How Eating Less Meat Impacted My Running (So Far)

How Eating Less Meat Has Impacted My Running (So Far)

A few months ago I wrote about sustainable eating and why I decided to try to eat less meat overall in my diet. So how exactly has that gone for me, and has eating less meat had any positive or negative impacts on my running?

Note my emphasis here on less. I am not nor could I ever be a full-fledged vegetarian. I enjoy the taste of meat, I enjoy preparing delicious meals using meat, and I do find that meat consumption in moderation helps me stay fueled and injury-free throughout high volumes of training.

How Eating Less Meat Impacted My Running (So Far)

We eat meat for usually 5-6 dinners per week; not at lunch unless we’re out, not at breakfast with the rare exception of bacon. Neither Ryan nor I believe in adhering to strict diets, so we’re flexible and adaptable about it. Eating less meat is more about an overall shift in eating habits rather than a strict set of rules. 

Beyond avoiding a strict diet, I could never eliminate meat completely for performance reasons just as I could never go Paleo or do Whole30I would never advocated completely eliminating an entire food group unless in the case of an intolerance/allergy.

As nutritionist and coach Matt Fitzgerald argues, “It’s easy to understand why elite runners eat everything when you look at what happens to runners who are persuaded to eliminate one or more of these food groups. Runners who don’t eat meat are much more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia, while runners who eliminate grains tend to develop chronic fatigue, and runners who eliminate other foods experience still other problems.” Most elite runners (like Molly Huddle, who won both the 5ooom and 10000m at the US Olympic Trials) eat an omnivore diet. 

Huddle noted on her own blog: “Barring the few athletes I know with a true food allergy or sensitivity, most of the really good runners do not follow diet fads and have a diet that incorporates: carbohydrates, meat, (especially red meat), wheat, dairy and whatever other foods are common in their cultures.  It’s hard enough to quickly rebuild and refuel your muscle fibers and glycogen stores from day to day, so to eliminate a food group if it isn’t completely necessary  makes it even more difficult.”

So what Ryan and I have both found in the past few months, is that while there are benefits to eating less meat (both individual health and broader environmental benefits), we both still do need to eat meat for our athletic goals. And, to be honest, because we enjoy it.

And what’s the fun in life if you can’t enjoy a good German brat and beer?

How Eating Less Meat Impacted My Running (So Far)

Over the past few months as well, I used MyFitnessPal to track my nutrition. Here’s what I learned how a 2/3 plant-based diet impacted my nutrition:

  • I struggle to hit my daily protein requirement. Admittedly, this is because I love carbs. A low-meat diet isn’t inherently low protein; rather, I need to improve in this area of my diet (which is one of my goals for the remainder of the year). Not eating enough protein negatively impacts recovery. I could and should eat more eggs and Greek yogurt, and I know that when I start marathon training in a few weeks I will need to include an egg or two on top of my usual lunch of lentils, some type of potato, seeds, and greens. I can also add plant-based protein powders to my meals or try tempeh (not sure if I’d like the texture or taste, though). 
  • I eat nearly my daily recommended intake of ironGranted, this is based on a generic formula accounting height, weight, gender, and activity level – not an individual recommendation from a nutritionist or based on blood work. Iron is essential for healthy red blood cells, oxygen delivery, and preventing fatigue, so I’m happy to see that I’m eating adequate amounts of iron. I certainly don’t feel tired or lethargic on my runs. 
  • I eat plenty of healthy fat. Nuts and seeds including chia seeds, tahini (sesame seed paste), pumpkin seeds, and peanut butter are regular staples in my diet. On average, 25-30% of my daily calories come from fat, which is ideal for preventing injury
  • I eat a large amount of fiber. As in, usually 30-40 grams of fiber per day – which is quite a lot of fiber. I’m torn on this: on one hand, eating this much fiber is a natural result of eating 7-9 servings of vegetables and fruits a day; on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if too much fiber could cause stomach issues once training starts up.
  • Our grocery bill decreased. Meat is expensive – especially high quality meat. Ryan and I purchase very few bagged or boxed items – most of our groceries are fruits, vegetables (including starchy), whole grains and seeds from the bulk bins, and meat. With less meat in our overall diet (Ryan eats vegetarian lunches now also), we spend less per week overall on groceries.

So overall, eating less meat has been beneficial. Both Ryan and I have felt great and enjoyed eating more vegetarian meals at home. It certainly has been a positive experience, one we hope to continue; however, changes in running can change how the body reacts to food and what foods it requires to keep running (literally) strong. 

How Eating Less Meat Impacted My Running (So Far)

Granted, injury has lowered the mileage and intensity of my running over the past couple months, so I don’t know how my body will fare when I increase my mileage and add in harder workouts. I know my stomach becomes more sensitive during marathon training (which can be easily helped by eating eggs instead of legumes at lunch) and that I crave more meat during training. 

 

While some cravings are indicative of a nutritional deficiency, usually craving meats indicate a need for protein, iron, and vitamin B12 – which are exactly what meat and fish offer. (Disclaimer: I am not a certified nutritionist. This statement comes from research and personal experience.)

