My thoughts on being a vegetarian and an athlete were probably the same as most – it’s not possible. Right?
Meatless diets amongst endurance athletes has been a hot topic of late. Much of the publicity has come from the recent publication of Scott Jurek’s new book, “Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness”. I am reading the book now and hope to have review it here in the coming weeks.
Sure there are many books and other resources that cover all things vegetarian, but not many that take an athlete’s perspective. Matt Frazier’s site, No Meat Athlete, is a wealth of quality, simple to implement advice for plant-based athletes and for those curious about becoming a vegetarian.
Six months after embracing a plant-based diet, Matt qualified for the Boston Marathon with a time over 100 minutes faster than his last marathon seven years prior!
Want to learn more about the marriage of endurance training and vegetarianism? Matt has kindly answered some of our questions below!
Matt Frazier: When I first decided to go vegetarian, I was really into running and had been trying for almost seven years to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I thought that being vegetarian would improve my overall health and I just didn’t feel right about eating animals, but I expected that it would be a sacrifice, as far as my running was concerned.
So I started looking around for information about how to eat vegetarian in a way that would support my marathon training, and I was surprised at how little information there was about it. There were some outdated-looking sites with some information, but it didn’t seem trustworthy because it wasn’t presented in a friendly, relatable way. So I started a blog to share what I discovered and to report my results, figuring at the very least it would keep me accountable. And that blog was No Meat Athlete!
What are the biggest misconceptions about being a vegetarian and athletic performance?
MF: Well, I was certainly guilty of the biggest one: the idea that going vegetarian or vegan will necessarily hurt your athletic performance. As it turns out, some of the top athletes in the world are vegan, and many actually choose the diet precisely because it’s what maximizes performance for them.
I don’t like to make claims that this diet is for everyone or that it will work with every person’s body or for every sport. But from my own experience, I was shocked at how much easier running became once I stopped eating meat and dairy.
Not only did it not make me slower; I actually qualified for Boston just six months after I went vegetarian, taking 10 minutes off my marathon PR.
The other huge misconception out there is that you can’t get enough protein as an athlete on a vegetarian diet. It’s simply wrong. There are lots of things to pay attention to with a plant-based diet as an athlete, mainly just getting enough overall calories, especially if you’re vegan. But protein by itself isn’t a bigger concern than anything else.
After becoming a vegetarian, did you notice any changes to your body, mind, energy levels or workout quality?
MF: I did. The first thing I noticed was energy — because my dinners became lighter and based on vegetables (which I thought I was eating before, but really wasn’t very much), I found that I didn’t get tired after dinner like I was used to. I started staying up later and getting up earlier, and getting more done with my time.
I lost about five pounds within the first two weeks, which actually scared me because I don’t have a lot of extra weight to lose. But my weight stabilized, and over the next six months my body composition changed to less fat and more muscle. That was almost certainly the result of the training I was doing, but at least I knew that my diet supported it.
My workouts that season were some of the best I’ve ever done. Again, it’s not something I can say is directly the result of my diet — it could simply have been that I found the right training plan for me at the time — but I found I could work really hard during a workout, recover just in the time for the next one two days later, and repeat, for the six months leading up to the race. I made some huge gains during that time, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have a single injury during marathon training.
A lot of pro vegan athletes report faster recovery and lower incidence of injury on a plant-based diet, and I certainly experienced that.
What are your favourite vegetarian pre-workout and post-workout meals?
MF: People are always surprised to learn that I do pre- and post-workout meals very simply. I’ve got a page on my site all about fueling your workouts with recipes for what to eat before your runs and after them, but I prefer to get 80 or 90 percent of the benefits from a very simple meal than to put too much time and effort into it.
So for example, before a hard workout I’ll usually eat a few pieces of fruit, or perhaps some fruit juice mixed with just a little bit of hemp protein powder. If I only have a few minutes before the workout, dates are a good choice because the glucose gets into your bloodstream almost immediately.
If it’s a longer run that’ll take two or three hours, I make sure to eat more, and usually I shift to starchier carbohydrates like a bagel with almond butter, waffles, or a pita with hummus, but I allow myself more time to digest a meal like that before the run starts.
