Running on plants: A vegan’s guide to running

Read Time:   |  22nd February 2017

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Lace up your trainers and feel the burn as Charlotte Willis encourages us to get up and running…

Running on plants: A vegan's guide to running

In 2015 Sport England announced that 2.45 million of us in the UK are taking part in regular athletics, with running being the top choice for people aged 14 and over. We seem to have caught a running bug – the number of people participating in charitable marathons and fun-runs is at a global all-time record high. From rural running retreaters to pre-sunset urbanites, the number of us choosing to run outdoors is on the up. And with just a pair of trainers and some warm-weather proofing sports attire required, running is an easy sport to take up. To get the best out of your runs it is pivotal to harness the correct nutrition and training plan, regardless of experience and fitness.

From couch potato to 5k

I have fond, if not slightly uninspiring memories, of being a sluggish, sport-adverse teen. The low-light of the sporting year would culminate in my best friend and I taking part in a charity mile race. I say taking part – the whole event consisted of us meandering slowly at a pace equating to a tortoise around a park, fully mocking those who jogged past us with ease. It’s hard to believe that five years later I would become a woman who struggles to go a day without my beloved hobby – running.

It’s safe to say I caught what runners refer to as the bug. Gone are the days where I would struggle to climb a hill without being breathless. I have morphed into a 5am riser who will, admittedly half-asleep, pull on some insulated running tights, wrap up in a few waterproof tops, don my reflective headband and hit the pavements of urban Birmingham while the rest of the city sleeps. Why? Because I’m passionate that exercise (and especially running), with its regular repeating motion, requirement of perseverance, concentration and the overall personal progression helps kick start my morning, helping me focus and breathe. I spend 20-30 minutes on average running a mixed-terrain route, clarifying my thoughts and pushing myself to achieve fitter, faster and stronger results.

Find your feet

I can’t exactly remember my first fully intentional run, but I can imagine it was short and painful! But what is truly great about running is that you progress fast, and your body soon adapts to your hobby within a few initial hot and sweaty training sessions. What’s more, being vegan already puts you at an advantage. You’re more likely to have a lower amount of body fat, and with very little cholesterol in your blood (a vegan diet is usually cholesterol free), your body is already in a great position to start your training, no matter what your fitness level or exercise history.

guide to running

Running for mind, body and soul

One of the most beneficial and motivating aspects of a run is the sense of release, and for many regular runners it’s a form of therapy! The enhanced circulation of oxygen around the body, and particularly to the brain, helps to increase mental clarity and cognitions. Running has also been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress – so much so that the NHS recommends regular exercise as a complementary therapy to help manage certain mental-health disorders.

Other than helping you focus, running will undoubtedly improve your health. Studies have shown regular runners have a lower level of blood pressure and body fat than sedate people of the same age. What’s more – you can begin reaping the benefits from any ability level.

Novices – start slow, build up pace

Running is all about target-setting, and as a new runner you should aim to plan in around 2-3 training sessions a week to get yourself on the right track. If you’ve never run before, a simple sequence of fast-paced walking for
5 minutes, followed by medium-paced jogging for 5 minutes, helps build up cardiovascular resilience and confidence. Repeat the cycle 2-3 times per session. By the end of week 3, try reducing walking time to 1 minute, while keeping focused on breathing regularly and having the correct form (straight torso, stomach pulled in, shoulders down, arms loose). Once you’re feeling confident, go for the full 20 minute jog.

Running on plants: A vegan's guide to running

Casual runners – push your limits

It’s easy to get content at a comfortable exertion level, with a risk of plateauing or losing interest. Fear not, it’s simply time to shake things up. Try mixing in runs with one or two High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sprints. Here, you push to your maximum speed and cardiovascular ability for around 2-3 minutes, then continue jogging afterwards. Not only will you help to improve fitness by hitting what runners call your VO2MAX (maximum level of oxygen intake and utilisation), but you regain the endorphin-boosting high you experienced when you began running!

Alternatively, add in a mixture of terrain and environments to workout on. If you’re used to the flat streets, seek out hilly areas or adopt a new route every few weeks to keep interested.