Maybe I’ve become more West Coast laidback over the past year, but I’m perfectly okay being flexible in my diet and letting it ebb and flow with the seasons of my training. If I end up eating more meat throughout marathon training, that’s fine – I’m not going to restrict what my body needs (or restrict Ryan’s diet if with his increased mileage he needs more meat).

 Environmental reasons are the primary reason we started to eat less meat (and a smaller grocery budget is certainly nice as well), but it’s a fine balancing act of eating sustainably, eating for overall health, eating for athletic performance, and eating for enjoyment.

In conclusion, so far eating less meat has impacted my running in an overall positive manner, but I know too little meat would swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. I have felt energetic and well fueled, although I know also that I still need to make improvements to my nutrition, especially as I begin to run farther and faster. 

How Eating Less Meat Impacted My Running (So Far)

Meredith and I are teaming up for a recipe challenge, starting with veggie burgers over the next few weeks! There are several nutritional and mental benefits to varying your diet, but I fall into the habit of eating the same few foods all of the time for months so a challenge and accountability helps. Plus, you know I love a good veggie burger. 

Do your eating habits change with your training?
How do you adapt your diet to eat for optimal athletic performance?
What foods do you crave when doing high mileage/hard running?

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

34 Responses

  1. Glad to see this was so successful for you! I think I would have a hard time getting enough protein without meat, other then at breakfast. My eating habits definitely change with my training but also just in general- every few months I notice they are a little different.

    1. Thank you! It is hard to get enough protein at meatless meals, even with combining legumes and whole grains. Although Greek yogurt always adds a big boost to the protein for the day. I think it’s good to let eating habits change with training and life!

  2. eeehhh I am excited for our challenge! this is exactly why it’s great we are doing it – to get excited and motivated to try new recipes!! you know I haven’t had meat or poultry in well over 4 years. I definitely like my diet this way but I am sure there were/are times I do not get enough protein. adding eggs/egg whites totally made a positive difference in my protein levels/overall energy levels. I do think it’s an ebb/flow thing where sometimes I need more/sometimes I am ok with less. I was reading an article about how vegetarians should once in a while eat steak for a few weeks and then not for a while, just to get the nutritional benefits and build up stores of those vitamins/minerals. we should discuss it!

    1. Me too! I’m super excited to try the first veggie burgers tomorrow. Trying new recipes is much easier when there’s accountability! And that almost makes sense to me about steak. It’s so good for the body to eat red meat from time to time (although all the time has health and environmental problems) – all that iron and B vitamins!

  3. I was a strict vegetarian/borderline vegan for quite some time. But then I decided to be flexible in what I ate to see how I felt. I have been eating meat 2-3 x/week for awhile and feel good about it. Mostly I eat what I think my body wants, which isn’t always meat. My philosophy is go with whatever works for your body unless you have ethical or allergy reasons.

    1. Flexibility is good 🙂 The body is really good at letting one know what it needs – whether that’s meat or more vegetables or some nut butter. I like your philosophy a lot – especially since what works varies from person to person!

  4. Oh I love this since I just had a full review of my nutrition with Inside Tracker. I too could never commit to a vegetarian diet and I love my steaks and burgers but, I probably only eat meat once or twice a week. I just love experimenting with foods to see how they will impact performance!

    1. Thank you! I’m very interested to read what you find out from Inside Tracker! Blood work is so interesting and revealing of how diet impacts our health. Steaks and burgers are just too good to eliminate – plus all the iron has to be good for us. Experimenting with foods for performance is so interesting! I could talk about it for days lol.

  5. I definitely crave my carbs during high mileage training, but I am really careful to get in plenty of protein as well. I eat a lot of egg whites, generally, all of my grains are whole grains (and that carries some protein), I go through Greek Yogurt like it is my job. I can’t do tons of beans, so I still have to get the majority of my protein from animal sources rather than just plants, but so far it is working for me!

    1. Greek yogurt is awesome from protein – and even though it’s animal protein it’s far more sustainable than beef (which is still too good to ever give up). I just need to eat it more! And the variety of plant, animal/non-meat, and meat protein is really beneficial – that’s why elite athletes eat all of it!

  6. I have cut back a lot on eating meat over the past year and it definitely has me feeling my best. For the most part, I do not eat meat during the week and usually eat it on the weekends. I started eating less meat for the sole reason that I hate cooking meat and ended up finding out that I feel a lot better when I eat less meat, plus the cut back in my grocery bill sure is nice. I will still continue to eat meat, like you, but eating less of it has certainly helped me to find other sources of protein that my body likes and fuels me for my running workouts.

    1. Saving meat for weekends sounds like a good way to keep it as a treat while still getting the benefits. I enjoy cooking meat, but it’s fun and rewarding to learn how to cook protein dishes as well. Finding what your body likes and thrives on is most important and it sounds like you are doing just that 🙂

  7. I’ve found that I really need to eat a higher protein diet than I previously thought. I run so much better this way. I couldn’t be a vegetarian but we do eat less beef here. That’s because I can’t tolerate much–it really messes with my GI tract. We eat a lot of chicken, which my husband groans about. I also eat a lot of eggs.

