Food. It is one of the few things that absolutely everybody has in common. For some, it is simply nourishment. For many, it is a source of pleasure. For me, it is also a strategic avenue to become a stronger athlete.
I am a runner. I am 28 years old, and my current training focuses on 10k and half-marathon distances. My weekly distance regularly tops 100 km, and while I am far from a professional athlete, I strive to get the best out of myself. Additionally – or perhaps, primarily – my goal is to stay as healthy and active as possible, for as long as possible; I want to be that 82-year-old that runs marathons.
My relationship with food as a training partner started in late 2015, during the last year of my university degree. I was heading into my last cross-country season, and with that, perhaps my last opportunity to give running an undivided focus. I wanted to find out what I could do when I trained hard. The team had goals of placing top 10 at nationals, and I wanted to be a scoring runner; one of the top five for our team.
Problem was, I was at the back of the pack. On nobody’s radar.
But I looked at the front and noticed one thing: many of the top athletes were vegetarian or vegan. This couldn’t be a coincidence. I did some research, and found no shortage of athletes on the scene that found tremendous success after giving up meat and/or dairy. If I trained hard, rested properly, and ate “clean“, then maybe I could also be a top performer on the team.
So, I went vegetarian. I gave deliberate thought to everything I ate, and I (almost entirely) cut out added sugars. Preserved in history is a Youtube video outlining a typical day’s eating for me at that time. And it worked! My performance accelerated tremendously. I rose to the front of the “B” squad, then graduated to the “A” team. I think I surprised everyone when I made the list of athletes to go to nationals. In that final race, I was the fifth scoring runner for the team, helping us place 10th overall at nationals. A success on many counts, plus that run on the Guelph cross-country course is still my best-ever 10k time!
This regime worked so well for me that I kept to it during my build-up to the Boston Marathon in 2016. The training towards this race went excellent, and I was set to take a massive cut to my personal best (PB) for the marathon. However, my luck collapsed on race day. It was hot – at least, hotter than I had done my training in. Focused on achieving a PB, I pushed hard throughout the race despite the conditions. To say I pushed through extreme discomfort for most of the race would be an understatement.
I succumbed to heat stroke in the last-third of the race and was forced to withdraw – involuntarily – at mile 23.
A blood test before the marathon had revealed my red blood cell levels to be below normal values. Despite this, I felt great during my training. I did not consider this reason for concern, and did not make any adjustments to my lifestyle to compensate. Could this be why I had to drop out on race day when so many other runners carried on to the finish without issue? Had my ferritin levels become depleted due to my diet? Was my subjective assessment giving me false confidence when I should have heeded the warnings of the objective test results?
I started re-introducing meat into my diet. I allowed myself more freedom with added sugar. I relaxed my dietary restrictions, and I had a few reasons for doing so.
First, it was evident a vegetarian diet was making me deficient. Focusing on high-quality, iron-rich sources of meat would likely boost my red blood cell levels. In turn, this would advance my athletic performance.
Second, I was no longer fighting for a top spot on a competitive team. I didn’t even have any target races on the horizon. I didn’t have to be so obsessive about what I was eating in the pursuit of athletic performance.
Third, I started travelling a lot for work. I know it is possible to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet while on the road, but frankly, not having that restriction made life simpler, and allowed me to indulge in local specialties without concern.
I continued living a rather relaxed dietary lifestyle for about a year. I thoroughly enjoyed the travel opportunities work afforded me and took training less seriously. However, I felt less healthy than I had while on a vegetarian diet. I didn’t feel as light and energetic as I had a year prior. Was this because of an (over)consumption of meat? Was it because of a down-tick in my training? Or was this just the effect of living in hotels?
The Second Attempt
During late 2017, I travelled less, took a more serious attitude towards training, and I got into trail running. I had immersed myself within the community. I danced with the idea of doing ultramarathons. I know the Vegan Ultra Trail Runner might be a stereotype, but it’s not exactly wrong. I was surrounded by athletes competing in 50 and 100 mile races, and it seemed like all of them were vegan.
Once again, I was inspired, and thought going vegan would be the next step in my progression as an athlete.
I recalled my complications with a restricted diet less than two years prior, but thought, if I plan things out and monitor myself better, then I’ll probably be fine.
I’ll drink less coffee (known to be an inhibitor of iron absorption). I’ll cook only with cast iron pans. I’ll eat loads of beans and spinach. Plus, vegans should have less iron issues than vegetarians as dairy products are a poor source of iron.
For several months, things went great! I remember always feeling amazingly light and nimble, that the food I was eating was very nourishing. Something felt right about what I was eating. I felt healthy again! Four months in, I ran what is still my PB in the half marathon, and was running hard on the trails a couple times per week. My mileage had never been higher.
