Written By Chris Taylor
Chris is Operations Manager at Ultra X and takes the lead on planning new races and events. His interests include (and are limited to): ultra running, plant-based foods to eat whilst ultra running, and ultra running with dogs.
In the last ten years, participation in ultramarathon events has grown by 345% worldwide (according to RunRepeat). In the same period of time, veganism has grown at a similar rate, rising 300% in the UK alone (there are now an estimated 600,000 vegans in the UK, according to The Vegan Society). Coincidence?!?
Well, yes, probably. That said, while it’s unlikely the meteoric growth in both ultra running and veganism are connected, there is no denying that the number of athletes identifying as plant-based or vegan seems disproportionately high in ultra running, compared with other endurance sports. At Ultra X events in 2019 and 2020, we’ve found that vegans make up around 2% of our ultra running community, whereas the percentage for the UK popualtion is just 1.14%.
Could it be that ultra running is at the forefront of the drive towards veganism in endurance athletes? Are vegans and ultra runners colluding to take over the world? Will supermarkets of the future be 50km away from the nearest towns and stocked solely with tofu, tempeh, and turnips? Let’s take a deeper look at the growth of veganism in ultra running.
Why are so many ultra runners vegan?
Vegan running is far from a new phenomenon. Vegan Runners UK has been around since 2004 (it’s now reportedly the fastest-growing athletics club in the country, with over 1,700 members) and American sprinter Carl Lewis (a vegan since 1990) was winning Olympic golds before “ultramarathon” was a word in the English dictionary. So why is veganism in running all the rage now?
Well, it’s likely to be a combination of factors, not least the increasing number of vegans in the general population. Popular Netflix documentaries, such as Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, What The Health, and, most recently, The Game Changers, have played a significant role in bringing the benefits of a plant-based diet into the mainstream. The topics these documentaries explore — sustainability, long-term health, peak athletic performance — are generally of especial interest to the ‘average’ ultra runners who, stereotypically, are a health-driven and environmentally conscious bunch.
Vegan role models
When it comes to bringing a diet trend out of the shadows, there’s nothing quite as influential as a celebrity endorsement, and veganism has had many over the last few years. Amateur athletes are particularly susceptible to emulating the habits of their heroes, especially in the uber-competitive world of modern sports, where gaining the slightest edge in seeking personal excellence is more sought-after than ever.
From this perspective, ultra runners couldn’t have asked for a better role model. Scott Jurek, a seven-time winner of Western States 100, is arguably the greatest ultra runner of all time. He also happens to be one of the most widely known vegan athletes and has even published a book detailing his dietary philosophy, Eat & Run. If an ultra runner hasn’t read this book, then they’ve almost certainly pored over the pages of that most famous of ultra running bibles, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, a book in which Jurek plays a leading role, and which devotes several chapters to his plant-based lifestyle.
The achievements of professional athletes like Jurek, whose dominating career coincided with the rise in popularity of the sport, prove that a plant-based diet can deliver all the nutrients, carbohydrates and protein required to be the best of the best, and have no doubt played a huge role in veganism’s now relatively widespread adoption throughout the sport.
Another factor in the rise of veganism in the general population that could impact ultra runners more than your average joe? Climate change.
Wider acknowledgement of climate change has prompted increasing numbers of individuals to alter their eating behaviours to mitigate their environmental impact. Pro runner and vegan athlete Sarah Cotton believes that ultra runners are more likely to adopt a sustainable diet as they spend more time outdoors: “As long-distance trail runners, we spend a lot of time with Mother Nature. Personally, this makes me feel more connected to earth, and I guess it just feels right to use Mother Nature the way it was intended. It feels good to eat so close to earth, and to know where your food comes from.”
(As part of our Sustainability Policy, Ultra X will ensure there are plant-based food options available for crew and competitors at all events).
The performance benefits most widely reported by athletes who’ve switched to a vegan diet — namely feeling more energetic, recovering faster, experiencing fewer GI/stomach issues, and developing a leaner physique — are of particular value to ultra runners.
Of significant importance in endurance running is the ability to recover quickly from a hard race or long training run. Plant-based foods are rich in antioxidants that reduce inflammation and recently transitioned vegans often report increased powers of recovery. For an ultra runner wishing to maintain a high training mileage, as well as competing in several races per year, accelerating recovery is an appealing superpower.
Further, take one look at the best athletes in the sport and you’ll soon discover which type of physique suits the long-distance runner. A varied vegan diet, which swaps saturated fats for healthier alternatives such as avocado and nuts, can make it easier to lean-up and shed the extra body fat that can be a hindrance to ultra runners at the top of their game.
Until now, much of veganism’s past popularity with endurance athletes has been based on anecdotal success stories. However, one recent study (the title of which, “Is a vegan diet detrimental to endurance and muscle strength?”, perfectly encapsulates the incorrect yet still prevailing belief that veganism is associated with poorer exercise performance) has finally provided some cold hard facts regarding its potential benefits.
A team of researchers from Montreal asked 56 female athletes (half vegan, half omnivores) to log their meals for three days, then perform strength and endurance tests. The researchers reported: “Both groups were comparable for physical activity levels, body mass index, percent body fat, lean body mass, and muscle strength. However, vegans had a significantly higher estimated VO2 max (44.5 vs. 41.6 ml/kg/min) and sub-maximal endurance time to exhaustion (12.2 vs. 8.8 min) compared with omnivores.”
These results suggest that not only is a vegan diet not detrimental to endurance and muscle strength, it may well enhance aerobic capacity and sub-maximal endurance. Ultra runners generally enjoy geeking out on stats. As such, scientific evidence in support of any potential performance enhancer is likely to be a big driving factor behind behavioural change.
Of course, there are plenty of ultra runners who don’t follow a vegan diet and experience great success. It’s not for everyone and there is certainly a long way to go before veganism is the norm, but ultra runners do seem to be leading the charge.
As participants of a sport that requires accepting a certain level of discomfort and being well drilled in “controlling the controllables”, perhaps ultra runners are simply better at giving up things they enjoy. As Swedish ultra runner and vegan athlete Elisabet Barnes told author and fellow runner Adharanand Finn in his recent book The Rise of The Ultra Runners: “It’s the mindset of someone who runs ultras … they’re comfortable with change.”
In the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the factors to consider for anyone thinking about making the switch to plant-based eating, and we’ll also be listing some of the best names in the sport who follow and advocate a vegan diet.
(Doing a multi-stage ultramarathon and not sure how to fuel on a vegan diet? Check out our review of the best vegan freeze dried food options).
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