    1. It’s so interesting how different runners respond to certain foods! That’s great that you’ve found a way of eating that benefits your running so much. I bet all that protein is awesome for recovery! Most of our meat is chicken, for budget and sustainability reasons.

  8. That sounds like such a great challenge to go on. I definitely fall into the habit of eating the same foods all the time, and while I always mean to try new recipes, it somehow never ends up happening 😆 And I’ve never been big on meat and finally decided to stop eating it about 2 years ago. There was definitely an adjustment phase where I had to figure out what to eat to give my body what it needed, but I’ve seen nothing but positive results from it.

    1. Thank you! It’s hard to try new recipes – you need all the new ingredients on hand and the time and motivation. Plus you made so many new recipes that I imagine cooking the same few meals is relaxing after all of that development and testing.

  9. I definitely crave/eat more starchy carbs when training–oatmeal, sweet potatoes, etc. Brandon and I don’t eat red meat too often but we do eat lots of seafood and chicken. I love meat too much to cut it out completely!

    1. Oh yeah starchy carbs! I eat potatoes of all sorts by the poound during hard training. Meat is too good to cut out completely – which is why I’m such a fan of eating less but still enjoying it 🙂

  10. As my mileage increases I am actually finding that I crave more carbs and that the meat I want (which, granted, I eat a lot of fish, poultry and ham on a regular basis) has stayed the same. I find that big brunches and brinners with eggs with veggies and cheese and gluten free toast or waffles or potatoes are what satisfies me, and just having some smoked salmon or one chicken sausage instead of making meat the centerpiece works. Typically I eat meat for 2 out of my 3 main meals but I’m interested to see if decreasing that a couple of days a week makes a difference.

    1. Your breakfasts always look so delicious and satiating! Brinner is such a good meal, I need to make it more often – thanks for the reminder 🙂 Meat is such an individual thing – some runners do better on more, some do well with less, and even some thrive on vegetarian – all about personal experimentation.

  11. I really struggle with making healthy meal choices. I’d way rather snack all day on salty oily snacks or chocolate bars and cookies. Although, I AM drinking a smoothie right now made with Bob Mill’s chocolate protein powder, almond milk and a bunch of spinach! I try. Sigh…

    1. Salty snacks and chocolate just taste so good, you know? It’s all about balance with vegetables AND chocolate and wine. And the Bob’s Red Mill protein powder is the best flavor – so good!

  12. I always love reading about diet changes and impact on running! Right now, I am grain and bean-free, gluten and dairy-free and incorporating plenty of healthy fats and protein in my diet. I feel great and my energy and digestion are much better. But as training ramps up, my cravings certainly change! I am still getting lots of carbohydrates – just in a different format – but I don’t know if sweet potatoes will do the trick post-20 mile run! We’ll see.

  13. I guess we don’t eat meat as much as most people then! I thought we were but I think we eat meat two-four times. Week, the other days can be fish or veggies. We can never take carbs out of our diet and I think with small kids it’s important to have that energy source too along with the main (meat/fish) with veggies and fruit.
    It’s a great post! Thank you for sharing!!!

    1. It is relative – I think most American eat meat at 2 meals per day though, but it does vary from family to family. And even more from culture to culture! That’s smart how you make sure your kids get those cars. I could never take them out of my diet either – they’re important for overall health, daily basic functioning, and running. Thank you!

  14. This is a good challenge, because sometimes I think that I can only get protein through meat, but that’s not quite right. I do love a good hamburger, but often in training, I will crave a huge salad, but it doesn’t always have to have meat. I even crave ice cream sometimes or lots of carbs. 🙂 It looks like this has been a really good experiment. I wouldn’t mind trying something like that.

    1. It can be a bit more difficult to get enough protein without meat, but it certainly is possible. Even foods like potatoes, rice, or nuts have protein. I agree though, a good hamburger is good, but a big salad does hit the spot also! It’s definitely been a good experiment to try and has helped me try new foods and recipes as well.

  15. Great post, Laura! I love your balanced approach. It’s so true that cutting out a food group completely has a lot of risks and is unnecessary unless there are intolerances or allergies. I was vegetarian for quite a few years and definitely saw my running improve when I added meat back in, but then I swung too far and was eating meat at lunch and dinner at times. Now I’m back to a similar balance like you described and I think I found my sweet spot. It takes some experimenting, and everyone is different!

  16. I’m glad that it’s not only men who has that kind dilemma. I stopped to eat meat for about 6 months without any sensible diet plan while running about 30k per week and unfortunately I’ve ended up with severe anemia. So it’s importba to know how to replace meat in the diet. Now I eat meat 2-3 times per week and increase up to 4-5 when training to the marathon. Have you tried quorn??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

subscribe to get 3 free (and fun!) speed workouts