Q&A - Life as a Vegetarian Athlete

Who doesn't love chatting with other athletes and learning more about how they train and what fuels them?  When I speak with fellow runners and multisport athletes, I know I've got a lot of questions for them.  If our conversation turns to diet and nutrition (which it invariably does!), people tend to ask me about being a vegetarian duathlete.  With that in mind, I decided to write this blog as a MultiSport Canada Ambassador to answer some of the common questions I get as someone who often trains seven days a week and does so on a meat-free diet.

How do you get your protein?

It's usually the first question I get and it's a valid one, seeing as many of us in North America were raised on meals that centred on protein (i.e., a large piece of meat).  As a starting point, I share what I learned when I went vegetarian: most of those same North Americans get way more protein than they need in their diets - oftentimes more than double their recommended intake.  That puts into perspective just how much we need.  And really, as endurance athletes, it's just as important that we think about our intake of the other two macronutrients: carbohydrates and fat.

A person who exercises at moderate to high intensity, one to three hours daily, will need about 1.2 - 1.4 g/kg protein, which is about 87 - 101.5 g for me.  (On a muscle-building or weight-gain program, you'd need more.)

It's pretty easy to get what we need.  Most of my breakfasts start out with at least two eggs.  My lunches and dinners are generally designed to include tofu, lentils or beans.  I do my best to ensure that my meals have a reasonable amount of protein, but I also don't sweat it.  For snacks, I'll have a handful or two of raw, mixed nuts or fruit fruit with plain Greek yogurt.  It all adds up.  There are plenty of charts online listing the protein content of various foods.

What came first: being an athlete or a vegetarian?

I gave up meat first, in 1999, back in university.  It wasn't until the tail end of my degree that I registered in a long distance charity ride, which began my journey toward multisport.  I originally wanted to become vegetarian because I disagreed with using animals as food.  Years later, I have learned more about the impact of animal farming on the environment through carbon emissions, as well as the benefits of a meat-free diet, both of which have solidified my decision.

Where do you learn about being physically active while on a meat-free diet? 

Like most duathletes and triathletes, I have type A tendencies: I'm always reading, learning, testing and striving to improve.  So in many respects, I've learned over time and through trial and error.

A couple years ago, I visited Tara Postnikoff at HEAL Nutrition.  You may recognize her from the pages of the Running Room Magazine, as a leader and member in the Toronto Triathlon Club, or as a frequent competitor in the Ontario scene.  She had me take detailed notes about my daily food intake and training loads.  Then we reviewed them and she offered advice about improving my nutrition.  Definitely worth the investment!

Right now, my go-to online resource is the British nutritionist Anita Bean, who has authored 27 books on nutrition and fitness and who has worked with athletes in sports ranging from cycling, running and triathlon through to bodybuilding.  She writes in a no-nonsense style and cuts through the marketing hype that plagues sport nutrition.  Recipes from Anita's latest work, the Vegetarian
Athlete's Cookbook, are in my weekly rotation.

Can you recommend any cookbooks or websites?  

In addition to the book by Anita Bean that I mentioned earlier, I keep the Runners World Cookbook at the top of my shelf.  I love the way the authors have flagged recipes as "recovery" or "fast."  Nice and simple!  And while it's not purely vegetarian, it has quite a range of meat-free recipes.

Tara at HEAL Nutrition encouraged me to consume more beans and lentils and reduce my soy intake somewhat.  That led me to discover a wide range of new dishes and the Pulses.org website, which is filled to the brim with healthy recipes.

You'll see my list of suggested recipes below and it contains a few other cookbook and website ideas.

Two of my fave cookbooks, plus a breakfast bowl made from a recipe created by Tara Postnikoff.

What do you eat as a pre-workout snack?  Or a recovery snack?  

My most frequent pre-workout snack is plain Greek yogurt with berries.  My office mates will often see me chewing down on it around 4:00 pm, as I fuel up to train a couple hours later.  It provides a nice mix of carbs and protein and helps prevent an end-of-day crash.

My recovery snacks vary.  Sports nutritionists recommend that we eat something within 30 minutes of exercise and ensure it has a carb to protein ratio of 3-4 to 1.   You could get that with a banana and a cup of semi-skimmed white milk.  Or a simple pasta dish with some soy chicken.  Of course, there are plenty of recovery shakes on the market.  Just have a look at the nutritional content first as they might be heavier on the protein or, even more likely, sugar.

What are your favourite recipes?

I've got a whole list of them!  Here are a few on my rotation right now:

Cheesey Tofu Scramble with Spinach http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-recipe/recipe-tofu-scramble-with-spinach-and-nutritional-yeast/

Marinated Lentils (from Oh She Glows Cookbook) https://experiencelife.com/recipe/marinated-lentils/

Sweet Potato, Black Bean, Quinoa Bowls http://www.spoonfulofflavor.com/2015/01/14/sweet-potato-black-bean-quinoa-bowls/

Mushroom, Lentil, Potato Stew http://pulses.org/nap/recipe/mushroom-lentil-potato-stew/ 

Red Lentil Bolognese with Fresh Tagliatelle & Romano Cheese https://www.makegoodfood.ca/en/recipe/red-lentil-bolognese 

Roasted Chickpea and Broccoli Burrito http://www.thugkitchen.com/roasted_chickpea_broccoli_burrito

Any other advice?  

As I've written elsewhere on my blog, plan your meals in advance.  Make your grocery list every week and map out your nutrition intake and workouts over the week.  That's the key to making sure you'll be fuelled for training.

If you're not a vegetarian already, start small by focusing on adding one meat-free dinner to your diet and see how that feels.  Take a look at East Asian and South Asian recipes for examples of meals that are hearty and wholesome, but have a different structure than the traditional meat, starch and vegetable standard we have in North America.

My other advice is add vegetables to your breakfast.  Trying having an omelette of baby spinach and bell peppers for breakfast and you'll be kicking off your day on a high note.

Happy racing!