Category Archives: Vegan nutrition

Staying lean when training for an endurance event

One of my mini goals that I set, when I decided to run Tarawera, was to not gain weight while training. To stay lean (and to look lean).  To look and perform like an athlete. Other mini goals included (the most important one of) not getting injured and also to be a ‘better’ vegan, to recommit to cutting out dairy and eggs, and to also 100% commit to no meat.

I’m really happy to say that I achieved all of those mini goals. I worked really hard last year on my running technique, my lower body strength and transitioning from a heel striker to a fore foot runner.  I progressed gradually, listened to my body and have spent a lot of time with my foam roller and in the yoga studio.  As a result, I have not been injured or had to see a physiotherapist at all in the past year and a half.

I have also returned to veganism at home and 95% of the time while I am out – which in turn has helped with the first mini goal – to not gain weight/to lose fat and gain lean body mass – because it is so difficult to eat out and socialize as a vegan, I socialize less, drink less, snack less (I used to be so guilty of mindless nibbling at cheese plates!) and in turn that means less temptation, and more chance for cooking nutritious wholesome meals at home.

I also saw a nutritionist when I decided to run Tarawera – to talk about this goal of not gaining weight, of decreasing fat, increasing lean body mass, and ensuring a ate well given the hard work I was going to be doing. I saw Becky Jones at Food Savvy – she specializes in sports nutrition so understood my needs, my questions and was very vegetarian/vegan friendly.

Two great things came out of my nutritionist appointment:

  1. I learned to constantly consider how much protein I am getting each meal, and to ensure I eat enough.  I learned how much protein was in each serving of food, and found I actually was not eating enough! So every day, particularly after a run or hard workout, I made sure I ate enough protein.  This actually meant decreasing the vegetables, rice and pasta I was otherwise eating – I originally thought I would still be hungry after, but vegetarian forms of protein (chickpeas, lentils, tofu, quinoa) fill me up so much that since eating more protein, I feel fuller without feeling heavy or like I overate.
  2. I learned to think of food as nutrients.  As building blocks and a foundation for my training.  Everything I eat needs to have a purpose – candy, alcohol, chocolate – not only are those full of calories but they are empty calories – they don’t give you protein or good fat – they just add up without any benefit.  So I learned to think of my food as fuel, both to help me have enough energy and fuel to get through a workout, but also so that I was not consuming unnecessary and empty calories that would lead to fat gain, or fat retention.

After focusing on the above two, it became (relatively) easy to make sure I did not put on weight during training.  I also found the MyFitnessPal iPhone app to be incredibly helpful in ensuring my intake did not exceed my output – making sure I did not eat too much during or after a workout, that I was actually taking in more calories than I was burning in any day. MyFitnessPal, plus the above two lessons from Becky, and a strong focus on this mini goal – I was away!

Now, why this goal of mine?

To be honest, I’ve never been ‘fat’ or large, but like many people (men and women) I’ve never felt truly happy with my body. In high school and university, I was somewhat active, and was generally a size 10 (US 6). I’ve always been that, even after I started really getting into exercise and gyming lots, I always kind of stayed that size, and a similar weight. I would ‘lose weight’ (fat) when training intensely, but the minute I started training for a marathon I would seem to put it back on again. I was training more, so I was eating more.  I was putting all my energy into running, so I was doing less strength and resistance work, and not very much high intensity interval/metabolic work.  I always thought ‘I am running 30km today, surely I will go down a dress size this week’. But it never happened.

I also got injured during training, for both of my marathons, so of course I then exercised less (due to injury) and probably put my energy into eating instead.  I also was not thinking too much about getting sufficient protein, fats, carbs etc. I wasn’t thinking of food as building blocks, as fuel for my exercise.

I never thought I was fat or overweight or not happy, I just knew I was not loving my body, always wished I could tuck a bit in here and there, and I hated wearing jeans. Weird fact about me – I never wore jeans in university, or even my first year of working. I didn’t own a pair of dress pants/suit pants.  I owned several pairs of jeans – I don’t know why though.  I never weared them. I HATED them. Hated how I felt in them and how I looked in them. I just never felt thin enough. And post-Sydney marathon in 2014, looking at the photos of me before the race, during the race and after – I didn’t like how untoned I was.  In my mind, didn’t look like I actually was an athlete. I at least didn’t look like the athlete I saw in my head – my view of me wasn’t reality.  To me, I didn’t look like I was someone who could run 42.2 kilometers in a good time. I put so much work and effort into training for a marathon – why didn’t I look like it!!

