By Taylor Stranaghan
Diets: what’s in, what’s good, and most importantly, what’s the most beneficial? The trend towards a plant-based diet has been gaining momentum in the athletic population. Many endurance athletes have reaped the performance benefits of saying goodbye to their carnivore ways.
So, why have so many endurance athletes started running (so to speak) towards an alternative energy source?
An endurance or long-distance runner will run for over 3 km (1.8 miles). After 3 km or more, the body will shift from an anaerobic (short-term) energy system into an aerobic (long-term) energy system. The main difference between these two systems is that the aerobic system needs oxygen in order to burn energy.
A plant-based diet is influential in training and recovery in the following 4 ways:
1. Improvement in Heart Health
Research shows that endurance athletes have an increased risk of heart damage, as well as the development of plaque in their arteries. Because of the physical demand during a long-distance run, diet becomes that much more important.
Heart rate is higher for longer periods of time, which means the entire cardiovascular system is working on overdrive to keep the runner moving.
Damage to the heart and arteries is primarily caused by elevated levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, and low fiber – all prevalent in a meat-based diet. Plant-based diets have been shown to reverse this damage to the cardiovascular system in the following ways:
- Reversing plaque build-up in the arteries, ultimately reducing the risk of cardiovascular complications such as a heart attack or stroke.
- Improved arterial flexibility and increased diameter reduce blood pressure, which reduces the strain your heart undergoes when pumping blood throughout your body during exercise.
- Cutting back saturated fat intake helps to eliminate unnecessary body fat mass, including the visceral fat surrounding the heart and other organs, which allows for more efficient functioning.
2. Improving Oxygen Transport to the Muscles
In order to successfully run for the duration of a long-distance race, runners’ muscles need a generous supply of oxygen. The more work done by the muscles, the higher the demand will be for oxygen.
Adhering to a plant-based diet facilitates oxygen transport and improves the body’s ability to utilize this oxygen.
By lowering the intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, blood viscosity (aka blood thickness) improves. A lower blood viscosity helps oxygen reach the muscles more efficiently, which in turn improves athletic performance.
People following a plant-based diet tend to have a leaner body composition, which improves aerobic capacity. Having less fat and more muscle makes runners more efficient at utilizing the available oxygen.
3. Optimize Energy Sources
Keeping the body energized throughout the duration of a run is key to achieving race goals. In order to do so, runners need the proper energy source for their bodies to continue to do work.
Plants are an abundant source of this energy stored in the form of carbohydrates. After eating a meal, the body’s unused carbohydrates will turn into glycogen which is used as fuel when running. When compared to any meat alternative, the increased carbohydrate and reduced saturated fat will fuel your body more efficiently to sustain movement for a longer duration.
Although it is necessary that runners ensure their diets include all 3 macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates), the key is to limit the intake of unhealthy fat sources, such as saturated or trans-fats.
4. Improving Recovery Time Long-distance running is incredibly stressful on the body, especially if done in back-to-back training sessions. Various studies have determined that recovery time improves when adhering to a plant-based diet compared to a meat-based diet for 3 main reasons:
- Meat consumption causes increased inflammation in the muscles resulting in more pain (therefore needing more recovery) following a training session.
- Free radicals can build up in the body following exercise which causes muscle fatigue and impairs recovery. Plants contain high amounts of antioxidants that neutralize their effects.
- Many plants are rich in nitric oxides, such as dark leafy greens or beets. Their role is to help improve blood flow by causing arterial dilation. This helps more blood to be transported with ease to sore/fatigued muscles to help repair them.
Over To You!
Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just starting out, implementing a proper diet can change the game for you. Take a stab at adopting more plant-based meals throughout the day and see how it helps out with your performance and recovery. You have nothing to lose but time off your race!
A little about Taylor Stranaghan: She is a running enthusiast who is, quite honestly, always hungry! Her passion for health and fitness has pushed her towards understanding what drives athletes to optimize their performance. During her downtime, she enjoys reading, baking (mostly) healthy snacks, and spending quality time with friends and family.