Sources of Vegan Protein for Runners: An Alternative Way to Fuel Your Body

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It’s a common question many vegans constantly get asked, “How do you get your protein?”  This is especially common for athletes, as many people consider protein intake and athleticism to go hand in hand, which they often do.  However, we have been trained as a society to think of a well-balanced diet to contain a protein source that comes from an animal, usually in the form of a piece of meat or eggs.  This is simply not the case.  It can be very easy to consume only plant based protein sources which living an athletic life. Nearly every type of plant based food humans consume contains protein though they may not contain as much as meat pound for pound.  Here are some examples of typical servings of both animal and plant based protein:

Source Protein (g)
3 oz Chicken 28
3 oz Steak 26
3 oz Tuna 22
2 oz Peanuts 14
½ cup Pinto Beans 11
½ cup Lentils 9
1 cup Soy Milk 8
1 Egg 6
½ cup Quinoa 4

There is no shortage of protein in plant based foods; it is just a matter of finding what proteins you need for your dietary and physical needs.

Just like any other type of nutrient, there are differences in what you should be eating to maximize your training and success in your particular sport.  A long distance runner and weightlifter take in different amounts and types of meat based proteins, and the same rule should be followed for plant based proteins.  Everybody’s needs are different.  In general, people really only need about 5% of their food to be protein, as that is what the percentage of protein in breast milk is. Obviously the amount will differ from person to person, but it is nowhere near the 20-50% found in meat.  Plants like white rice and carrots are still at 7-10% protein concentration which is even on the low end for plant based food.  It is very difficult to not consume enough protein unless you eat only sugary fruits or you just don’t eat enough period.

The following are guidelines I created and followed when transitioning to a vegan while still maintaining my running lifestyle.

Combine Carbohydrates and Protein

It is no secret that runners tend to eat quite a few carbs before a race.  Many plant based proteins that contain protein are also high in carbohydrates, unlike animal proteins.  Animal protein is often accompanied with fats, and sometimes sugars, with little to no complex carbs to accompany them.  This is why we often reach out to grains and starches to for our carbohydrates.  By separating our macronutrients into different sections it often limits what we can and cannot eat at a certain meal.

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Legumes are a great example of a food group that packs in protein and carbohydrates.  Boiled chickpeas, for example, pack in 45g of carbohydrates and 15g of protein in just a 1 cup serving.  Black beans, pinto beans and sprouted lentils are also great alternatives.  On days when you are carb-loading, eating this in addition to other forms of pure carbs, such as grains and starches can help to boost your sustained energy as you are mixing complex and simple carbs.

Vegan Protein Powders

Nearly everyone in an athletic discipline, whether they are vegan or not, experiments with protein supplements.  Most protein powders some from one of two sources, whey and plants.  This was an easy swap for me as consume a serving of protein powder daily.  Two tablespoons, the recommended serving, of most vegan protein powders comes in at about 20g of protein, which is just under the 25g that came from the whey powder I was eating.

Of course, this is not essential to a healthy diet, as some people don’t like to take supplements. I personally find that my muscles seem to recover after a long run better if I drink a protein shake rather than eating my protein from beans or vegetables.  This can be attributed to the fact that the powder is almost pure protein and can be delivered quickly to aching muscles.  I also sometimes find it easier to drink a shake than to stomach an entire meal that contains 20g of protein right after a race.

Know How Your Stomach Reacts

I love tofu and think it is a great plant-based protein source that can be made in various ways. That being said, I can not eat it before a race.  My stomach does not like tofu rustling around in there while I run, and it leaves me very gassy during a race.  However, I don’t have these problems if I eat tofu a few days before a long run.  Once I discovered this, I had to change what sources of protein I ate before a run.  Legumes and protein powder work much better for me than tofu, but your body may be different.  Just try and see how your stomach reacts to different foods, just like you would when trying any new diet.

Veggies Have Protein

This face is often overlooked when looking at vegan forms of protein.  Everyone always jumps to nuts, beans, and vegan “meats”, but all vegetables have protein, it’s a fact of biology.  Spinach has about 7g of protein per cup serving and broccoli contains about 5g in the same amount.  Sure, these aren’t the exorbitant amounts found in meats, or even legumes, but it is still a significant amount if you eat plenty of vegetables throughout the day.  5-7 servings of vegetables can easily add up to 30-50g of protein.  They are also combines with both complex carbs and simple sugars which will give you energy while training for a race.

Vegetables are also a great source of many vitamins and minerals that often aren’t found in meat based foods.  Everything from potassium to zinc can be found in countless vegetables.

Protein is not a synonym for meat, but rather it is a nutrient that is found in all forms of life.  It can be very easy to sustain a running lifestyle while on a meatless or vegan diet.

 

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