Back to my mini goal – wanting to stay lean or become more lean while training for Tarawera – it honestly wasn’t about having a flat stomach or a small waist or getting down to55 or 58 kg. It was about looking like an athlete and feeling like an athlete. Performing well on the day and not carrying any unnecessary fat with me over the finish line. The number on the scales don’t matter, but the fat and lean body mass percentages do. The more fat you have and the less LBM, the less muscle you have to utilize to help propel you forward. The slower you are. The longer it will take to cross the finish line. Just because you have more fat on your body. I wanted to run as fast as possible and become as much of a machine as possible – so that meant trying to get rid of unnecessary fat and build more LBM – more muscles to make me stronger, faster and better.

Of course, I also wanted to look good in the post-run photos, to not be worrying afterwards about the angle I was standing, whether I need to hold my hand against my hip so my arms look more lean, to suck my stomach in…all those things play some part. I wanted to look like I worked out, like I gymed, like I could run 60km in a heartbeat.  I wanted my training to be reflected in my day to day life.

But really, at the heart of it, I just wanted to run the 60km the best I could. And push my body to see what it really could achieve. Could I get lean while training for an ultra marathon? Could I do that on a vegan diet? Could I do that while working a (sometimes crazy) full time job? Could I also get through the holiday season with self-control – watching my cake, candy and alcohol intake? All of it was a challenge.

And my results?

A challenge that I overcame. And won at. I went from a size 10 to a size 6-8 (US 2-4).  I went from 20% body fat to 12% in 14 months (10-15% is what many professional female long distance runners have…men will have below 10%).  And I own three pairs of jeans, three pairs of pants, and I love to wear them.  And honestly, besides the gains (or, losses really) in my body measurements and skin fold measurements, I felt so much happier and healthier mentally.  Happy, inside and  out.  Because while I am happy with my body, I am happy because I got there, I achieved it, I got there through hard work, through eating and living a healthy life, through improving and watching my nutrition, through sweat and tears – not starvation.  I feel strong, lean and like a real athlete.

How did I do it?

  • I cut back on alcohol – I had one or two at Friday night drinks, and one or two on the weekend.  I didn’t have any alcohol during the week and even over Christmas and New Years I refrained.  I offered to sober drive, and I made a lot of iced tea and drank sparkling water.  It was hard to start with, but after two months, I stopped really craving or wanting a drink.  Once a glass of wine after a long week no longer became my reward, I didn’t need it as much.
  • I also stopped going to Friday night drinks – so I could avoid the chips, the cheese and crackers, the other nibbles that I didn’t need and didn’t do my body or muscles any good.
  • I made sure I always had a good breakfast:
    • During the week = Oatmeal with 1/2 scoop of protein powder, soy milk and a banana
    • Pre-long run = Two pieces of Burgen toast, peanut butter and banana (or jam)
    • Sunday = I would no longer treat myself to a scone, to dumplings, to pancakes or brunch out – I started eating brunch/breakfast at home – a smoothie, eggs on toast (before I cut out eggs again), scrambled tofu, baked oatmeal
  • I made sure I didn’t over eat following a long run.  My go to meal post-run would be one of the following:
    • Scrambled tofu with mushrooms, avocado and toast
    • Green smoothie with protein powder added in
  • I kept up my resistance and strength work at the gym – two upper body/ab sessions per week, on top of my running program.
  • I tried to avoid processed carbs such as pasta, pizza, bread (except for Burgen bread, before or after a long run only), scones, muffins, croissants, cookies, cake, etc.
  • I kept an eye on the scales and how my clothes fit, how my muscles felt, how much energy I had.  I found that if I ‘fell off the wagon’ – I would feel worse the next day. So I just focused on the fact that every day was a training day, every day I needed to feel good.  And that it was three months – three months and then I could go back to eating and doing whatever I wanted…if I wanted to.

