September 9, 2019

How to Run a Plant-Based Marathon (Part 1)

Running a marathon is tough. Running a plant-based marathon doesn’t have to be more difficult. Learn my tips and tricks on how to run a marathon on a 100% whole-foods, plant-based diet

Elizabeth and dad at 10k

I’ve always hated running…

Until I started training for my first marathon.

What happened between then and now? And how am I running an entire 26.2 miles on a completely plant-based diet? That’s what I’m answering today in Part 1 of How to Run a Plant-Based Marathon. I’m writing this before my race, as a mid-training update. I’ll write Part 2 after my race so I can share my entire race experience.

Let’s start from the beginning

I was never a runner. As a child, I played a couple seasons of soccer and I hated it. The idea of soccer was great. But unless I was playing defense, I was miserable. Too much running! I was always out of breath and I hated the feeling of not being able to breathe.

So I focused on dance. I danced from age four to age eighteen. And I loved it. No running! Yes, as a dancer, you do tons of cardio. BUT the most you have to run at one time is a couple steps. Everything else is strength work. (Dancers are some of the strongest, leanest people I know!)

During my senior year of high school, I got super into health and fitness. And how does one get fit? Running, of course.

So I started running. And I hated it. I couldn’t run for more than a couple minutes without being so out of breath that I had to stop.

I did all the things that people suggest to improve running stamina. Intervals: run, then walk, run, then walk. Slow running. I ran regularly to build up my aerobic base. Nothing changed. I was still out of breath within minutes. And I still hated it.

So I stopped running

I found strength training and I fell in love. I could be strong, build muscle, and feel fit all without being completely winded. For cardio, I did HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) where I could get in my cardio but still have rest breaks to catch my breath.

For a while, that was my routine. Strength train five days a week and do HIIT Cardio on the other two. I loved it and I felt strong! But I found myself itching to do something more. Strength training is great (and I don’t have plans to stop doing it) but there’s something about the freedom of running that attracted me.

Maybe it’s the experience of running away from your problems. Or maybe it’s the feeling of getting to physically live out the metaphor of running with Jesus. Or maybe it’s runners high. But running was calling my name.

In November/December of 2018, I started running again. I didn’t want to give up any of my strength work, so I did two-a-days where I did upper body strength in the morning and went on a run in the afternoon.

Something was different this time

My runs were enjoyable. I was thrilled to challenge myself to run longer than my old 2.5 mile route.

I attribute this drastic change in my running experience to five things.

  1. Increased physical fitness. In 2018 I was a better, stronger, fitter athlete than I was in 2015.
  2. Running for pleasure. Because my runs weren’t part of my ‘official’ exercise plan, they were always pleasurable. I only ran when I wanted to run and I never put pressure on myself to perform well.
  3. Running slower. I learned quickly that if I wanted to run 3 miles without stopping, I needed to run slower. A lot slower. When I was running before, I was trying to run faster than I was capable of, so I was always out of breath. By slowing down, I could breathe normally and run more consistently.
  4. No music. Yep, you read that correctly. I didn’t listen to music or bring along a podcast (though I love a good podcast). I just ran with me and my thoughts.
  5. Prayer. I started praying during my runs. I said the Divine Mercy Chaplet or the Rosary (or both!). Sometimes I would just talk to God while I ran.

Running wasn’t just something that other people did. Running became part of what I did. I could just “go for a run” and not think anything of it.

That was how I went about things for a couple months. I ran occasionally, when I felt like it. If it was raining or too cold, I stayed in. When it was sunny and nice, I ran. Simple.

But then I started dreaming

I spent plenty of hours listening to the Rich Roll Podcast and No Meat Athlete Radio. They talked all about marathons and triathlons and ultra marathons and iron mans. I kept hearing about all these ‘normal’ people doing these crazy runs. And doing them plant-based. Why couldn’t I do that?

One of my friends and I started talking and one day we decided to do a marathon.

One problem

I’d never run more than 3 miles in my entire life. I needed to whip myself into shape. I started running more regularly. Throughout the late winter and spring of 2019 I ran. I started running longer distances. Which, for me, was around 4 miles.

