Running on Plants

Here's how to get nutrients your running body needs from plants.

Whether you're vegetarian, vegan, or just trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, plants are veritable power houses every runner needs.

2019 review published in Nutrients even found that following a plant-based diet can improve heart health and recovery time in endurance athletes. These perks may be thanks to the abundance of health- and performance-boosting nutrients found in plants, such as protein, electrolytes, water, antioxidants and fiber-rich carbohydrates.

Because different plants provide different nutrients — and benefits — it's a good idea to get a wide range of them in your diet.

Here are some of the best plant-based foods for runners.

1. Calcium-Heavy Green Vegetables
Green vegetables, like kale and broccoli can help you get the calcium your body needs.

Calcium helps build strong bones for running, it also carries messages between the brain and your working muscles. Calcium is also used to help move blood through your body and release hormones and enzymes, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

2. Potassium-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
Foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and orange juice are great sources of potassium, an electrolyte lost through sweat.

"Potassium is important in maintaining healthy blood pressure," said Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, a senior clinical research scientist with Abbott.

The electrolyte also works with sodium to help regulate your body's fluid levels. So, you may want to include a potassium-heavy plant source or Pedialyte drink in your post-workout meal or snack to help return fluid levels to normal.

3. Slow-Digesting Whole Grains, Fruits and Legumes
In general, slow-digesting carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits and legumes are better for overall health and blood sugar control, Hertzler said. Quick-digesting foods, like white bread and white rice, on the other hand, cause your blood sugar to rise and fall too fast, leading to a sudden need for more food. Your best bet for a steady energy supply is to reach for high-fiber grains like quinoa and whole wheat, fruits like apples and raspberries and legumes like beans and lentils.

That said, there are times when slow-digesting plants are not your friend. More on that shortly.

4. Water-Rich Fruits
Fruits like watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries boast a high-water content, helping offset any water you might lose through sweat. "Watermelon has the advantage of also being a good natural source of the amino acid citrulline, which can be converted into arginine in the body," Hertzler said. Arginine helps promote blood flow to your body tissues.

5. High-Protein Soy, Legumes and Grains
You need a variety of amino acids to build all the proteins required for tissue repair and other basic functions. And while animal foods like fish, poultry, dairy and meat typically offer more amino acids than plant sources, some plant-based foods — namely, soy — are actually a high-quality protein source comparable to animal proteins, Hertzler said. Tofu, edamame and miso are all forms of soy.

Other plant-based foods like grains and legumes may not have as many amino acids as soy or animal foods, but they're still a valuable addition to your diet. "The key to getting enough high-quality protein from plant-based sources is to have a wide variety of different types of plant proteins," he said.

Hertzler also recommends spreading your protein throughout the day. Focus on getting about 25-30 grams of protein at each of your three main meals, and then include another 15-30 grams in healthy snacks.

Try quinoa, which has roughly 8 grams of protein per cooked cup, or green peas, which offer nearly 9 grams in an equal portion.

Keep Plant Fiber from Interrupting Your Runs
One downside of a plant-based diet is all that fiber can upset your gastrointestinal (GI) tract if you're not careful. Research shows that eating fiber pre-run can cause intestinal cramps.

To prevent your plant-rich diet from messing with your running, Hertzler suggests keeping a training and nutrition diary. "Record the times you eat each day for a week or so. Make note of when your eating occurs relative to training and the types of food that are consumed," he said.

Jot down any observations of how these foods affect your GI function so you know which to avoid close to training. "Not everyone tolerates every dietary fiber the same," Hertzler said. "A good food diary can help you know when you can eat certain foods relative to exercise."

That same food diary can help you determine what foods work best to help your muscles recover after training. With a little pre-race practice, you'll be feeling your best long after the finish line.