Go the distance – 5K to half marathon

Signed up for a marathon that you can’t back out of? Planning your first road-race? The secret to success is in progressive running. Keep track of the distance and time you’re comfortable running, and every week aim to up the distance by a few metres or a mile. The increments may seem small at first, but they accumulate to distances you never believed possible. Make a plan and stick to it. It’s the best way to track progress and get event-ready – just ensure you give yourself enough time to train. Some marathon runners begin training 6-8 months in advance.

Run on plants

A fundamental aspect to being a successful runner begins before you even lace up your trainers. It is absolutely essential that you get the right nutrition to both fuel your body during your run and help aid faster, healthy recovery post-training. Being vegan lends itself perfectly to athleticism. You only have to take a look at marathon runners such as Fiona Oakes, and ultramarathon runners Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek, who display incredible fitness and success in distance running events by following their wholesome vegan lifestyles. With a few tweaks and extra helpings of certain food groups to energise your body, below are some useful guidelines to help enhance your training and get the most from your runs.

Running on plants: A vegan's guide to running

Fuel up

20-25 minute run: Exercising on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning, is totally acceptable for this shorter period of time. If trying to shift a few extra pounds is the goal, try running first thing in the morning after a pint of warm water with lemon juice. The vitamin C boosts antioxidant levels and helps protect against muscle damage, while studies have shown fasted runs burn the most fat.

25-45 minute run: Opt for fast-releasing carbohydrate sources like bananas, dates or a medium smoothie. The glycogen in the fruits and vegetables provides readily available energy for muscle contraction – helping keep weakness at bay. Don’t opt for fibre-rich foods, as these can slow you down as blood and energy is diverted from your muscles to your digestive system.

A typical pre-run snack for me is 3 medjool dates dipped in (more like enrobed in) peanut or almond butter.

45 minutes and longer: First race? No problem! Make sure you have a good meal before the run – usually involving a source of both fast and slow releasing carbohydrates. Oatmeal or overnight oats, nuts and dried fruit are a perfect combination, alongside a coffee for some additional energy and a fruit juice. This keeps you going for about an hour of exercise. Any longer and I’d advise keeping easy-carry snacks like dates, juices and coconut water on hand to maintain energy.

Recover with carbohydrates

There is a window of around 30-40 minutes post-workout where you need nutritional recovery. The body’s muscular glycogen levels are depleted and need topping up. Keep it healthy by eating carbohydrate in wholefood form – toast with nut butters, homemade granola bars and grain-rich salads.

Boost your antioxidants

Despite running being extremely healthy, the increased stress on your body during exercise creates a surge in free-radical oxidative stress. Protect against this naturally by upping your intake of bright coloured fruit and veg, paying particular attention to the red and purple families – as these have the highest and most potent antioxidant levels.

Running on plants: A vegan's guide to running

Replace your calories

Making sure you consume enough calories to replace those burnt off during exercise is of vital importance to maintain health. While losing body fat occurs more easily, you should ensure muscle mass is maintained by increasing your calories consumed on training days to compensate. Add in a natural protein shake or extra snack, and sub in a few additional sources of healthy fats, such as avocados and nuts. These omega-rich foods help protect your joints and provide additional calories.

Keep up the calcium

Maintain healthy bones and prevent injury by topping up your diet with extra sources of calcium. Fermented tofu, fortified nut milks, almonds, tahini, chia seeds, spinach, kale and dried fruits all pack a calcium punch.

Run yourself app-y

One of my favourite ways to keep a track of my progress is to have a running app on my phone. You can find many different training and running apps on the market, ranging from the basic route-trackers and timers to those that synchronise with a fitness tracker to monitor your heart-rate, exertion and calorific burn. I highly recommend these to anyone serious about training, or just wanting to progress further. It’s something of a small pleasure in my life to see my BP time improve first thing on a Monday morning – after that I’m ready to take on the world.

Running on plants: A vegan's guide to running

Wake up, lace up

The great news is that there are many types of vegan-friendly running shoes and training gear to choose from. PETA-approved trainer brands include Brooks, Newton and Mizuno. So there is no excuse! Even if you start by running for 5 minutes a day, everyone starts their journey somewhere. Take it from a previously running-adverse woman, the chase to become fit is truly a thrill. 

Wondering what to eat to help fuel your workouts? Check out our vegan workout nutrition guide

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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