Meat or vegetarian: which is best for runners?

This long-standing debate continues to gather momentum, but which diet is best for runners? We explore the facts behind a vegetarian versus a carnivorous diet.

Meat or vegetarian: which is best for runners?

Former track and field athlete and dedicated vegetarian Carl Lewis won 9 gold medals during his career, while the fastest runner on the planet Usain Bolt swears by his high meat diet, with word on the street that he consumed 1000 chicken nuggets during the Bejing Olympics.

So which will pack more power into your performance and what is the best diet for runners: meat or vegetarianism? 

Fuelling your run

Meat eaters

What you eat before your run is essential, as your food becomes the fuel which converts into energy and effectively powers your engine. Bacon and sausages are not billed as traditional running fuel, but there are some benefits to chowing down on meat products before your run.

If you're a devout carnivore, the Paleo diet is high in protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables and low in carbohydrates. This type of diet converts fat into energy as it enters Ketosis due to the low carbohydrate intake, although it should only be followed with a sufficient nutritional plan to ensure you're getting enough energy.

Vegetarian

Feeling on top form before your run isn't an issue for most vegetarians, as a veggie diet is abundant in natural carbohydrates that converts into energy. Traditional toast, muesli or porridge usually does the trick, or legumes and beans have a healthy balance of protein and carbs that will help you get further and go faster in your training.

Repair and recovery

Meat eaters

Protein aids muscle recovery, and getting your hands on it quickly within your recovery window is rarely a problem for meat eaters, but you could be doing your body a disservice when it comes to inflammation.

According to Ben Greenfield Fitness, an acidic blood level could slow down recovery. ‘One of the primary advantages cited by the plant-based diet community is the acid-forming properties of meat and dairy products, compared to the relatively non-acidic, or 'alkaline' forming whole plant-based foods,' argues Greenfield.

'The logic is that an excessively acidic blood pH could result in inflammation, and thus impair recovery.’

Vegetarian

Post-run vegetarian and even vegan protein options are now readily available from most supermarkets and restaurants. As well as being easy to come by and reasonably priced, many of the vegetarian choices contain a balanced mix of carbohydrates, restoring your muscles and glycogen stores. From eggs, to yoghurt or chickpeas and lentils, your recovering muscles will be sorted in no time on a veggie diet.

Performance power

Meat eaters

One of the plus points of meat and red meat especially is iron consumption. The Meat Advisory Board have even created a campaign centred around red meat’s role as a part of a balanced diet. ‘Five-a-week’ highlights the reasons why we shouldn’t eradicate red meat from our diets, maintaining that it is a rich and readily absorbed source of iron, and provides important nutrients including protein, vitamin B12 and other B-complex vitamins, zinc, selenium and phosphorus.

Vegetarian

Iron is a key factor in providing energy, as is vitamin B12. Vegetarians can get iron from certain food groups, including spinach, soybeans, quinoa and cashew nuts. However, vegetarians do need to keep an eye on their iron consumption, as even platefuls of spinach won't provide one of the essential types of iron we need, as Vegetarian Nutrition explains, ‘Most of the iron in a vegetarian diet is non-heme iron which has a relatively low absorption rate (2-20%) compared with heme iron (15-35%).'

It is still possible to get sufficient energy from non-heme iron on a vegetarian diet, but if you do start to feel low in energy ask your doctor to check your ferritin, iron and B12 levels to see if you need to take supplements.

Heart health

Meat eaters

A happy heart is essential for a healthy body, as well as good running results. Cholesterol levels are particularly high in meat, whether it is lean, red or otherwise. There are two types of cholesterol, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

To stay healthy we need HDL to maintain low cholesterol, but we should avoid LDL, as it contributes to a build up of fat and potential narrowing of the arteries which can lead to the risk of heart attack. LDL are found in foods which are high in saturated fat, with processed and red meats included, so try to opt out of these where you can.

Vegetarian

Vegetarians are winning when it comes to a healthy cardiovascular system, as a meat-free diet is usually lower in fat, resulting in lower blood pressure and a happy heart. Luckily for veggies many meat-free foods are also rich in HDL, with beans, nuts, flax seeds, soy and even avocados featuring on the list.

'HDL is like a vacuum cleaner for cholesterol in the body,' says Health Line. 'When it’s at healthy levels in your blood, it removes extra cholesterol and plaque buildup in your arteries and then sends it to your liver.' 

So which diet is best for runners? We'll leave it up to you to draw conclusions for yourself! But if you were considering switching to a healthier diet, our 8 great reasons to go veggie should convince you.

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