I came to plant-based eating for environmental reasons, and decided to go 100% vegan for the animals. But fitness was also on my mind: would I continue to perform well as a vegan runner, or even improve? I’m no elite athlete: just a happy age-grouper aiming to keep moving and complete 10K races in less than an hour for another decade or two. So far, my personal experience has been that plant-based eating is no impediment to casual performance, despite toddler-induced sleep deprivation. In addition, I find that recovering from epic, hard runs is now a breeze. Can it get any better than this? To find out, I asked an expert on nutrition for plant-based runners: Kayla Slater, registered dietitian and running coach.
Brigitte Gemme: Hello Kayla and welcome to my Vegan Family Kitchen! I am thrilled to have you here to share some insight into the proper care and feeding of (aspiring) plant-based athletes. As a runner myself, I am also planning to pick your brains about how to improve my training to run faster and have more fun.
Kayla Slater: Thank you Brigitte for this opportunity to share my passion and expertise!
BG: Tell me a little about your own journey as a plant-based athlete. What’s the role of running in your life, and how did you come to decide to fuel your body with only plants – no meat, no dairy, and no eggs?
KS: Running means so much to me! I actually hated running when I was 12. But, once I couldn’t play soccer anymore, I joined my high school’s cross-country team and became the VIP runner that year. After that, I was hooked! I had run 5Ks with my mom, ran in college for a year, and eventually ran a marathon after finishing college. There were times in my life where nothing seemed like it was going right except for running. It helped me manage my stress, anxiety, grief of loved ones, and heartbreaks through college. At that time, I also became vegetarian. At first, it was for health, since I was studying nutrition and learning about the importance of eating more vegetables. After watching Food Inc. in school and traveling to Ireland where I was fed a plate of beef stew, I realized I couldn’t eat animals anymore. Then, as my running career progressed and I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I began to be more interested in the advantages that plant-based athletes have.
BG: What do you feel is the biggest challenge for amateur athletes who decide to embrace a 100% plant-based diet?
KS: The biggest challenge of nutrition for plant-based runners is eating enough. Many people lose weight on a 100% plant-based diet, but for athletes it can be difficult to eat enough calories to support their running. That is especially true if they have a past history of eating disorders.
BG: As a registered dietitian and running coach, what are some common misconceptions that you encounter in your clients about nutrition for plant-based runners and other athletes?
KS: Some still think that you can’t get enough protein on a 100% plant-based diet – and that is not true at all! Many of the athletes I work with are able to eat enough from plant sources (mostly vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and fruit) and don’t need to supplement even with vegan protein powders. Some choose to do so because it is more convenient for them. Also, the amount of protein we actually need is far less than most people think.
BG: Can you tell me more?
KS: According to the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, the general population really only needs 10% of their calories to come from protein. For endurance athletes, I recommend 10-15% or between 1.2-1.4 g/kg of body weight, which is the recommendation for endurance athletes from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Plant-based runners can fuel appropriately by eating mindfully and not stressing about counting calories.
BG: I have heard you many times say that we need to shift our attention away from weight loss and diets. How did you come to that conclusion, and what should we do instead?
KS: When we are focused on performance, we approach nutrition differently than when we are focused on weight loss. Many of my clients have struggled with disordered eating in the past. Focusing on weight loss does not help them fuel their bodies appropriately for training. I teach my clients how to eat balanced meals and snacks instead of counting calories and macros. They can meet their nutrition needs and fuel appropriately as a runner by eating mindfully.
BG: What’s your number 1 tip for people with busy lives who are already active, but are wanting to make sure to maintain and perhaps improve their fitness and speed as they age?
KS: Continue to challenge yourself and eat like an athlete, even if you don’t think of yourself as one! In my book, if you run or workout consistently, or train for races or other competitions, you are an athlete, and you should fuel yourself accordingly.
BG: What about younger people? Many of my readers, as I do, have growing, active children who are into competitive sports. What do you think is the best thing we can do as parents to support a healthy mindset about food and growing bodies?
KS: Be a good role model. It’s important for parents to show that they have a good relationship with food and instill good eating habits and behaviors by leading by example.
BG: What’s your favorite plant-based snack to fuel your workouts?
KS: Date bites!
BG: What is it like to work with you as a plant-based running coach?
KS: Here’s what my client Leah G. says: “I learned about how much food I really need, how much of different macronutrients I need, how to balance making sure I am getting enough fuel without stuffing myself or feeling uncomfortable, how to build balanced vegan meals, how to find the cheapest plant based options to build a variety of meals, how to deal with an injury and continue fueling myself through it, the certain types of foods that should be emphasized to recover from an injury, and honestly probably a lot more but that is just what I can remember right now.”
BG: Thank you Kayla for sharing your infectious enthusiasm for nutrition for plant-based runners! I wish I could go for a training run with you.
Kayla Slater, a go-to expert in nutrition for plant-based runners
Kayla Slater is an online plant-based registered dietitian and running coach currently residing in beautiful and sunny Florida, with her boyfriend and her dog. Kayla has been plant-based for the past five years and running for over 10 years. She is currently training with her dog, Yukon, to qualify for the Boston Marathon. She is also the owner and founder of Plant Based Performance Nutrition and Run Coaching, LLC, where she provides personalized and group support for recreational and intermediate endurance athletes who want to fuel on plants for their health, the environment, and animals, while gaining the plant-based performance advantage. You can connect with her on Instagram, join her Facebook community, and visit her web site to book a consultation.