A Distance Runner’s Diet
Recently I was asked about getting adequate calories in as a distance runner. This is a valid concern, however what threw me off was that the individual mentioned they were vegetarian and seemed to think being a vegetarian was making it difficult for getting adequate calories into a diet. I’ve been a plant-based eater for a decade now and have never quite understood this concern. It’s not as if meat is a huge amount of calories that people take in while running or in general it’s not terribly high in calories. Below I’ve broken down dietary recommendations for distance athletes and provided examples of my own diet! For those engaged in run training, we typically consider protein and carbohydrates first. Fat is usually not an issue and comes naturally in adequate amounts when you eat adequate food in fairly unprocessed forms. With carbohydrates, depending on your training load you may need anywhere from 3 grams / kg daily for someone with a light/moderate training volume to 5 or 6 grams / kilogram daily for athletes with very very amounts of running. There’s a term for vegetarians who eat a lot of vegetarian junk food. Being a junketarian must be avoided at all costs. One cannot thrive off of Oreos and Ramen Noodles. Many vegetarians, especially new ones, fall into the trap of cutting out meat and going overboard on wheat without even realizing it. Wheat based food (primarily bread and pasta) is super convenient and cheap, however isn’t the most nutrient dense. Healthy carbohydrate sources include
- Fruit smoothies
- Spaghetti squash (good alternative to wheat pasta)
- Sweet Potatoes
In regards to protein, a daily intake of 1.5 – 1.8 grams / kilogram of bodyweight is recommended for optimal run fueling and body regeneration. There is no vegetarian who has not been asked where they get their protein from. Unlike vegans who avoid all animal products, vegetarians don’t eat fish or meat but usually can eat everything else. Great vegetarian protein sources include:
- Plant Based
- Animal Based
- Fish (for the pescetarians)
Pro Tip: Having vitamin C with iron rich food like legumes increases the iron absorption.
Unfiltered, here’s what I had for meals the day of writing this.
- AM fasted 10 mile easy run
- Post run soy milk + 1 scoop whey protein
- Two egg + avocado sandwiches, four slices of bread.
- Second Breakfast
- Berries mixed with organic full fat yogurt
- Leftover organic macaroni & cheese
- Homemade pizza
Bonus – How to Lose Weight
Dropping some weight is both simple and incredibly difficult.
Simply, you must eat fewer calories than you burn. Difficult, because that’s a huge challenge. Unless you are running a great deal, you’re not actually burning a huge amount of extra calories. 20 miles weekly is only 2,000 extra calories, and that’s not even a pound (that’s 3,600 cals).
It’s very easy to unknowingly consume an extra 300-400 calories daily if you’re running 3-4 miles daily. In my opinion, a runner looking to drop some weight must do some form of food restriction. A 500 calorie deficit at least 5-6 days weekly will yield nearly a pound of weight loss each week.
When I’m consciously looking to drop some weight I’ll restrict what I eat in the AM and noon hours to about 500 calories in the morning and 500 calories over lunch. In the evening I’ll eat nearly ab libitum and not be as strict with the calories but still try to remain at about 2,000 calories daily intake. Why 2,000? Because most people with a semi-active lifestyle (walking around, no exercise) burn about 2,000 calories daily. Roughly. So if I ate 2,000 calories and didn’t run, I’d not gain or lose weight. But if I eat 2,000 calories and run 36 miles weekly I’m going to be in a 3,600 calorie deficit and lose about a pound a week. I am typically in a calorie deficit Monday – Friday. I simply find it easier to restrict my food/calories when I’m on a set schedule during the week. Weekends I don’t restrict so much and if I don’t run long I’m probably not in a calorie deficit, which I think is good a few days weekly.
Recording your weight or not is a common issue. How often do you step on the scale? I typically weigh myself daily before breakfast and after pooping. Yes, I know it’s very common to see recommendations to NOT weigh yourself daily, but I like to see the overall trend. I’m not worried if a day I’m 146 and the next I’m 149. I know I obviously didn’t gain 3 pounds of fat!!! If the overall trend is 147 +/- 1 pound then that’s what I”m looking for. If the next month the overall trend is 146 +/- a pound, that’s fantastic.
This is another super interesting topic that I discussed here on Reddit. Many people prefer to avoid some of the super processed “food” options both during daily life but also during training, and I think this can be a wise idea. Below is a short list of “real food supplementation” that I’ve used instead of some of the more unnatural supplements.
- GoMacro Vegan bars – great options with primary ingredients of brown rice syrup+oats and a mixture of nuts/fruit.
- Fruit. Yup, can’t go wrong with an apple or banana before a run!
- Honey Packets. Yup, like the ones you get at coffee shops.
- Dried fruit can be super tasty and a great option for longer events.
- Chia Seeds are a popular choice and can simply be mixed with water or juice for some extra flavor.
- Fruit puree sqeeze packets. They’re not super high in calories but are very close to natural.
- General Daily Nutrition
- GoMacro Vegan bars – GoMacro sent me a box of these and they were fantastic snacks to get me through a 20-hour road trip and the flight from Houston TX to Santiago de Chile! The cherries + berries Sunny Uplift in the above photo was my favorite!
- Soylent. Just kidding. But seriously, I have used in while camping/traveling in the past due to convenience..and I actually like the taste 😉
Further Reading: Low-carbing for endurance: the oxygen problem | Examine.com | “This is the first study to compare the effects of a ketogenic diet (LCHF) with both a traditional high-carbohydrate diet as well as a periodized high carbohydrate diet in elite endurance athletes.” The New Rules of Carbs for Runners | Matt Fitzgerald | “A carefully planned low-carb diet can induce weight loss and support good health, but it’s not the best approach for runners because it throws out the baby (high-quality carbs) with the bathwater (low-quality carbs).” Real Food Supplementation | Coach Kyle Kranz | “In my mind, there are three “levels” of processing of sports fuel.”