As summer approached, my friend and I solidified our plans. We picked a marathon to run and started to work out the details.

At that point in my running, I hadn’t had any issues. Running as a plant-based athlete was never a problem for me, so I didn’t expect any problems with training for a marathon.

I follow intermittent fasting, so my morning workouts are fasted. I didn’t change this as I started running more. In fact, fasted cardio has some great benefits. Plus, this helped me a lot. When I ran before, I always ate breakfast and then went out to run. I often got stomach aches when I did this, but now, with intermittent fasting, I don’t have to worry about trying to digest foods while running.

Also, since I started my plant-based diet I’ve had more energy and felt stronger than ever before. This has only helped me on my runs. Mentally, I know that I’m a strong vegan athlete and it helps me power through.

Sunrise run

A Plant-Based Marathon

So now I’m training for a marathon. I adapted my training plan from a great one I found on No Meat Athlete. I’m running at least four days a week and it’s been great. (I love running early in the morning because I get to see the sunrise each day <3).

In fact, I haven’t changed my diet at all since I started running (well, besides doing an elimination diet for a couple months). I’m fueling myself with whole, plant foods that give my body nutrients and energy to put in the long miles.

I’m about halfway through my official training and I feel stronger than ever. My plant-based diet has truly helped me fuel, train, and recover most effectively.

What I Eat

I wouldn’t be writing about my plant-based marathon if I didn’t tell you a bit about what I’m eating all day. Like I said, my diet has stayed pretty similar to how it was before I started running. The food I eat varies from day to day, but there are some things that stay pretty constant.

Breakfast: My typical breakfast is oatmeal. I love rolled oats with flax seeds and fruit. I eat oats every day, but I sometimes mix up the flavors. Some of my favorite recipes are: Banana Turmeric Oats, Blueberry Orange Oats, Purple Pear Oats, and Berry Oats. When I’m on the go, I’ll make a version of these overnight oats.

Lunch/Snacks: Since I practice intermittent fasting, my ‘lunch’ isn’t a full meal like you would think of as lunch. Normally I eat a snack or two throughout the late afternoon that get me through until dinner. I love to snack on raw carrots and peppers dipped in hummus or peanut powder. I’ll also eat roasted Japanese sweet potatoes or munch on whatever leftovers I happen to have.

Dinner: I start dinner with a large salad. I’ll add a couple different greens like spinach and arugula, add carrots, peppers, sour kraut, beets, onions, etc. and top with balsamic vinegar or a homemade dressing. Sometimes I’ll turn this into my full dinner by adding beans. Other days I will eat a separate dish like baked tempeh, tofu, or beans. I often eat sweet potato for dinner as well, especially if I didn’t have any during the day.

Dessert: I always eat dessert. BUT I’m not gorging on unhealthy vegan junk food. (Though occasionally I have a treat!). Most nights I have frozen banana as my main dessert. Usually, I have some sort of dessert I’ve made for the blog so I might have a brownie, or a blondie, or a cookie.

Drinks: Mostly, I drink water. Especially during and after my runs. No sugary, chemical-filled sports drinks for me! I do like to enjoy some plant-based beverages though. Almost daily, I drink turmeric lattes, black coffee, tea, and kombucha. Also, on my running days I like to drink tart cherry juice for recovery. I don’t drink a lot though, because juice has low/no fiber and high sugar levels.

Overall, I just try to fuel myself with clean foods that make me feel good. I try to get a complete nutrient profile each day and make sure I’m hitting my check boxes for Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen. I want to wake up in the morning feeling light and fit so I can run fast during my training. Any recipe that I post on this blog is definitely something I would feel comfortable eating, so definitely check them out if you’re looking for inspiration!

Roasted Japanese Sweet Potato Rounds

The bottom line

I just eat real food. That’s it. There’s really nothing special about running a plant-based marathon. In fact, I would encourage non-plant-based athletes to consider adding more plant-based foods to their diet during training to experience increased energy and quicker recovery.

Hopefully this helps anyone considering running a marathon on a plant-based diet or any athletes who want to improve their nutrition. Stay tuned for a post in November, after I’ve run my marathon for a full update on how I fuel my long runs and what the marathon was actually like.

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