If you’re training for a marathon and eating vegetarian, you probably have questions about how to eat properly. It’s a common struggle for a lot of vegetarian or vegan endurance athletes.
I’m not a vegetarian but I know it’s a common diet among distance runners. Luckily I was able to speak with Matt Frazier, author of No Meat Athlete, about succeeding as a vegetarian runner.
Matt is not only an accomplished blogger, runner (Boston Marathon qualifier!), and father, but he’s also the author of Marathon Roadmap – The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First Marathon. I had the chance to read through all 139 pages of this guide and let me tell you – it is awesome. Matt knows his stuff about running.
To the interview!
[Jason] I was floored to learn that you qualified for Boston by running 3:09 after debuting in the marathon in 4:52! You improved by almost 4 minutes per mile! What did you do differently to physically and mentally train for such a performance improvement?
[Matt] Yeah, qualifying for Boston with being anything but a “natural” fast runner is something I’m really proud of. It’s funny, as I was in the process I didn’t really realize just how uncommon it is for people to take that much time off their marathon; I just figured it was something I was going to do eventually if I stuck with it and refused to believe that I would plateau somewhere before I got down to 3:10. [Jason’s note: Matt’s attitude here is AWESOME and something we can all learn from. Never settle. Always be greedy for faster times.]
The first hour of that improvement came from learning how to train for a marathon without getting injured. After my first marathon, it took me almost 4 years to run another, because every time I started training I would get injured. So I focused on increasing my leg turnover to 180 steps per minute. Once I learned to comfortably run with that cadence and stick to trails and treadmills more than roads, I stopped getting hurt. Finally I could complete a whole training plan and run a race correctly; that got me down to 3:50 or so.
From there, it became much more mental. I convinced myself that I was going to do this, that it really wasn’t an “if” but “when.” And I’m sure it sounds sort of fluffy and New-Agey, but I really believe that just visualizing myself qualifying, over and over while I was running, played a big part in driving that sense of certainty deeper.
So I stuck with it, trained harder, and kept believing that in my next race, I would qualify. And I kept failing, but I got a little faster each time. And then I finally got over the hump when I changed my diet and went vegetarian, taking 10 minutes off my previous PR to run that 3:09 and qualify.
Being the author of a website called No Meat Athlete, you’re clearly a vegetarian for anybody who hasn’t picked up on that yet. Have you had any struggles with being a vegetarian marathoner?
Not nearly as many struggles as I had when I was a non-vegetarian marathoner! Really, it’s just been the easiest thing in the world for my body. I don’t like to try to tell people, “Yes, this will work for you just like it did for me,” because maybe there are people out there whose body type it doesn’t work so well for. But for me, it made running and recovery so much easier.
I was actually coming off an injury (IT band syndrome) when I went vegetarian. So I did very little running for the first 6 weeks after I changed my diet, and then I went out there for a 12-miler one day, without a watch or anything, and was shocked when I got home to realize I had run the route 6 minutes faster than I ever had before. That was when I realized there was something to this and I was going to stick with it.
One thing I struggle to understand in vegetarianism is getting enough protein. Getting enough protein through animal sources is relatively calorie efficient (it takes roughly 500 calories to meet your protein needs). But getting enough protein with beans, complex carbohydrates, and nuts takes thousands of calories (see pg. 72-73 of Paleo Diet for Athletes for full breakdown). What are your thoughts on getting enough protein while keeping your calories under control?
Great question. I get asked about protein ALL the time, but I haven’t heard this particular question before.
The first thing to note is that the Paleo Diet prescribes a very high amount of protein. Since I went vegetarian, I’ve been successful at increasing speed and endurance with only 10-15% of my calories coming from protein, about half of what the Paleo Diet suggests. So if you were to try to replicate the Paleo Diet caloric breakdown without eating meat, you’d find it pretty hard to do.
This isn’t to say I don’t agree that Paleo can be great for fitness; I’m just making the point that their protein target isn’t the same as mine. So with that in mind, you really don’t need a calorie-efficient source of protein if protein isn’t the main focus of your diet. It’s fine for me if, along with my protein, I have to get carbohydrates or fat because they’re in the same food.
Avoid making nuts a primary protein source if you’re worried about calories. Something like hemp protein powder, on the other hand, is 50% protein, so I’d add lots of that to your smoothie instead of nut butter.
Keep in mind that you won’t find too many vegetarian marathoners and ultrarunners who are concerned about keeping their calories down! More likely, someone like me will be looking for ways to add calories to their diet, not reduce them.
What are your top 3 suggestions for running a great marathon as a vegetarian? Are there any pitfalls that should be avoided?
1. You don’t have to obsess over protein, but don’t ignore it either. I try to include a decent protein source in every single meal or snack. Maybe just a handful of nuts, or adding beans to a soup, or choosing a pasta made from spelt or another grain that has more protein than wheat.
2. Be diligent about eating for post-workout recovery. The ability to recover quickly and be ready for your next workout sooner is an important factor that every vegetarian or vegan athlete I’ve talked to, including guys like Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier, cites as a primary benefit of eating this way. If you’re not fueling your muscles within a half hour of a tough workout, you’re throwing much of that recovery benefit away.
3. Start every day with a smoothie. A smoothie is an easy way to make sure you’re getting things that your body needs. If you want more greens in your diet, put them in there. If you want good fats, it’s easy to add a tablespoon or two. If you take glutamine or creatine or a liquid multivitamin or whatever else, you can put it in your smoothie. Starting the day like that sets the tone for the rest of the day so it’s a great habit to develop.
What’s next on the running calendar for you? Do you have any big plans for No Meat Athlete that you can share?
Well, I’ve got the Boston Marathon in just a few days, which I’m really excited for. I wasn’t able to run last year, the first time I was eligible, because my son was born two days before the race. I’ve never looked forward to a race like this before; it’s my reward for all that work it took to qualify so I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. [Jason’s note: This post took about a week to publish, so Matt has already run an impressive 3:38 at the Boston Marathon. Awesome work Matt.)
The other big goal I’ve got right now is to run a 100-mile ultra. I did two 50-milers last year and I enjoy the low-key feel of ultramarathons and trail running.
As for No Meat Athlete, there are a few cool things coming up: a print cookbook for vegetarian athletes and a half-marathon version of my Marathon Roadmap ebook. I realized a half-marathon version was something people wanted when lots of half-marathoners-in-training bought the 26.2 version (even though I told them it wasn’t for halfs!). So I’m hoping to release that sometime before summer.
Other than that, I have an ever-growing list of post ideas that are still a few steps from being reality, but that I know can help lots of people to change their diets, or to train smarter, or to feel really motivated for the first time in a while. That stuff is my favorite and what it’s all about for me.
Thank you Matt for a great interview! I know many runners are vegetarians and are looking for the best way to reach their potential as a distance runner. Matt is a great example of a successful runner who eats vegetarian and has found a diet that works for him. If you want to learn more about how to tackle a marathon as a vegetarian, check out his book Marathon Road – The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First Marathon.
For more info on running strong on a meat-free diet, vegetarian recipes, and great running advice follow Matt on Twitter. I’m not a vegetarian so it was great to hear Matt’s thoughts on vegetarianism.
Edit: Did you know that Matt and I partnered on a big project designed to help you qualify for Boston? It’s an entire website called Run Your BQ – so check it out if you’re hoping to qualify or run a faster marathon!
Get the Strength Running PR Guide ebook and tips to run faster (without the injuries).