Running on Greens: Plant-Based Nutrition from a Vegetarian Runner
Contributed by Sheena Caines, a 2016 Ambassador for The San Francisco Marathon.
I’ve never been a big meat eater. When I was a kid, I would take the hamburger patty out of my hamburger and just eat the bread and ketchup (sophisticated palate, I know!), didn’t ever really care for red meat (bloody steaks still gross me out), and was super picky about the meat that I did eat (chicken and turkey had to be dry. If it was juicy, it weirded me out).
When I moved to San Diego for college, a friend had a book on her shelf called Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat – I got a couple chapters in and called it quits on the little bit of meat that I was eating. Because of my early life of picky meat-eating (and just being a picky eater in general), it wasn’t a hard transition to vegetarian life. It was slightly more difficult to eat out, or eat at parties, etc., but I would always just load up my plate with everything vegetarian-friendly. I’m lucky that I love vegetables and fruit, so it wasn’t super hard.
When I started running in 2010, I didn’t really think about my low iron as a factor in my running successes or failures (I’ve always had low iron, even when eating meat and with iron supplements), but everyone would always question how I can function without eating meat. Now that I have been running for 5.5 years, I am more conscious about the food I eat, and trying to make sure everything is balanced and nutritious.
This week marks the beginning of a 20-week full marathon training plan (my very first!), so it’s even more important that I figure out my nutrition and stay on track. I will be burning many more calories than normal, and need to make sure I’m supplying my body with the best fuel to stay strong, healthy and injury free; food full of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and all the energy needed to replace all that I’ll be burning. I have a really sensitive stomach, so I need to replace what I know might make me sick with “safer” options.
This is what a “normal” day looks like for me, with some substitutions and fun things thrown in (it’s terrible, but my weakness is French fries; I can’t help it!):
- Breakfast – smoothie or oatmeal with a banana + coffee or tea (I commute 4-5 hours a day, so I need the caffeine). I generally top my oats with sliced apple or blueberries, flax seeds and walnuts (hooray omega-3s!). Smoothies are with soy milk, fresh or frozen fruit, plant-based protein powder and some kind of greens (generally spinach or kale)
- Lunch – generally leftovers from the night before. I’m a fan of adding a side of yams/sweet potatoes or avocado to almost any lunch I have. If I have a salad and am doing an evening workout, I try to limit my leafy greens because of how quickly fiber tends to work for me (TMI, but we’re runners, so nothing is really TMI, right?)
- Dinner – tends to be my most filling of the day, and usually includes a side of quinoa, lentils or brown rice (who am I kidding, I have white rice more often than brown rice, and like wild rice more than brown rice. Life is hard). I’m also a total weirdo and sometimes crave a “buffet plate” of fresh, sliced vegetables, cubed firm tofu (no seasoning or anything. Again, a weirdo), Greek yogurt and a hardboiled egg. As long as I have my food groups and it’s nutritious, I’m a fan. This is moreso the case in the summer months when it’s still blazing hot outside and I can’t fathom eating a hot meal after a long run. Whatever I have, I make sure to include protein-packed foods to allow my muscles to fully recover from that day and repair in preparation for the next day.
- Snacks – mainly fruits and veggies, hummus, nuts/trail mix and occasional bars (I love Picky Bars!). The bulk of my marathon training will be in the summer, with my 20 mile run dead in the center of August. I will be eating all the nutritious cold things this entire time (and cold beer, obvi)
- Supplements – I do take a multivitamin as well as glucosamine (arthritis runs in my family big time, so trying to keep those joints lubricated and happy!). For my hydration, I drink water and almost every flavor of Nuun to replace the electrolytes I’m sweating out. I had a really hard time when I first started running, always getting physically ill and bad headaches and couldn’t figure out why. Since I switched my electrolyte source to Nuun and gels to Honey Stinger in late 2010, I have had zero issues.
I eat more in tune with what my body is telling me, and less on looking at the scale or counting calories.
If I feel like I’m running on empty or feeling more sluggish, I probably need a little more protein or iron in my body. I love food and eat to keep my body and mind strong and healthy. Having a healthy body helps me run more (and have better runs at that) and keeps me sane. It may sound cliché, but I’m being 100% honest. Running is my “me time” to clear out my head and just try to be zen.
I’m not perfect – in fact, far from it. This is what works for me and my body. My best advice? Listen to your gut and do what’s right for YOUR body. We’re all different and that’s ok. Do I expect you to convert to being a vegetarian? Absolutely not. What are the chances I’m going to run out and order a steak dinner? Slim to none.
My hope for you is that you find the balance for YOU – stay strong, stay healthy, stay happy my friends!