After the workout, I try to get a lot of simple carbohydrates as soon as possible. This is the one time of day I eat white rice or white bread, but usually I prefer fruit juice, sports drink, or a smoothie. And then an hour or so later, I’ll eat a larger meal with some protein in it — pretty much any everyday meal, like rice and beans.
If you had a friend that was ready to give a vegetarian diet a go, what would be your top 3 tips for them to get started?
1. Make the transition gradually. For most people, this is so much more effective that jumping in all at once. I’d suggest first giving up four-legged animals like cows and pigs, then once you’re comfortable with that (say, after a month or two), then remove two-legged animals (birds) from your diet. And finally, when you’re ready, phase out fish.
For each phase, I suggest committing to at least a week or perhaps a month, but knowing that once you get there you have the choice to go back if you don’t like how you feel. That helps prevent those “I can never eat X again?” thoughts that a lot of people have at first.
2. Plan meals ahead of time. If you don’t, you’ll start eating the same meals you were eating, only without the meat, and that’s probably not a very healthy version a plant-based diet. Instead, search for recipes that are vegetarian by nature, and they’ll generally be more balanced and better-tasting than a meal made by simply removing the meat from a traditional meat dish.
3. Enjoy all the variety, instead of focusing on what’s missing. Realizing that there is so much food out there you’ve never even noticed in the grocery store produce section or farmers market is one of most exciting things about going vegetarian. Try Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Sri Lankan food … not just in restaurants, but cooking it at home. You’ll discover new flavors and textures, and you’ll broaden the range of foods you’re eating, which is generally a good practice to make sure you’re getting everything you need from your diet.
Do you have any mentors or athletes you admire?
MF: Plenty of them! Brendan Brazier, Scott Jurek, Robert Cheeke, Rich Roll — I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to learn from these guys who did it before there was as much proof that this diet can work for endurance athletes and even bodybuilders. They’ve all done some pretty neat things in their sports and shared a lot of how they eat and train to help others.
What are your favourite books or resources for vegetarians?
MF: If you’re an athlete who is going plant-based, Brendan Brazier’s Thrive is a must-read. It’s basically a vegan sports nutrition manual, but it will teach you so much about how food translates into energy and give you a good understanding of some of the more subtle aspects that you don’t learn in a nutrition class.
Scott Jurek and Rich Roll both have new books out, and both are incredibly inspiring. Scott is one of the best ultrarunners on the planet, and Rich is a triathlete who does Ultramans, which are essentially double-Ironmans spread over three days. Reading these this spring was a huge boost for my motivation.
And of course, cookbooks and cooking sites — Thrive Foods is a great cookbook, and Post Punk Kitchen is one of my favorite recipe sites. And 1000 Vegan Recipes is a nice standby book to turn to when you want a simple, healthy meal. You can also see most of the recipes I cooked during my first year as a vegetarian on the recipes page on my blog. And pretty much any Indian cookbook will have tons of lentil and rice meals that are perfect for the way I like to eat.
There are so many more good books and sites out there; these are just the ones that come to mind.
What’s next for you and No Meat Athlete?
MF: After I qualified for Boston, I got into ultrarunning and did two 50-milers, but since then I haven’t had a goal that inspired me like those did. Recently I’ve rediscovered my motivation, and now I have some big plans. I’m planning to run a 100K this fall and 100-miler in the winter or early spring, and I’ve even got some bigger ideas that I haven’t told anyone about yet. But for now, training for those two races is my main focus.
I’d like to grow No Meat Athlete in a different direction, making it more about this amazing community of vegetarian and vegan athletes, and a little bit less about me in particular. I’ve got a few things planned for that, but hopefully the focus will shift to what others are accomplishing and their perspectives on what has worked and what hasn’t.
The plant-based athlete movement is growing quickly but only in the past few years has it started to go mainstream, so I think there’s a lot to be learned from people’s experiences. I’d like to highlight those experiences and lessons they’re learned on No Meat Athlete, so that other people are inspired to try it out themselves and know they’re going about it the right way. Really, that’s all I hope for — that people will give it a try, and use the results to decide if a diet like this is right for them.