Abby Housefield

Written by Abby Housefield


4 Nutritional Priorities as a Vegetarian Runner

Running well as a vegetarian can be difficult. You have the same nutritional demands as the average runner, but because of your limited food choices, you need to invest much more of your time researching and planning the optimal diet to ensure you don’t miss out on essential vitamins, minerals, and calories.

Therefore, to maximize your training and promote adequate recovery as a vegetarian runner, you need to pay special attention to a few key elements of your diet. In this article, I’ll outline the four most important priorities for a vegetarian runner and specific strategies that can help you plan and execute the perfect vegetarian diet.

Priority 1: Getting enough calories

Unfortunately, plant based diets are not very calorie dense – and it takes quite a few calories to fuel your body for a 20-mile run. While this may seem like a benefit to those runners who want to lose weight, a long-term caloric deficit can actually hamper your training by lengthening your recovery time, and prevent the weight loss you’re looking for because the body will eventually adjust and burn less calories overall.

What you should do as a vegetarian runner

To help avoid a negative caloric intake it is important to know how many calories your body burns on your off/rest days (also called your basal metabolic rate) compared to when you’re training hard. This will allow you to accurately predict how many calories you need to consume and ensure that you have the proper intake to meet your training, weight-loss, and performance goals.

To determine your calorie expenditure, you can use our calorie calculator for runners. This calculator provides you with your basal metabolic rate as well as the amount of calories you burn for any particular run.  This way, you can easily determine how many calories you need to consume each training and rest day.

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Priority 2: Fiber intake

Vegetarian runners also need to be aware that many plant-based foods have high fiber content. Ingesting lots of plant-based fiber may cause premature satiety, gas, bloating, and GI discomfort.

Premature satiety (getting full before consuming enough calories) can result in an unintentional caloric deficit, because you’re always feeling full.  Obviously, gas, bloating and GI discomfort are not issues you want to have while out on a long run or during a hard workout.

What you should do as a vegetarian runner

One way to avoid this issue is to be calculated about eating small meals more often, even when you may not be hungry.

If the high fiber content of a vegetarian diet causes GI distress, you have two options. First, make sure you are drinking enough water. Water is going to help move the extra fiber through your body and shorten the impact it has on your stomach.

Second, consider trying a digestive enzyme. Your body naturally contains enzymes to digest food, but those enzymes are in proportion to the amount of fiber you typically eat. If you have decided to go vegetarian, those enzymes might not be able to keep up with the new amount of fiber you are eating, and might need a little assistance.

Finally, if you’re still having digestive issues while on a vegetarian diet, consider eating healthy fat with your fibrous meals. A healthy fat, such as omega-3 or monounsaturated fat, like that found in olive oil, can help lubricate your digestive system and support healthy regularity.

Priority 3. Protein intake

Without enough protein in your diet, recovery from hard runs will be significantly delayed. The latest research in sports nutrition recommends endurance athletes should consume 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.  This means a 150lb (68kg) runner would need to consume between 81 and 115 grams of protein a day.  With many plant based foods being low on protein, getting enough total protein in your diet as a vegetarian can be difficult.

Furthermore, protein is made up of amino acids, which are the critical building blocks for muscle development. There are 20 essential amino acids in our bodies. Of those 20, our bodies can only make 12 of them without outside nutrients. The only way for us to get the remaining 8 essential amino acids is through food sources. Unfortunately, most plant-based sources of protein do not contain all 8 essential amino acids.

What you should do as a vegetarian runner

It is critical that vegetarian athletes combine protein sources to ensure adequate protein and amino acid consumption.  By combining vegetarian protein sources and not just relying on one type of protein, you can ensure you consume all 8 essential amino acids.

The optimal amino acid combinations for vegetarians are:

Grains with legumes
Grains with dairy
Vegetables with soy
Legumes with nuts
Vegetables with dairy.

As you can see, this is where a bit of planning comes into play. As a vegetarian runner, it would be wise to get complete source of protein at every meal, so you need to make sure you are eating foods in the combinations suggested above.

Priority 4: Sufficient Iron Intake

Iron is a very complicated and important mineral in our body. Simplifying a bit, if you have low iron levels, you will generate fewer red blood cells and your hemoglobin levels will decline. Therefore, less oxygen will be transported to your muscles, and running performance will suffer.

The average male runner needs about 8 milligrams (mg) of iron, and the average female runner needs 18mg per day. Unfortunately, for vegetarians, the type of iron found in animal meat (heme) is the most easy for your body to absorb while plant-based iron (non-heme) requires that you include additional supplements to ensure adequate absorption.

What you should do as a vegetarian runner

You can increase the amount of iron (non-heme) from vegetables when eaten with a dose of vitamin C and B vitamins. Great non-heme, vegetable sources of iron are, legumes, lentils, baked potatoes w/skin, organic tofu, and molasses. It would also be wise to get a cast iron skillet because the iron from the skillet infuses into the food being prepared.

If you’re a vegetarian runner who struggles with iron issues, you can also read our article on specific iron supplementation for runners here.

Putting it all together

As you can see, it takes serious effort and knowledge to plan a nutritionally complete vegetarian diet. In addition to the concerns discussed above, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12 also need to be monitored to avoid deficiencies. While eating vegetarian certainly requires some additional planning and work on your part, the benefits of feeling healthy can’t be underestimated.

If you have questions about how to be a healthy, successful runner on a vegetarian diet, include your questions in the comments section or consider scheduling a one-on-one nutritional consultation.


Iron Supplementation improves endurance after training in iron-depleted, non-anemic women. Journal of Applied Physiology March 2000 vol. 88 no. 3 1103-1111
Protein Requirements for Endurance Athletes. Tarnopolsky M. (2004) Nutrition, 20 (7-8), pp. 662-668.

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4 Responses on “4 Nutritional Priorities as a Vegetarian Runner

  1. Great article. Thanks!

    I’ve been vegan for a couple of years now. The one thing I would like to warn “new vegetarians” about is to avoid replacing meat with a ton of cheesy substitutes and creamy dressings. While as a vegan I don’t eat dairy when I took the first step by going vegetarian I started ordering black bean burgers with cheese and ranch dressing with my salad. I started gaining weight like crazy. Not good!

    It’s a shame I didn’t know you when I first went to the dark side, or should I say “green side” as it took me a while to hone my diet.

    • Marty! Great comment! You are not alone with this discovery! Many people go vegetarian assuming it is automatically healthier, but there is a lot of processed vegetarian/vegan junk food out there. Not that cheese and ranch are necessarily junk food, but we often increase the amount of those foods to replace the “meat” of the meal. I am glad you feel like you have figured your diet out!

      Have you felt your running improve since you have become vegan?

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