Becoming a #NoMeatAthlete

“Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

Michael Pollan
Indian Beans and Rice with Ginger and Fresh Cilantro in “The No Meat Athlete” by Matt Frazier

I became a vegetarian when I was in my mid-20s. Up until then I didn’t like the idea of eating animals, but eating meat was habitual and convenient. Then I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Published in 1975 that book is many things to many people, but for me, it introduced me to the horrors of factory farming: intensive agricultural practices where animals are raised in high density and often inhumane conditions.

It’s been over 20 years since I stopped eating red meat and chicken. When I was pregnant with my son I was told I’d miss meat and need the protein: he was born at 8 lbs 12 oz and two years later his sister weighed in at 7 lbs 11 oz on a largely vegetarian diet. Aside from occasional bouts of anemia, I’ve thrived on a largely plant-based diet with the occasional eggs, dairy and seafood.

When I began upping my training 18 months ago, I started thinking more about the food/fuel that I was putting into my body. I started paying more attention to recovery after a hard workout, what caused bloating, inflammation, or jelly belly during or after a long run.

Then I read Scott Jurek‘s book Eat & Run. Jurek is a hugely accomplished athlete and ultrarunner: he’s claimed victories in nearly all of ultrarunning’s elite trail and road events including the historic 153-mile Spartathlon, the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135, and The Western States 100, which he won a record seven straight times, to name just a few. He’s also 100% plant based, and credits his diet for his endurance, recovery and consistent 20+ year racing career.

Jurek is just one of a growing cohort of vegan or plant-based athletes: tennis superstar Venus Williams, football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, basketball star Kyrie Irving, and former pro Ironman triathlete (and author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life) Brendan Brazier, to name just a few elites. Their reasons for going plant-based are diverse and personal: from ethical consideration to concerns about inflammation, but it’s clear that plant-based does not mean reduced performance. In fact it may actually help a body’s ability to recover from hard workouts.

If you’re thinking about going plant-based or even just incorporating more meals into your diet, a great place to start is with Matt Frazier’s No Meat Athlete. (There’s also the No Meat Athlete Cookbook, published in 2017, four years after his original book.)

Frazier writes about how switching to a plant based diet helped him lose weight (5lbs off a 145lbs frame is a lot) and recover from workouts faster, possibly contributing to him taking 10 minutes off his previous marathon best and helping him qualify for Boston.

I’m not looking to qualify for Boston. But I am looking to run 50 miles. And if being more intentional about my plant-based eating will help me get there, I’m in.

I’m slowly working my way through his recipes and while I can’t yet 100% say that my diet is responsible for running stronger or recovering faster, I can say that I notice how my body reacts to non-vegan or vegetarian eating. (The post-pizza “cheese baby” is real.)

As I increase my training load and endurance to run farther, I think a lot about the fuel I put into my body. And while I rely on energy gels to give me a quick fix on the run (delivering the right blend of carbohydrates, calories, electrolytes and vitamins in an easily digestible and super charged form) the rest of the time I try to focus on real food, mostly plants and not too much. For as Scott Jurek writes in Eat & Run, “What we eat is a matter of life and death. Food is who we are.”