Updated: Mar 29
The list of vegan athletes is endless as more and more evidence reveals itself about the nature of the human body and recovery. Leading the pack in this evolution is the endurance sport of ultrarunning. Rich Roll, Scott Jurek, Catra Corbett, Brendan Brazier, Fiona Oakes, Yassine Diboun, John Joseph are just a few who have touted veganism as their saving grace. When you’re running hundreds of miles through heat, snow, rainstorms, mountainous terrain, rivers, and streams, there’s no room for error in how you fuel your body months and years leading up to a race like that. If you are a runner or an athlete of any kind, you must be curious, what is it about a plant-based diet that attracts, and maybe builds, so many phenomenal athletes.
Less soreness, quicker recovery
Two elements that slow recovery are inflammation and oxidative stress. Meat consumption and high cholesterol exacerbate inflammation. Endotoxins released when ingesting animal protein can trigger an immune response in the body when it perceives such a threat. Swelling commonly occurs as a defense mechanism. With a vegan diet, one can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress due to the rich array of nutrients consumed. Phytonutrients, found exclusively in plants, regulate activity in inflammatory cells and control the main enzymes that reduce inflammation. The more you digest these antioxidants and polyphenols, the faster your body can recover. Not only do antioxidants assist in inflammation recovery, but they also destroy free radicals which combat oxidative stress, and by doing so, recover those imbalances in the body. Natural ingredients like pineapple, ginger, cherries, blueberries, watermelon, turmeric, and flora oil are all anti-inflammatory ingredients you can add to a smoothie or a stir fry during rehabilitation.
“All I can tell you is that over the last ten years, despite juggling a rigorous training schedule, a series of semi-full time jobs, and hectic family life, I continue to improve athletically. Along the way, I’ve suffered little more than a sniffle ... That’s amazing in light of the fact that previous to my dietary shift I suffered from a myriad of allergies and could count on getting the flu, a head cold, or a sinus infection every couple months without fail.” - Rich Roll
Eating more, losing weight and running faster
Because they are typically low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, plant-based diets have consistently been shown to reduce body fat and improve blood viscosity. The higher rate of carbohydrate intake assists in greater efficiency of glycogen storage in the muscles. These factors influence oxygen reaching the muscles. Athletes on a plant-based diet have been shown to increase their VO2max, or maximum amount of oxygen they can use during exercise, and in turn, increase their aerobic capacity.
“From early on I felt like I could handle more running miles and my marathon time dropped by 5 minutes. I felt like I had more energy throughout the day as well. My performance and recovery were one of the first things I noticed.” -Yassine Diboun
Creating a more alkaline diet
Though it is generally considered by most doctors and dietitians that your diet should consist of 80 percent alkaline foods and 20 percent acidic foods, the modern American diet of processed foods, soda, meat, and dairy products, is overwhelmingly acidic. Our food choices are not the only acidic things we put into our bodies. Most prescription drugs, artificial sweeteners, and synthetic vitamin and mineral supplements are extremely acid-forming. When the body stays in an acidic state, it is constantly fighting to get back to a balanced pH. Over time, this causes fatigue by the systems used to facilitate this buffering. This can cause impaired sleep, decreased immune system functionality, decreased bone density and nutrient absorption, and lead to a reduction in muscle mass, inflammation, and obesity. Alkalizing foods like spinach, kale, avocados, bell peppers, broccoli, celery, cucumber, and lemon maximize the body’s immune system functionality and helps with weight loss, promoting the growth and repair of lean muscle mass. Chief among these alkalizing agents is chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants. It is responsible for plant energy synthesis, converting energy to carbohydrates in a process known as photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is linked to the production of red blood cells in the human body, ensuring constant cell regeneration and oxygen transport. This raises energy levels and contributes to peak athletic performance.
“In the United States and most of the world, medicine is all about treating disease after it comes, but I started trying to prevent it in my body.” -John Joseph
Endurance athlete Sarah Cotton said, “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.” In ultrarunning, there are hundreds of miles of repetition in the use of their joints and muscles. Simple nutrition takes away all the extra work the body must endure, and supports the healing and recovery process. A good rule of thumb keeps these athletes in prime condition: the simpler the better. Complicated foods like meat and dairy take up energy to digest and take away the ability for the body to focus on the regeneration it desperately needs when it is pushing itself past what is perceived as capable human physical activity. As Scott Jurak realized early in his career, the more research he did on endurance athletes, the more vegetarians he found. On runs, he loads his fanny packs with rice burritos, pita with hummus, and home-baked bread smeared with beans and quinoa. When he sprained his ankle he chose garlic, ginger, and other natural remedies, instead of ibuprofen. After he won the Western States (a legendary ultramarathon that he won six more times consecutively), he said he never looked back. As he sees it, his body isn’t forced to carry or process any useless bulk. Carbohydrates clear the stomach faster than protein, so he doesn’t have to sit around waiting for any meat to settle. Vegetables, grains, and legumes contain all the amino acids necessary to build muscles from scratch.
In his beautiful memoir, Eat & Run, Scott weaves romantic illustrations of his recipes throughout his narrative. He emphasizes a return to simple eating as a theme of his success. So, I’ll take a leaf from his book by ending with his recipe showcasing the simplicity of a vegan diet.
Tamari Lime Tempeh and Brown Rice
4 cups uncooked brown rice
2¾ cups water
1 teaspoon coconut or olive oil
8–12 ounces tempeh, sliced 1⁄8- to ¼-inch thick
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
1 tablespoon tamari or shoyu
Add the brown rice and water to a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, until the water evaporates and the rice is tender. Fluff with a fork and cool.
Coat a large skillet with the oil and heat over medium-low heat until a drop of water sizzles when it hits the pan.
Saute the tempeh for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, until lightly browned. Remove from the heat.
Squeeze the lime or lemon over the tempeh and sprinkle with the tamari or shoyu.
For each serving, place a cup of brown rice on a plate or in a bowl. Crumble several pieces of tempeh on top and drizzle with your favorite sauce.
“In fact, the number one reason for obesity in North America is simple: overconsumption. And we over consume because we're hungry.” -Brendan Brazier
Do you have any questions or comments about ultrarunning? Comment below.
Hi! My name is Alana Ahrens, and I am a student in Georgia State University's Coordinated Program for Dietetics. I am so excited to be pursuing my passion for food and fitness. When it comes to nutrition, there are endless opportunities to explore and writing is a favorite of mine. If I'm not in a classroom, you will find me hiking, running and/or cooking decently adequate vegan meals. I look forward to the chance to learn from and connect with this plant-based community.
Roll, Rich. Finding Ultra : Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. New York, Crown Publishing Group, 2012.
Jurek, Scott, and Steve Friedman. Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Brazier, Brendan. The Thrive Diet. Boston, De Capo Press, 2017.
McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run. New York, Vintage Books, 2009.