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The case for ultra runners going vegan

Diets are an individual preference. In the past year, the attention placed on food choices has taken on a new life.

Paleo. Keto. Gluten free. Low-fat, high carb. Low carb, high-fat. Plant-based. Vegan. Vegetarian. Whole30. Pescatarian. Flexitarian. Mediterranean. And many more.

Elite ultra runners mirror the general population in terms of diet. Some of these high-performers advocate the low-fat, high carb approach, while others embrace the keto diet. Still others are plant-based, vegan or vegetarian.

About a year ago, I adapted a pescatarian lifestyle. My reasons were simple: I wanted to become healthier by ridding my body of the red meat (which I didn’t eat a lot of previously), chicken, pork and other meats. My biggest concern was getting enough protein. But thanks to chia seeds, hemp seeds, nuts and other staples of my diet (Surprise! Vegetables have protein.), my protein intake has not suffered.

In recent weeks, I have been poring over research, reading books and watching documentaries about clean eating, veganism, plant-based nutrition and more. Is it the right move for me? I am still considering next steps.

But one thing is for sure. There are successful ultra runners who have embraced the vegan lifestyle en route to the podium.

In with plants, out with GI issues

Trevor Fuchs describes himself as a “plant-based vegan.” The 37-year-old stopped eating meat in his early 20s.

“I started to make the connection between what was on my plate and its origin,” he recalls. “It became hard for me to ignore how what I was eating fit within my personal ethics and beliefs. By my early 30s, after years of a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle, that began to evolve toward a whole-foods, plant-based diet for health reasons. The change had a snowball effect and it wasn’t long before I adopted a vegan lifestyle due to my deeper understanding of factory farming practices.”

Meanwhile, his diet change coincided with his progression toward becoming a competitive athlete. Among his accomplishments: Fuchs won the Wasatch 100 in 2016 and 2017, El Vaquero Loco last year and has several other top performances.

The vegan diet was his secret sauce, allowing him to fuel right for training and recovery.

“My overall health was noticeably improved within a matter of days from switching to fully plant-based,” he says. “Years of GI issues were washed away, along with systemic inflammation caused by poor gut health. I was likely lactose intolerant for most of my life and never realized it until I made the shift. I trust that there is a correlation between my diet and my athletic performance, but to be perfectly honest, I don't know my fitness without the diet.”

Getting leaner and stronger

Kate Pallardy, who won the JFK 50 in November, adopted a plant-based vegan diet about a decade ago. Her husband, Mike, is a competitive triathlete. They made the shift together, although her she has a history of digestive issues while he “has a steel stomach,” she says.

“It wasn't overnight; it was kind of like you shift out of meat, but you still eat fish,” Pallardy recalls. “Then you're like, maybe eat some dairy, then, no, you don't eat dairy. Then you kind of shift. And we shifted together, which, that makes a huge difference. I felt better and better. Then my performances got better and better and better. I got leaner.”

Before her JFK triumph, Pallardy won MCC — part of the UTMB series in Europe — and ran a 1:15:20 in a half marathon at Grandma’s Marathon last summer.

People are surprised when they hear Pallardy is a plant-based vegan. “I’m very muscular. I’ve been vegan for 10 years but I lost no muscle, I just got leaner."

She is a huge advocate of large, raw juices — 40 ounces — especially after hard workouts. About 90 percent of her diet consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts. She passes on soy, grains and beans.

While Pallardy’s diet works for her she doesn’t push it on others. In fact, a part of her diet surprises some hard-core vegans.

“I'm not a good vegan — I have honey,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh my God, you have honey.’ See? I'm a bad vegan. There's left-wing vegans and right-wing vegans. I like to stay plant-based. I don't want to push it on people.”

But what about the protein?

Getting enough protein in a plant-based diet is a common concern of people considering a switch, especially endurance athletes.

Pallardy, who runs between 70 and 95 miles a week, gets some of her protein from the hemp, chia and flax seeds she adds to shakes, smoothies, salads and more.

“I get the right amount of nutrients, which is key,” she says. “You can't undernourish. The key is amino acids. Fruits and vegetables have amino acids. I eat tons and tons of greens, juiced, and blended, and in my salads. Pound for pound, they're going to outweigh anyone's steak, or food, but also you eat the nuts.”

Fuchs takes a similar approach.

His diet is wider, including protein-rich foods like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains, tempeh, chickpeas, almond butter and — of course — vegetables.

“As an endurance athlete, I really just focus on increasing my overall calories, as long as they are coming from whole foods,” says Fuchs, who is training for the 2019 Hardrock Endurance Run. “During peak training phases when I'm working out up to three times per day, I definitely supplement with branch-chain amino acids before and after workouts, and usually one or two meal replacement shakes with 20 grams of protein per day. These shakes not only ensure I'm getting enough protein, but also help me meet my increased calorie demands without the need to sit down for another meal.”

Making the switch

For athletes considering a transition to a vegan or plant-based diet, Fuchs recommends defining their “why,” a well-defined reason for making the switch and coinciding goals.

“Our eating habits are individual and as varied as our personalities,” he says. “Customize your diet to what brings you optimum health and wellness, ample energy to do the things you enjoy, and a clear conscience ... whatever that means to you. Know that if you are unsure if it's the right choice for you, it's OK to dabble with a plant-based diet for a few weeks and see how it makes you feel. There really is no right or wrong approach as long as you have a clear objective and the motivation to make a change.”

For Fuchs and Pallardy, the diet not only works for them but their families as well.

Every Saturday before his long run Fuchs makes vegan pancakes. “I eat most of them, but my kids are working on putting my pancake count to shame,” he says.

Fuchs' vegan pancake recipe

2 cups whole wheat flour (or gluten-free all-purpose flour)

1/4 cup hemp seeds

1 serving vanilla protein powder of choice

2 TBS nutritional yeast

1 TBS + 2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 1/4 cups almond milk (or other non-dairy)

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

2 TBS extra virgin olive oil

3 TBS pure maple syrup

Preheat griddle to medium low heat. Mix 1 tsp apple cider vinegar with non-dairy milk and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Sift together all dry ingredients until well mixed. Add wet ingredients and fold until just combined. Fold in any mix-in ingredients. Pour by 1/2 cup scoops onto preheated griddle. Pancakes are ready to flip when just beginning to bubble.

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