Ultrarunning and Vegetarianism

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by Damian Stoy

What do Michael Wardian, Sage Canaday, Ellie Greenwood, Yassine Diboun, Aliza Lapierre and Adam Chase have in common? Yes, they’re all elite ultra marathon runners who have raced consistently at a world-class level, but they are also all long-term vegetarians.

Michael Wardian is a hugely prolific competitor; in 2014 alone he raced fifty-four times including eighteen ultramarathons and finished in the top ten in all but ten races. His ability to consistently race fast and recover incredibly quickly seems almost superhuman.

Wardian, a vegetarian since 1995, says, “I like eating vegetarian because it works super well for my body. A vegetarian diet has expanded my world-view and palate as I’ve found tons of things that I could eat. I don’t look at what I can’t eat but all the cool things I can eat.”

He chose to go vegetarian simply to see if he could – starting by eliminating red meat, then chicken and pork, followed by seafood. He comments on each progressive step: “I liked how I felt. I think eating vegetarian makes me feel good and in turn that helps me be motivated to train, race and compete,” adding, “I definitely believe that eating vegetarian helps” when referring to his recovery because his body responds well to the fuel he gives it. He says, “I do think it helps my performance but just because I like it, I don’t think that it will work for everyone. I have plenty of friends and competitors that eat a ton of meat and that works for them and that is great. I think everyone should do what they feel is best for their body.”

Or take Ellie Greenwood, who may be the most decorated and consistent female ultra runner in the world right now. She has twice been named North American Ultrarunner of the Year and was the winner of the 2014 Comrades Marathon. She has won the IAU World 100k championships in 2010 and 2014 and is a repeat winner and course record holder of the Western States 100. She has been a vegetarian for almost 20 years and says, “I chose to go vegetarian for animal-rights issues. I don’t agree with the condition that the vast majority of animals for human consumption are brought up in. I also think environmental reasons for vegetarianism are important as it takes far more energy to produce meat for human consumption than it does to produce vegetables.”

Greenwood is pragmatic about the effect her diet has on her ability to race. “It is hard to tell if having a vegetarian diet improves my performance and recovery or both,” she says, “This is certainly not a reason why I am vegetarian. I don’t believe being vegetarian is detrimental to my performance or recovery, nor do I think it really improves my recovery.” However, Greenwood doesn’t believe there are any limitations to being vegetarian and does not take supplements simply because she does not eat meat.

Sage Canaday, another prolific racer and winner of the 2014 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships, Speedgoat 50k (2013, 2014), as well as the 2013 USATF 100km National Trail Championships came by vegetarianism via his upbringing. Sage, a vegetarian since birth, believes that his diet does help with performance and recovery. “It for sure helps keep me pretty lean, and I’ve never had a problem with protein or any real long-term injuries from running like stress fractures or serious muscle issues. I’ve run year round for 16 years and up to 150 miles a week, so I put a lot of stress on my body and burn a lot of calories!”

When asked if he takes additional supplements Sage responds, “When I don’t eat a balanced diet for sure. I’ve taken some extra B12 and iron and vitamin D because as an athlete if those things are just a little off you notice it! But I’m not sure it has to do so much with being vegetarian as it does with training really hard and competing at a high level. Lots of meat eaters I’ve known who run have had iron issues and vitamin D issues as well. The important thing is to balance your diet and get a variety of nutrients. I believe plants and plant products have everything you need.”

Another endurance runner, Yassine Diboun who has performed extremely well in over 50 ultras and has been vegan for over six years, opted for the diet initially as an experiment. “I was having stomach pains quite a bit and my wife was reading a lot about different types of nutrition. She kept reading to me about these plant-based diets which debunked many of the things I was programmed to believe my entire life.”

Diboun was concerned about getting enough protein as an endurance athlete; but the more he read about it, the more he realized that many athletes were successfully eating this way including 7-time Western States 100 winner Scott Jurek. In fact, Yassine says that eating this way improves his performance. “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 eats a vegan diet for more than just increased performance; as he says, “more importantly, I learned many more things such as the environmental impacts, the malpractices in slaughterhouses, the chemicals used in the exploitation of the innocent animals and the unhealthy side effects that can come along with eating too many animal products. I decided that I was going to give this new way of nutrition, eating and lifestyle a chance.”

