The Rise Of Vegan­ism With­in Ultra Run­ning

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.

8 July 2020

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Read­ing Time: 6 minutes

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).

Per­form­ance bene­fits

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.

Sci­entif­ic evid­ence

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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