Vegan runners: can a plant-based diet provide what you need to compete – and win?
The number of Vegan Runners
club members has shot up in the past three years.
“In 2004, I was the only
vegan in the village,” says Fiona Oakes, a
marathon runner. “But now you see vegan runners everywhere.”
An animal lover who set up
her own animal
sanctuary, Oakes started a running club called Vegan Runners in
2004. The idea came about after she saw the long-distance runner
Paula Radcliffe on TV and spotted an opportunity. Oakes was a good
runner and thought that, if she got faster, she could end up
alongside Radcliffe at the start line of the London marathon, on
national television, with the words “Vegan Runners” emblazoned
across her vest.
“It was a way of
showcasing the cause,” she says. “I’d been vegan since I was
six years old. I’d lost my kneecap from an illness when I was 17
and been told I would never run again. If I could do this as a vegan,
it showed that anything was possible.”
Back then she was a lone
crusader, trying to introduce people to the word “vegan” in a
positive way. “Rather than cause disruption and be in people’s
faces, by running, I was leading by example and generating interest
in a positive way,” she says.
She went on to twice finish
in the top 20 in major marathons, with a personal best of two hours
38 minutes, and also won the north pole marathon. Oakes’ powerful
example has seen the Vegan Runners steadily increase their numbers
over the years. But with the interest in veganism growing, partly in
response to the global climate crisis, the club’s numbers have
swelled exponentially in the past three years; there are almost 4,000
today, with more than 40 local groups across the country, their
distinctive tops unmissable at races.
Club activities vary at
each branch, but typically involve weekly training runs and group
attendance at events such as local parkruns – usually with a visit
to a vegan cafe afterwards.
Understandably, members are
expected to be vegan not just in their diet but in their choice of
clothing. Oakes says that the expectation is for members to be living
a fully plant-based lifestyle.
Mike Exton from Sheffield
joined Vegan Runners in June. Although he is vegan, he primarily
joined because the training runs were local. “I do find it a little
tricky being pigeonholed as a vegan runner,” he says. But he feels
more comfortable wearing the Vegan Runners vest now than he might
have done five years ago, as veganism has become “less weird”.
“In many ways it’s just
another running club,” he says, “though we do tend to chat about
food, recommending things to try and getting advice on nutrition.”
Lisa Gawthorne joined Vegan
Runners in 2018. She says it is great to be surrounded by like-minded
people and that the club forms “a really kind and compassionate
“I think it’s important
to bounce off people who are going through similar things to you and
to share experiences,” she says. “This may include tips on
nutrition or the best vegan running shoes. It all helps.” Most
running shoes that don’t use leather or suede are vegan, but
sometimes the glues used in shoes can be made from animal products.
The Vegan Runners’ website
has a helpful guide to which brands are fully vegan.
Gawthorne has been vegan
for 16 years and is an international road runner and duathlon
athlete. She believes being vegan has helped her to perform at such a
high level. “It improves recovery time, is better for the digestive
system and promotes better sleep,” she says. “I have never had as
much energy as I have since moving from a vegetarian to a vegan
Not everyone shares this
view. Tim Noakes, a South African sports scientist famous for his
promotion of a high-fat, meat-rich diet, says a vegan diet is
“incomplete in so many ways”. “In time, a truly vegan athlete
will run into trouble unless they are sourcing additional
animal-based nutrients – such as vitamin B12, iron, choline and
probably high-quality proteins – from somewhere else,” he says.
Dietitian Renee McGregor,
who works with international ultra-runners, says that while it is
possible to be vegan and a good runner, it needs a lot of careful
planning. “In my clinic, many of the athletes that come in with
relative energy deficiency have become vegan,” she says, adding
that the high intake of fibre more common in a vegan diet can impact
the absorption of nutrients such as iron and calcium, as well as
displace energy intake.
There are not enough long-term studies to show how vegan diets impact athletic performance, which leaves us with a battleground of anecdotal evidence. Some of the world’s leading long-distance runners swear by the meat-heavy diet promoted by Noakes, while others are vegan, spearheaded by the legendary ultra-runner Scott Jurek, whose seven consecutive victories in the most competitive ultra-marathon in the US, the Western States 100-mile endurance run, make the case that a vegan diet doesn’t have to be incompatible with running.
For Oakes, proving this to the world is what gets her out of bed on cold mornings. “It gives me a reason to get up and train,” she says. “To show what is possible, and to promote what I believe in.”
From The Guardian, Nov. 2019