There are a couple facets of my life for which people consider me “crazy.” Looks of confusion and judgment are paired with tilted heads and foreign expressions, often leading me to keep these facets tucked away and only really discussing them upon prompting.
However, these two parts of my life are not only growing in popularity but are gaining traction as a dynamic duo—one making the other better and encouraging me to speak a little louder. These “crazy” parts of my life are my plant-based diet and my participation in the world of ultra-running.
Plant-based diets—or eating patterns in which a person obtains the majority of her sustenance from plants—and endurance athletics (activities that require extended periods of exertion) are often considered extreme. But they do not happen overnight for most.
For me, the transition to comprising the majority of my diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds happened slowly, evolving as I learned more about how food can be considered medicine in addition to fuel. As for ultra-running, after finishing my collegiate track and cross-country career, words like “splits” and “mile times” prompted gut-wrenching shudders, pushing me into the welcoming, “just try and finish” attitude of ultra-long distance races.
Previously, these two concepts have been considered mutually exclusive, as “plant-based” often incites impressions of emaciated, boney limbs, and bodies lacking muscle or designed more for gardening than running 100 miles or lifting weights.
But recent studies are not only finding plant-based diets adequate for participation in endurance athletics, but optimal when approached appropriately. From NFL players to 100-mile marathoners, the plant-based diet is gaining traction as a way to enhance performance, promote recovery, and assist in injury prevention.
In the study, “Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports,” as seen in the journal “Nutrients,” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explains the benefits of plant-based diets as they relate to athletic and endurance-focused performance. “Because plants are typically high in carbohydrates, they foster effective glycogen storage. By reducing blood viscosity and improving arterial flexibility and endothelial function, they may be expected to improve vascular flow and tissue oxygenation,” the researchers say.
As glycogen stores are critical in delaying fatigue and crashing as we exercise, being better equipped to create and access those stores is advantageous in long-distance sports. Additionally, having improved blood flow and oxygenation allows us to move with less effort for longer periods of time.
The study also details that, “Many vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods are rich in antioxidants, helping reduce oxidative stress [and] . . . have also been shown to reduce indicators of inflammation,” all necessary for preventing injury and promoting efficient recovery.
Similarly, a Sandpoint local, plant-based ultra athlete, co-founder of Plant Positive Running, and certified running coach, Gwen Le Tutour explains, “When it comes to performance, a few factors will dictate your results: training, sleep, mindset, food, genes, and more. Some of these factors you can control, so if you want to reach your full potential, every controllable detail should be addressed.”
He continues, “Food is a huge component since it will affect your overall health, your recovery, your longevity, and on a shorter term, your fuel for a race or training season. This is why a lot of elite athletes are switching to a plant-based diet to reach new levels in their performance. A healthier body will perform better and perform longer.”
But transitioning to just any plant-based diet isn’t an option for those engaging in endurance sports, as getting enough calories, fats, and proteins are essential parts of a successful nutrition plan. Doing due diligence in researching the best plant foods for meeting all of your needs is critical in reaping the benefits a plant-based diet has to offer endurance athletes. LeTutour recommends exploring resources like NutritionFacts.org and content from plant-based professional athletes and coaches like that from David Roche and Rich Roll. Finally, he encourages staying tuned for the impending September 2019 documentary, “The Game Changers,” a film about elite plant-based athletes—a film that will further show that being plant-based and an endurance athlete may not be so “crazy” after all.