Then, five months in, I took another blood test. The results for my red blood cell count were certainly concerning. My initial reaction was the same as the test before Boston in 2016; I’ll be fine. I’ll give increased focus to my nutrition and getting sufficient iron. I ranked foods by their iron content and did every trick in the book. Another follow-up test a month later, and my blood cell, ferritin and hemoglobin counts fell to concerning levels.
The test results had shown I had depleted myself, and there was genuine concern for my well being. I began a monitoring program with a specialist.
It was at this point when I truly recognized the severity of my situation. I was falling into the same trap as I had 2 years earlier. Last time I did not heed the warnings and paid the price. I was likely just around the corner from a similar event. Not only that, but this could have long-term health effects if I didn’t correct things quickly. This seemed pretty far from my goal of remaining healthy and active as long as possible in life.
Was going vegan helping me, or was it actually hindering my athletic progress?
Could I more easily maintain a healthy blood composition if I was not vegan?
At the same time, I started taking notice of a couple of athletes who were no longer on a meat-free diet. They had found, through experimentation or their own tumbles, that cutting out meat hindered their training. Some of these were the same people I used as shining examples a couple years ago when I went vegetarian! Should I consider myself as part of that same group?
I underwent investigation and monitoring with regards to my blood composition over the next year. I saw a direct correlation between my consumption of meat – in particular red meat – and my ferritin levels. It took almost a year for my blood composition to get back into the normal range, and find a balance that works well for me.
I have brought back meat – and the occasional dairy – and yet I still have that light, nimble, nourishing, energetic feeling I had while I was vegan.
While a direct comparison between my capabilities during these phases in my life would be difficult, at the very least, it would be difficult to argue that the reintroduction of meat into my diet has harmed my athletic performance. I feel great, and I continue to progress when I train hard.
The Current Philosophy
So, where does that bring me now? I gave two solid attempts at eliminating meat from my diet. In both cases, I put myself into a state of nutritional deficiency.
It goes without saying, I am no longer restricting myself from food groups. I eat meat, sparingly. I know I’m a healthier, stronger athlete when I do so. Sure, I could take supplements instead, but I don’t think a diet is healthy if one has to take supplements to compensate for deficiencies. I should be able to get everything I need from what nature has to offer. And yes, enjoying the occasional piece of meat is a variable that played into this decision.
Nevertheless, I have tremendous respect for people – whether athletes or not – that follow a vegan or vegetarian diet and are able to make it work for them. I am not one of them. However, having gone through these experiences allowed me to greatly broaden my palate, cooking skills and knowledge of food in general.
I made a heightened focus on discovering nourishing, high-quality, healthy foods, and I believe it is this that had the greatest impact on my athletic performance; in fact, during these stents it allowed me to progress despite being deficient!
I continue to primarily cook and eat vegan dishes for myself for the simple reason that, most of the time, I feel better when I eat that way.
Through all of this, I have learned there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to one’s diet. The diet that has worked for others won’t necessarily work for me, and vice-versa.
In fact, I try to forget about the word diet altogether, and just follow a couple of principles. Personally, I notice I am healthiest when:
I seek out high-quality food in its simplest form. Most of my spending on food is for produce that doesn’t even have an ingredient list or bar code. I eat as much locally and in season as possible, and try to get things directly from the farm or farmer when I can. I minimize the number of processed foods I purchase, and read labels on that which I do buy. At one point, I had a rule where I wouldn’t let anything with more than 3 ingredients into the house; I am not that extreme anymore, but I still try to follow this general principle.
I get variety. In all forms: nutrients, source, cultural origin, colour, texture, flavour… Not only does variety keep eating interesting, but it also ensures I am getting lots of different nutrients on a regular basis.
I am conscious of added sugars. Sugar has creeped its way into most processed foods. By seeking out food in its simplest form, I have reduced my consumption significantly. By no means am I trying to eliminate sugar, but at least I am aware of it when I consume it.
I cook as much as possible. The easiest way to ensure the my first three principles are met are by doing my own cooking. This way, I can control the ingredients, sugar and salt levels myself. Plus, I enjoy the process and feeling of accomplishment!
I dig into my cravings. Cravings get a negative connotation as being associated with fatty, salty or sugary foods. And sure, sometimes I crave a doughnut. But sometimes I crave a salad. Or peanut butter. Or a piece of meat. I have noticed with myself that when everything is dialed in right, cravings are my body’s way of letting me know what it needs; what’s missing from what I haven’t fed myself recently.
While following these principles on an omnivore diet, I have been able to train to my peak fitness. My health – and my sanity – have been in good check. It took a couple of stumbles, but ultimately, that is the healthy diet I was seeking in the first place.
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