Adam Chase holds an ultra resume of more than one hundred races and in excess of twenty-five victories. He has also been vegetarian for over thirty-one years. His decision to go vegetarian was due to, “Seeing the bacon and sausage cooked in such large quantities on cookie sheets. That made me decide I didn’t want to eat it any more. I went from no pork to no red meat to no meat at all. I was a vegan for about a decade but worked some dairy back into my diet for ease of international travel.”

Chase considers himself a ”non-judgmental vegetarian” and doesn’t preach vegetarianism to others. “I also appreciate the ethical, macro-economic and environmental benefits of my dietary choices and that gives me a sense of pride,” he says.

Chase no longer takes supplements, although he has been tested and found that he is, “slightly anaemic but that’s probably genetic, since my meat-eating father was too.”

Aliza Lapierre was the winner of the 2015 Bandera 100k, as well as over fifteen other ultra marathons of varying distance. She became an “accidental vegetarian” more than 12-years ago. She states, “After becoming more cognizant of what I was eating and how it was being treated I committed to being a vegetarian. I knew in my heart that if I couldn’t raise and kill an animal then I shouldn’t personally be eating it. I think it has become far too easy to disassociate what you buy at the grocery from what you are really consuming.”

Lapierre notes that it’s difficult to determine whether any scientific data would show that being a vegetarian improves her performance or recovery. “I would say though that because of the food that I eat I feel healthy, fit and happy so these things help my performance. Recovery wise I personally believe it’s hard to beat a nutrient dense shake after a hard workout or race as its easily digestible and simple to make.”

After more than twelve years as a vegetarian, Lapierre realizes, “the positive health benefits of making the shift, along with the benefit to the environment. I now think fresh produce is so amazingly beautiful, and I love growing my own from seed to harvest. So ultimately, what started out as me becoming an ‘accidental vegetarian’ has turned into a piece of who I am.”

Does running and vegetarianism go well together?

Chase believes they “dovetail nicely.” Whilst Lapierre says, “I have encountered some disbelievers out there that think that someone cannot be a competitive endurance athlete and be a vegetarian. I can attest that it is possible and I encourage you to put some thought into what you are fueling your body with, where it came from, how it was treated and how it impacts our planet.”

Canaday responds, “a lot of ‘weight-loss’ diets don’t work because they break your self discipline mentally over time and so it’s good to be a little flexible sometimes.” And Yassine adds, “some people think it is a very restrictive ‘diet’. I don’t feel like it is and it is becoming more and more accepted and easy to navigate. I always tell people to try it out for more than just a week. Give it a month or more to really allow your body and mind to adapt and get used to the change. You might just be as surprised as I was. I went from a full on carnivore to completely plant based, and honestly I have lost the taste for meat, dairy and any animal products.”

Whether or not your personal beliefs align with vegetarianism the results from the top are irrefutable. As Michael Wardian says, “We are an experiment of one and why not see what happens if you do something different?”

– Damian Stoy is an accomplished ultra runner, coach and founder of Wholistic Running

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8 Comments

  1. Rick Riedel on

    In addition to the ultrarunners listed add: Brain Maxwell, founder of the power bar company. He and his wife set out to prove just how good ultrarunning and vegetarianism go together. He died of a heart attack at age 51 while waiting in line at the post office. Also, Micah True, or ‘El Caballo Blanco’ of “Born to Run” fame. He was found dead of a heart attack partly into 12 mile run at age 59. And you can also add Davy Jones, of “Monkees” fame who thought that he could mix running, yoga and a meat-free diet for optimal health. He died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 67. It looks like the less running the longer before your heart attack. Don’t forget Alzheimer’s and fatty liver disease. They come with the package. I gave up on the vegetarian diet 40 years ago. it obviously didn’t work. It is also totally unnatural. I am now an advocate of the high-fat, low-carb, no-sugar diet. That works best of all.

  2. Rick Riedel on

    People play fast and loose with the “vegetarian” moniker. I have at least a dozen vegetarian friends but none of them are actual vegetarians. They all chicken and fish, which are not vegetables. I have been watching the diet thing for the last 40 years after I gave up on 6 years as a very strict vegetarian. It takes 6 to 10 years for it to catch up to most people. You should eat what your body wants; tune in to it.

  3. Rick Riedel on

    Brian Maxwell and Micah True were accomplished ultrarunners who performed at world-class level, just like the examples cited here. However, Micha set out on an easy little training run and had a heart attack. Brian was just waiting in line at the post office. His blood pressure may have gone up when the line got too long. The veg diet works for awhile, but then something blows out…