Yesterday was a sunny day in Chicago, and I experienced first-hand the exuberance of Chicago marathon spectators on a 26.2 mile tour of this city. This was the sixth marathon I’ve run, and even though it wasn’t my fastest, I think it was my best. For the first time, I completed the course giving it my sustained effort without succumbing to fatigue and walking because I just didn’t have it in me to keep running. This also happens to be the first marathon I’ve run since evolving to a whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet.
I became vegetarian two years ago, felt an improvement in well-being, and then reverted to a more conventional American diet last winter. In February I finished my fifth marathon. I just edited my word-choice there, changing “ran” to finished. This marathon, physically speaking, was my worst. I didn’t train because of chronic injuries and frankly just feeling blah. So I ran about half of it, and walked the other half. Shortly after that, I made the transition to a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
So yesterday, in Chicago, I had trained. My chronic injury was still an issue, but it felt reasonably good. My stomach felt good, the weather was clear, and the energy from the other 39,999 runners was infectious. I was cautiously optimistic that I might be able to run the whole thing, despite the inevitable deviations I had made from my training schedule.
In the first miles I remembered the classic marathon advice not to start out too quickly. I ran comfortably but steady and found the first five miles passed easily. At 10 miles, my injury — plantar fasciitis — started acting up a bit, but my legs still felt strong. And that’s when I realized that my body felt better in this marathon than it had in the past three. Although fatigued, I was buoyed by the impression that my body was working more effectively because I was fueling it better. Success in any endeavor is due to a complex mixture of circumstances. But one important factor in my personal success yesterday has been the change in my diet.
Friends who find out I’m WFPB/vegan frequently voice concerns about the importance of protein and meat in their diet.
- “My body just really loves a good steak.”
- “I could never do that, because I know I don’t feel good when I don’t get enough protein.”
- “I tend to be anemic, so I have to eat red meat. When I get really tired, I know that’s what I need.”
I don’t presume to tell these friends what food choices they should make any more than I would tell them who to have a relationship with or what career they should pursue. However, in my reading – which is admittedly biased thus far towards authors who endorse a whole-foods, plant-based diet – suggests to me that these ideas are rooted in some of our cultural associations between meat and strength, and not necessarily in rigorous scientific study.
My original inspiration to pursue a WFPB diet actually came from an athlete: Scott Jurek. In his book “Eat and Run” he details the relationship in his own life between WFPB eating and his extremely successful career as an endurance athlete. He has had many running achievements, including winning the Western States 100 mile endurance run seven times. A second athlete who spurred me on my journey was Rich Roll, who’s book “Finding Ultra” details his transformation from fatigue, depression, excess weight and poor health to a transformation that began with what he calls “plant-powered” eating. In his case, the changes in his diet came first. He felt so much better with these diet changes that he then took up running, and eventually evolved into a world-class ultra-endurance athlete. Let me spell out for you what ultra-endurance means. One of his feats is competing in the Ultraman World Championships. Powered only by plant-based nutrition, he completed the three-day event consisting of a 6.2 mile ocean swim followed by a 90 mile cross country race on the first day. The second day is a 170 mile cycling race. The final day is 52 miles of running. These types of distances sound super-human to me. But I find Rich Roll inspiring in part because his changes started when he was out-of-breath simply climbing up the stairs in his own home. He cites plants, rather than steaks, as the key to his success. Running happens to be my preferred sport, but what about other sports? A quick web search will yield names of athletes from mixed marital arts cage fighting to power lifting to figure skating who have succeeded and choose a plant-based diet for fuel.
So what about my assertion above, that the idea that meat and lots of protein are required for strength and energy is not based on rigorous scientific study? Stay tuned for the next post.