Kathryn Howard ponders why there are more vegan runners than ever before, and outlines the benefits a vegan diet has to professional athletes.
Runners are guilty of gabbing about geeky things – mile splits, the best way to lace up your trainers, personal bests – but of late it is not surprising for the conversation to have taken a slightly different turn: namely, veganism, and its potential benefits on athletic performance.
And they’re not just talking, they’re taking action. There are more and more vegan runners joining the ranks each day, with Vegan Runners UK reporting substantially increased membership during 2015 and 2016. Whether that’s due to runners becoming vegan or vegans taking up running, it’s unclear – but whatever the reason, there’s an ever increasing crossover between the two groups.
I am an example of this growing trend. I’ve been running for around six years now and had been a vegetarian for many more years, but at the start of this year I decided to start going vegan, and take the Vegan Pledge. I haven’t made the complete switch yet and have had setbacks, but my animal product consumption has drastically reduced since January.
Alongside my reduction in milk, cheese and eggs, I’ve already seen a decrease in my racing times. So far this year I have broken my PB (Personal Best to you non-geeky-runner-types) for a 5k race twice, running the distance over two minutes faster than the previous year, and ran my best 10k time in two years. Admittedly there is still room for improvement – I’m not the next Mo Farah!
While I cannot prove cause and effect between dropping dairy and dropping times, I cannot help but feel that there is a correlation. I certainly feel fitter and healthier than I have done for many years, and the only major change has been my diet.
Vegan running is not a new phenomenon. Vegan Runners UK has been around for 12 years and Carl Lewis, a vegan since 1990, achieved successes in sprints, relay and long jump in subsequent World Championships and Olympics. But, at the moment it seems to be more popular than ever before.
It could simply be an accumulation of factors, not least the increasing number of vegans in the general population alongside the increasing number of runners. Perhaps celebrity endorsements, e.g. Olympic hero and national sweetheart Mo Farah advertising vegetarian line Quorn, has encouraged more runners to think about their animal product consumption too.
The benefits of a vegan diet have also been espoused by current running legends, inspiring a whole new generation. Perhaps one of the most widely known vegan advocates, among the running community at least, is the hugely successful ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek.
Named ‘Ultra Runner of the Year’ four times by UltraRunning magazine, and several times winner of races ranging from 100 to 165 miles, Jurek is passionate about the benefits of a plant-based diet. He’s even written a book ‘Eat & Run’ about his career and his diet.
The achievements of professional athletes like Jurek and others are proving that a plant-based diet can deliver all the nutrients, protein and carbohydrates needed not just to live but to excel. They are similarly inspiring amateur runners, who are giving them a run for their money in the success stakes. Amateur runners like Will Lloyd, a personal trainer and runner who became a vegan over two years ago, came second this year in the gruelling ‘London 2 Brighton Challenge’ – a 100km race.
Will says, “Veganism has impacted my running both mentally and physically. Mentally because I feel like I am running to prove a point that eating a vegan diet can help performance, and physically because I find following a vegan and mostly plant based diet very beneficial to performance.
“A plant based diet is a great way of managing your weight, as you can eat a lot more food! I find my recovery times have improved between sessions, and usually my digestion is pretty good,” he explains.
“The foundation of my diet is based on grains, potatoes, fruits, veggies, beans and the odd treat here and there! I get plenty of protein and carbohydrate, I say to people worried about this to do their own research on how much protein or carbs is in different foods!”
And it’s not just running that is shining the spotlight on the benefits of plant-based diets for professional athletes. Whether you’ve been caught up in Olympic fever or not, you can’t help but notice that for the past two weeks the world’s best athletes have been competing on the greatest sporting stage of all.
Among them have been several athletes who follow plant-based diets – not least Australian track star Morgan Mitchell, tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, and weightlifter Kendrick Farris.
So if you’re inspired enough by the Olympics to slip into a classy little hi-vis lycra number, at least you know you’ll be in good company.
By Kathryn Howard
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