This article was written by guest contributor Lauren Buckel. The views expressed herein are hers and hers alone. To see more of Lauren's work, follow on her blog Health on the Run, or follow her on Twitter.

When you think of the diet of an endurance athlete, vegetarian is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, even though meatless diets are becoming more mainstream, the reactions I receive when someone discovers I’m a vegetarian marathon runner more closely resemble “But how do you get your protein?” and “Don’t you worry about anemia?” than “Oh yes, that makes perfect sense!”

It may not seem like it to many people, but I promise that being a vegetarian endurance athlete really isn’t all that crazy. I’ve been running on a diet without meat for over 15 years now, and in that time I’ve survived eight years of varsity cross country, six marathons, and countless other races. But don’t just take my word for it. There are some pretty famous professional runners who are also fueled by veggies— runners like Bart Yasso (Runner’s World’s “Chief Running Officer” and inventor of Yasso 800s), Scott Jurek (vegan ultramarathoner and course-record holder at both the Badwater and Western States ultramarathons), Carl Lewis (vegan nine-time Olympic track and field medalist), Dave Scott (six time winner of the Ironman triathlon who kept a vegetarian diet while competing), and of course Brendan Brazier (vegan professional Ironman triathlete and founder of the popular Thrive Diet).

So if these runners can do it while competing at a professional level, you can, too.

All it takes is a bit of careful planning and creativity to ensure adequate protein and iron intake to fuel workouts. And since most long distance runners tend to be pretty careful about the foods they are putting into their bodies anyway, creating well-balanced meals isn’t really anything new. But before taking the plunge into meatless running, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Do’s and Don’ts of a Vegetarian Athlete’s Diet:

Don’t become a “junk food vegetarian.” It’s easy to assume that once someone gives up meat, they automatically start eating more healthy food. But as my college self realized all too quickly, not all vegetarian foods are created equal. Foods like Pop-Tarts and potato chips may not have meat in them, but they aren’t exactly the cornerstones of a healthy diet. (And I wondered why I gained weight in college…)

Do plan meals around whole, fresh foods. Eating pre-packaged dinners or meat substitutes is okay once in awhile, but if every meal is based on those instead of fresh fruits and vegetables, you run the risk of not getting all the necessary nutrients.

Don’t simply take away the meat when planning your meals. If you take away the meat portion of the meal without finding a suitable replacement, you risk eating both too little protein and too few calories.

Do rethink your plate! Instead of a turkey and cheese sandwich, make one with hummus or tempeh. Find something to make up for the protein and calories you took away.

(And finally...) Do get creative with your meals. The standard American dinner containing a big portion of meat with small sides of vegetables and carbs isn’t going to work anymore. But that doesn’t mean you are doomed for a life of big salads for every meal! Branching out and trying new foods will not only ensure you help yourself eat a more balanced diet, but you’ll also avoid falling into a food rut.

And now for the million dollar question: Where do you get your protein?

There are actually more foods that contain protein than you might think! Even foods like spinach and whole wheat bread contain some protein. If you start tracking your intake, you might find that it adds up faster than expected.

While meat substitutes are great (my non-vegetarian fiancé claims that seitan is the best fake meat out there. Combine it with a little Barbeque Sauce and you have a match made in heaven!), you can also get protein from many whole foods. Here are some of my favorite sources:

Greek yogurt (6 oz serving)
18 – 20 grams
Tofu (1/2 cup)
19.9 grams
Lentils (1 cup cooked)
17.9 grams
Tempeh (1/2 cup)
15.7 grams
Black Beans (1 cup cooked)
15.2 grams
Chickpeas (1 cup cooked)
14.5 grams
Quinoa (1 cup cooked)
11.0 grams
Peanut Butter (2 Tbs.)
8.0 grams
Egg (one large)
6.0 grams
Oatmeal (1 cup)
6.0 grams
Almond Butter (2 Tbs.)
4.0 grams

For me, the biggest problem isn’t actually where to get my protein— it’s balancing intake with my self-professed carbohydrate addiction. To be perfectly honest, I would say that I prefer pasta and bread over beans and tofu any day of the week.

But even though long distance runners love their carbohydrates, I do my best to limit the carbo-loading to race week (and the Christmas season, but that’s another story). When I want to ensure a balanced meal, I turn to one of my vegetarian fall backs. Since I work full time and then run in the evening after work, I am usually starving by the time I sit down for dinner. Which is why many of my favorite meals are simple and quick to make. Meals that make it into my regular rotation include black bean burgers, cannellini bean burgers, tempeh lettuce and tomato (TLT) sandwiches, quinoa salads (cook in vegetable broth for added flavor), and my all-time favorite, lentil tacos:

Vegetarian Lentil Tacos

Lentil Prep:

There are two important things you need to do when preparing lentils:

  1. Before doing anything, give the lentils a good rinse with cold water. Look carefully to make sure they are clean and there aren’t any small stones hiding in the bowl (these are dried beans, after all).
  2. Make sure to use enough water when cooking your lentils to ensure they soften up. For each 1 cup of lentils that you cook, you should add at least 3 cups of water. Don’t worry about all that being absorbed by the end— you can drain out the extra when you’re done.

My fail-proof strategy: Cook the beans in a big pot with lots of extra water, like you would cook pasta. Bring the water to a boil, add lentils and reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 30 – 45 minutes.

What You'll Need:

For the filling: 1 cup dried lentils
¾ cup diced fresh tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
½ tablespoon chili powder
½ tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or small handful of chopped fresh oregano)
Salt to taste

(To make it really simple, you could replace the spices with pre-packaged taco seasoning. But I prefer the taste of making my own.)

Toppings: Shredded lettuce
Diced tomatoes
Shredded cheddar or Mexican blend cheese
Sour cream or plain Greek yogurt (makes a great, low calorie/low fat replacement)
Salsa
Simple guacamole (see below)

What to Do:

  1. Cook lentils using the method described above. Set aside.
  2. In a medium-sized pot or large frying pan, sauté the garlic with olive oil for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender, over medium-high heat.
  3. Add the tomatoes and spices. Cook until tomatoes start to soften, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the lentils and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the lentils have really absorbed all the flavors. Add extra spices as necessary.
  5. Serve on corn or whole wheat tortillas and top with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, shredded cheese, and guacamole.

Simple Guacamole

Combine 1 ripe avocado (pitted and peeled), ¼ cup diced tomatoes, ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, the juice from ¼ of a lime, and salt to taste in a small bowl and mash with a fork until well combined. Mixture should be chunky, but easy to spread.

See? I told you it was simple. For more great vegetarian recipes, try the Vegetarian Times, 101 Cookbooks, Fat Free Vegan, and the Savvy Vegetarian.

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