Running a meatless marathon

No frail kale-eater, Nate Lotze trained for a marathon on a vegan diet. He did just fine.

No frail kale-eater, Nate Lotze trained for a marathon on a vegan diet. He did just fine.

On Sunday I ran my first marathon. It took just under three and a half hours, not a particularly fast time but a decent one for someone without a running background. During my three months of training, common post-workout meals were oatmeal and fruit in the morning or split peas and veggies at night. On race day, I drank a banana smoothie before heading out the door, then snacked on a couple handfuls of Turkish figs during the run. Afterwards, I celebrated the achievement at my favorite Indian restaurant. At no point did I eat anything that wasn’t plant-based.

That last part might come as a surprise to some people. But it shouldn't.

Pouring kids tall glasses of milk

Lots of people still believe - and spread - stereotypes about vegans and vegetarians being frail kale-eaters who would keel over if they tried any strenuous athletics. Well-meaning friends and coworkers say things like, "But where do you get your protein?" (Many plants are good sources of protein.)

Credit goes in part to the animal agriculture industry for helping sow the idea that a body needs meat, milk, and other animal products. It starts young. I remember the "Got Milk?" ads on the walls in my elementary school featuring photos of pro athletes like Cal Ripken and Mia Hamm showing off their milk mustaches.

"The main takeaway: these are not wimpy kale-eaters. They are strong, fast, talented, inspiring athletes."

Those ads shaped my still-developing ideas about nutrition and athletics, as I'm sure they did for countless other American kids growing up in the 90s. Of course, though I didn't realize it at the time, that was the whole point. We learned something without knowing we were being taught. And our parents, in most cases, reinforced those ideas by packing our lunch boxes with ham sandwiches and grilling steaks to celebrate a big game and yes, pouring us tall glasses of milk after school.

The time to re-evaluate these myths, to rethink the opinions about food and health that we never consciously formed, is long overdue.

A high-octane plant diet is usually well planned

There are plenty of anecdotal examples of athletes thriving without meat. Just look Theo Riddick, Trent Williams, and the other NFL players embracing a plant-based diet. Or check out ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, who went vegan after a midlife crisis at age 40. Or Ultimate Fighting Champ fighter Nate Diaz. Or powerlifter Ali Crowdus. Or Olympic figure skater Meagan Duhamel. The list goes on and on. The main takeaway: these are not wimpy kale-eaters. They are strong, fast, talented, inspiring athletes.

The research I've seen suggests that consuming animal products isn't necessary for peak athletic performance, but you have to make sure to eat smart. The official position of the American College of Sports Medicine states that “well-planned vegetarian diets seem to effectively support parameters that influence athletic performance." The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says a vegan diet can meet all your nutritional needs, if appropriately planned. Dr. Neal Barnard, President of the Physician’s Committee, a physician membership group, says a plant-based diet provides the nutrition an athlete needs to perform and recover, and is careful to spell out what that looks like. 

Better for the planet, and for me

I started running and cycling seriously three years ago, around the same time I went vegan. That choice was motivated mainly by animal welfare concerns but I soon noticed the health benefits.

I lost weight, felt fantastic while exercising, and saw huge improvements in my fitness. I wasn’t too concerned about getting enough nutrients. I just ate lots of whole plant foods and supplemented with a multivitamin for iron and vitamin B12.

Since then, I've done all kinds of running, biking, and hiking adventures fueled only by fruits, vegetables, and grains, and I’ve never felt like my diet his holding me back. The marathon was no different.

I think we need a new set of posters in grade schools, featuring a new generation of athletes. I've already come up with the catchphrase.

"Got plants?"

Nate Lotze, a News Fellow for Stone Pier Press, works for a statewide conservation organization in Pennsylvania and has also spent time as an environmental organizer and organic farmer.