Personal Experience of a Plant-Powered Runner
Ultrarunner Heather Gordon has been vegan for four years and running for slightly longer than that. Since starting on both journeys, she has never looked back, and says the vegan diet is helping to fuel her sporting success
“I began running about four and a half years ago. I ran two local 10km races and then entered the Atacama Crossing as a logical next step,” says Heather. For many, that might not have been the most logical progression. The Atacama Crossing is a 250km, six-stage, self-supported race across the driest desert in the world – the Atacama in Chile. “My sister, who initially encouraged me to start running, wanted to do this race, so we decided to experience it together. That was my first ultra-race (October 2017) and, since then, I have done the Ultra Africa 220km stage race and a few one-day ultras in Europe.”
In July 2019, Heather was the eighth female finisher in the Gran Trail Courmayeur 55km race through the Alps. “This was only my second one-day ultrarace and it was an absolute dream to finish top 10 in an international field of experienced ladies.”
Heather already has her sights set on the next challenge – the Costa Rica Coastal Challenge in February 2020, a 250km multi stage race along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
Heather’s coach Zandy Mangold is a fellow ‘plant-powered runner’. “We met during the Atacama Crossing 2017 and he won the race. He came on board as my coach at the start of 2018 and he sends me a detailed schedule every week.
“I generally run six days a week and have a variety of sessions including speed sessions, uphill and downhill sessions and long runs on the trails, which can be anywhere between 20km and 50km.” Heather fuels all this activity on a plant-based diet. “I went vegan just shortly after I started running. I used to suffer from an array of health issues, which many people class as ‘normal’: indigestion, heartburn, bloating, IBS, constant fatigue, low energy levels and bad acne. After years of pumping myself with over-the-counter and prescribed drugs which gave little relief from my symptoms, I switched to a plant-based to improve my health. Almost immediately, I experienced a positive outcome and began to feel much healthier with a lot more energy. Subsequently, I educated myself about the animal welfare consequences , ethical issues and environmental impact of eating an animal-based diet. So, it really was a no brainer to adopt a vegan lifestyle.”
After experiencing the positive impact a plant-based vegan diet had on her athletic performance and overall health, Heather studied T Colin Campbell’s course with Cornell University and the Centre for Nutrition Studies and achieved her Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition earlier this year. “The course was very thorough and really deepened my knowledge about the science behind a plant-based diet. It was fascinating to study the body of research behind the facts and truly understand what impact your food choices have on your short- and long-term health.”
A More Efficient Diet
As well as enjoying improved health benefits, Heather believes the change in her diet also helps her performance. “Some of the benefits of eating a vegan diet that I’ve noticed include increased energy, improved recovery and more efficient use of food. I’m eating better quality calories, so I don’t have to eat as much to get the return on investment that I’m looking for. My body doesn’t have to expend energy digesting lots of heavy calories, such as meat and dairy products. I have higher levels of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, phytonutrients, even fibre, water and nitric oxide. All these things benefit recovery, energy, improved overall athletic performance and, I think it even helps with just feeling better. I haven’t been to see a doctor, taken an antibiotic or even so much as had a common cold since I’ve turned vegan.”
And, when she’s on the trail? “For long runs, I generally use medjool dates and electrolyte mixes that have calories in them. If I’m out for a very long day, I throw in some banana bread or a Clif bar too. For racing, I use gels, mostly because they’re higher in calories and lighter to carry. There are plenty of vegan options out there, it just takes a bit of trial and error to find the right one to suit your body.”
For a healthy diet, Heather aims to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes every day. “The one thing I make sure to do is eat green vegetables every single day. My go-to favourites are kale, spinach, broccoli and asparagus.”
Heather says that, as an athlete, regardless of being vegan or not, it is important to properly fuel your body for optimum performance and that post-work out meals are planned and prepared. “I generally meal plan and prep on a Sunday, so I know what I’m eating for the week and what ingredients I need. I keep my cupboard stocked with dry essentials, such as grains, spices, nuts. I also have a couple of go-to, 15-minute meals that I can whip up easily if I’m in a rush and still make sure I’m getting the proper nutrition I need.”
Whatever your diet, Heather advises listening to your own body. “When my training load increases, I often experience an increased appetite, so I eat as much as my body desires in the form of high-quality whole foods and plants. You can never eat too many vegetables! I’ll also include a lot of turmeric during this time as it is a natural anti-inflammatory. In all my time as a vegan athlete, I haven’t taken a single Ibuprofen; I use my diet as a natural way to keep inflammation at bay.”
Post workout, Heather mainly consumes carbohydrates and adds a little bit of protein to enhance the uptake of glucose into muscle cells. “Research shows that the most effective way to replenish glycogen is by consuming a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein after a workout. Typically, for me, this is a bowl of berries and banana (carbohydrates and high in antioxidants) mixed with soy yogurt and seeds (all high in protein).”
Protein is a key word in the sporting world and closely associated with animal sources. How does Heather manage her protein intake? “ Protein has gained a lot of marketing and media focus over the past couple of years. Yes, it is an important nutrient, but so are carbohydrates and fats, as well as micronutrients. I don’t measure my protein intake specifically; I know that just by eating a varied plant-based diet, I already get about 15 per cent of my calories from protein, which is more than I need to keep my body performing at a high level.”
Before going vegan, Heather says she continually suffered from both low iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies. “I seemed to be on and off iron supplements all the time and was eating steak at least three times a week (a distant memory now!). Since becoming vegan, I get my bloods checked twice a year and the common battery of tests for deficiencies have never shown anything out of the ordinary.” Furthermore, Heather says, a lot of vegan foods and milks are fortified with vitamin B12. “I also use nutritional yeast a lot in cooking with is high in B12 and every now and then I’ll take a supplement, simply as a safety net.”
For iron, Heather recommends lentils, beans, green vegetables and tofu. “Vitamin C increases iron absorption, so if I’m taking green veggies, I’ll squeeze some lemon juice over them. Tea and coffee can prevent iron being absorbed properly in the body, so I try keep it to one or two cups of coffee per day.” Zinc-high foods include chickpeas, oats, lentils, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, wholegrain bread and quinoa.
Making The Change
For anyone thinking of transitioning to a vegan diet, Heather says it’s about finding what works for you. “The changes I made happened pretty fast, but I’ve seen a lot of people who gradually start to switch animal products for plant-based options, and, over time, they make their diet 100 per cent vegan. Switching to a plant-based vegan diet is a long-term investment in your health, so do it in a way that is sustainable for you. If you don’t consume vegetables/wholegrain regularly and it suddenly accounts for the most of your diet, you may experience initial changes in your digestive functioning in this adaptation stage. You need to commit to the changes for at least six to eight weeks to really see the benefits.”
Heather Gordon holds a Certification in Plant-Based Nutrition with Cornell University. Visit www.trailsandroots.com or @trailsandroots on Instagram for more information on trail running & nutrition camps.