I went first vegetarian then vegan starting in 2015. I learned the importance of balancing training and diet and have made many tweaks. I am an older, normal male who has been battling being overweight since my 20s. I'd also like to hear about other experiences as I continue to learn. I am not a doctor or a researcher so I am always open to new information and insights.
I was a lifelong beef and chicken lover so the 2015 transition to plant-based eating was not easy. At first, I cheated from time to time but have been very consistent in recent years. Also, I was never a runner but started running in 2004 as a way to lose weight when I was 60 pounds heavier than I am now. The two of these life changes came together when I made the switch to a vegan diet just as I began ramping up my running training from being a half-marathoner to a marathoner on January 1, 2015. I have had some real high points that I am proud of. I admittedly run very slow but I have been able to run for very long periods of time. From 2015 to 2018, I ran 11 full marathons, 4 half-marathons, and 4 ultra-marathons (2 of them 50 miles). I increased my training load from about 20 miles a week to a high of 50 miles a week. So, it is clear that I did not suffer from a lack of endurance, strength or recovery time when I moved to a plant-based diet. With respect to recovery time, I ran marathons on successive weekends and once ran a marathon the week after I had completed my first 50-mile race. As a bonus, I dropped 20 more pounds (after already having lost 40 from just running) and all of my blood test results improved dramatically.
The one major caution I can offer is to watch protein and total calories, especially if you are running in order to also lose weight like I was. It turns out that endurance running in particular drives up protein requirements and can have a negative impact on testosterone levels for both men and women if you do not consume additional protein to support intense training. My doctor shared this article with me that explains: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5988228/
. Most conventional recommendations on protein call for increased consumption for endurance runners. Many advise to start at 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight and frequently go as high as 1.5 or even 2 grams per kilogram of body weight. The research supports this advice. You have to be careful if you want to check whether you have an issue. On a lab result, total Testosterone levels might even appear normal, which is what is frequently tested in standard lab tests, but free testosterone can still end up low. The general explanation I've received is that the body likely manufactures more Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) to deal with the imbalance being created by the high intensity running without increased protein intake. SHBG then attaches to testosterone molecules and hence lowers the free testosterone. The article I linked to talks about this relationship in particular.
The tricky part for me was the tradeoffs between continuing to lose weight through endurance training, and not suffering negative impacts from impacts on free testosterone. Starting back in 2004, to help accelerate my weight loss, I knew that I had to aim for a calorie deficit. Before that, I had been overeating for many years. Cutting my portion size helped me cut down my calories. I never tried to starve myself as that is impossible to sustain. But I learned to stop eating when I was no longer hungry as opposed to my former habit of eating until I couldn't eat anymore. Unfortunately, by cutting portions and keeping my meal content the same, I was then cutting my protein. The calorie deficit drove down my weight dramatically but I didn't know that I had to compensate for the impact on testosterone.
I only recently learned about these risks. Since then, I have used MyFitnessPal to keep a Food Diary to track exactly what I have been eating. I am not sure how long I can keep up the daily tracking, but I immediately learned that my protein intake was not what I had assumed. In addition, I read the great book "The New Sugar Busters" and learned a lot about exactly what sugar is doing to the body, how it pervades the diet, and the impact of high glycemic carbohydrates such as white potatoes and enriched flour. It was time for a new approach.
I have now made some simple tweaks to my vegan diet. I am more disciplined about avoiding added sugars and avoiding food with added sugars. I am avoiding high glycemic index starchy foods. I am being more faithful about eating beans other legumes. And I am loading up on high proteins during meals and between meals. I still eat some "fake meats" made out of soy and wheat gluten to satisfy my lifelong eating habits but I am also adding more nuts, seeds and other protein to my salads. I am trying to snack on protein sources (instead of junk snacks) and doing protein shakes both with meals and between meals. The net result is that my calorie intake is about the same or lower than it was in the past but my protein intake is almost double. The added benefit is that I feel extremely full all the time. Not even close to starving.
Is it working? I can definitely see results in the mirror. I am not running at the moment because of an injury but I am lifting weights more faithfully than I have in years. Over the past month, I have increased the number of days per week and doubled the number of sets I am doing per body part during each session. When I started this diet tweak to increase my protein load, I had not been in the gym much over the last few years because I spent so much time running. As I hit the gym again, I was shocked that my strength in the bench press was low for me as if I was starting all over. However I have gained 30 pounds in the bench in just the past 2 months of workouts. I feel virtually no soreness. And I continue to increase my workout duration and intensity each time I hit the gym.
I am hopeful I can get out and start running again to see how the protein changes impact my running. Good luck to all other runners and all plant-based enthusiasts. I'd love to hear how my experience compares to others.