Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vegetarian Athlete?: Part 1 Realization Strikes

For a long time I have been ignoring an elephant in the room related to my running. I have been doing the training, fighting the aging, but ignoring one aspect that was having a major impact on my performance: nutrition. Actually the nutrition problem has two parts, weight and fuel, and I had pretty much been in denial on both fronts.

Weight is a tricky issue with runners. With all the scare over eating disorders and disordered eating in our society, it is a risky thing to say that a key to improving running performance is losing weight, but it is true. Weight is related to distance running performance. From a physics perspective, speed boils down mostly to what it does in all sports: a power to weight ratio. In fact, VO2max, a key physiological variable related to running performance, is measured in milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The easiest way to change the VO2 max is to change the weight side of the equation.

The truth is that for maximal performance in running, a person needs to be what is considered below average in weight for our society. Studies of elite distance runners versus sub-elite runners shows that the major factor separating them is not mileage or training, but weight. An interesting article on this was printed in Peak Performance a while back. There is also a book called Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance which explores this more deeply (and includes 9 pages of references to scholarly publications to support the discussion). The fact is that to perform optimally in race situations, one needs to be at an optimal racing weight.

Anecdotally I have found this to be true. When I was running my best and set PRs at all distances, I was about eight pounds lighter than I am right now, and about eleven pounds lighter than I have been for most of the past several years.

As I was contemplating this idea and realizing that instead of training more (and risking injury), perhaps I should take a look at the losing weight side of the equation. About this time, I read the preview chapter from Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run  that had been printed in Trail Runner magazine.

That article pushed me over the edge. It made me realize that not only did I need to get this weight thing under control, but that I also needed to stop trying to get my body to perform like a race car on poor quality fuel. As I read Scott's information and then started to do some research on vegetarian/vegan athletes, I was intrigued. I was surprised at what a "hot-button" issue this is in the athletic and nutrition community, with very strong opinions on both sides. 

One of the problems that I have experienced for many years is extreme muscle soreness. I am not talking the typical delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that one gets the day or two after a hard workout. I expect and gladly accept that. I am talking about muscle soreness that would come on immediately after even an easy run and last most of the day.  I could do an easy three to four mile run with friends, head home in the car, and be as sore as finishing a marathon by the time I had to get out of the car to walk into the house. It was ridiculous. I talked to a few doctors about it, but none of them had any idea why this should be so. I just resigned myself to living with soreness.

What I read in the information from Scott and other athletes, such as triathlete Brendan Brazier, was that most of the vegetarian/vegan athletes mentioned improved recovery and reduced inflammation and soreness as benefits of a diet change. That was the final straw. I was willing to give anything a try that might help with the soreness. That a switch to a vegetarian diet might also help move me to an ideal weight now became a secondary consideration to the idea that I might not have to be sore all the time.

Thus, about six weeks ago I started on the path toward becoming a vegetarian athlete. I am not quite ready to go all out with the vegan thing, and I am also not ready to be what I call one of those "crazy" vegetarians who goes into convulsions if meat is in the same room that they are. Plus, I am practical and cheap (we still had a few really good pork chops and steaks in the freezer).  However, for the past six weeks I have been on primarily a vegetarian diet. I can count the number of times I have had meat on one hand.  I have also started to become much more conscious of the idea of food as fuel, which has changed the way I look at all types of food. 

So," how is it going?" you may ask. Are you getting any of the benefits you hoped for?  Is it hard to do? Do you feel deprived? Well to get those answers you will just have to wait for Part 2.

Related articles:
Book Review: Scott Jurek's Eat and Run

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