion.

Gena

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Melomeals: Vegan for $3.33 a Day February 17, 2011 at 10:37 am

Great post! My son is a runner, weight lifter and athlete and even though I raised him vegetarian, he is currently eating meat because he refuses to believe that he can get enough protein/nutrition for his workouts. I’m sooo sharing this with him.

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Laura C February 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

My incredible thing is that I am using my veggie, vegan-leaning diet to keep my mood and body image more stable and positive than ever. I’m also fueling my brain through grad school and my body through hot yoga! Plant foods, with plenty of protein, keep me sailing much more smoothly. 2 years ago I tracked my protein and found I had a hard time getting more than 45g per day (mostly sourced from nuts/seeds) despite plenty of calories- I was still following some extreme guidelines from the raw world. Now that I’m eating beans and grains and tofu I’m sure it’s much higher, as it should be for my body.

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Ian February 18, 2011 at 8:08 am

Love your post and everything you stand for :) I also managed to qualify for Boston as a vegan athlete, and I feel that it was veganism combined with a love for running that allowed me to even run a marathon in the first place!

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Caity March 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Amazing post! (And incredibly relevant to me personally as I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan this year and am running my first half marathon in July). I’m excited to check out Matt’s website for some tips.

And thank you Gena for introducing us to yet another intelligent and knowledgeable individual helping to break down misconceptions about vegetarianism/veganism!

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