Before the run, I did semi deprive myself of food (processed foods, alcohol, snacks etc) but as a result, I no longer want the foods I used to crave.  I don’t feel bad about a beer, wine or piece of chocolate every so often, but I no longer binge or feel the need to.  I often have sparkling water instead of beer or wine.  I cook and eat delicious meals at home on a daily basis.  I have experimented with a range of different recipes and ingredients.  I’ve proved my old personal trainer wrong (he was adamant I would have to eat meat to get any muscle definition or to get ‘lean’).  I love how I look, how I feel and how my body moves and functions.  And I love feeling so strong and knowing that my sheer determination and willpower got me here.  Apart from this blog post, and several conversations with my PT, and with my partner, it has been a personal journey, an internal challenge, to learn to love myself and to feel happy in my own skin.  And to get to a point where not only do I love my body, but I do not have anxiety about losing it, about having a piece of chocolate or a glass of wine – I don’t freak out that doing so will undo all my hard work.  I have learned to let go a bit more – something I have always struggled with in the past.

And now that Tarawera is behind me, and my next goals are a wee way away, I am trying to keep it up.  It is of course a struggle now I am no longer doing 50+ km a week.  But it just means that I can focus on the gym, on healthy eating but also healthy living.  We went paddle boarding recently, something I wanted to do while training for Tarawera, but it was an ‘after Tarawera’ activity.  Seeing friends more often.  Having a piece of cake every so often.  Sleeping in and watching Game of Thrones.  Going on slower more social runs and not caring about time or distance.  Travelling, doing winery tours without any guilt.  I can’t say that I have found the perfect balance – finding that balance is always going to be a struggle for me.

I am an all or nothing kind of person – I struggle with balance.  If I have chocolate, I will eat an entire block, but if I focus too much on dieting or healthy eating, I become dangerously focused in that area too.  But do not fear, I am not about to go on a juice or smoothie diet, and am not about to eat lettuce and tomato and nothing else.  My nutritionist taught me better, and my experiences have proved better too.  It will always be a struggle, but that is part of the fun – who wants to be one shape or size or ability forever – we need change and strive for change in order to measure our success.  Whether it is to bench press a certain amount, perform one unassisted pull up, run 5km, 50km or fit into a sleek dress for an event – working towards and achieving that goal is part of the journey.  The sacrifices become worth it.  Or at least that is what we tell ourselves!

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The week of 73 kilometers

My training has stepped up a lot in the last few weeks, with me at the exact half way point between the marathon and when I made the decision to run it. And with that comes the need for better nutrition and looking after myself. This new mentality is especially fitting given my past history with injuries and my competitive nature – I often push myself past my boundaries and find it hard to recognize when I need to stop. However, I have been doing a lot of reading lately and among other things I have discovered that nutrition is so key to recovery and prevention of injuries.

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Not only do you need to give your body the fuel it needs right before and right after you exercise – be that running, weightlifting or any kind of intense sport or activity – you need to focus on nutrition with everything you eat and drink.  By consuming the right balance of nutrients at all times, you can minimize the amount of muscle degradation and optimize your body’s rate of recovery and muscle rebuild.

So how do I fuel my body and make sure I get the right nutrients? I don’t follow a conventional diet by any means, I am a 90% vegan.  I say 90% because in New Zealand, it is just far too difficult to eat out as a vegan.  It is difficult enough to eat out as a vegetarian, let alone cutting out eggs, dairy and cheese.  I turned vegan as a bit of an experiment and a challenge as a New Year resolution.  My plan was to be vegan for one week a month.  I found it hard at first, getting used to soy milk and almond milk, to give up yoghurt (I used to LOVE yoghurt and muesli for breakfast), feta and butter. But after my first two vegan weeks, I stopped reverting back to non-vegan foods during my weeks off.  I stopped buying cheese, I learned to bake with egg substitutes, I began to find the taste of normal cows milk offputting and I avoided milk chocolate.  And I sustained the vegan week for approximately 6 months, then decided to stop being so stringent with one week, and instead focus on it holistically.  Maintain veganism on a day to day basis, with exceptions – special occasions and celebrations, travel, work functions and other times where it is impossible to be vegan.

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And I feel stronger, fitter and healthier than ever before.  Sure, some of that is to do with my personal training, focusing on my goals and running half marathons, but I believe that my diet has had a lot to do with it. 
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And now with 35 days to go….the pressure is on. I have totally radicalized my diet even more than it was before, introducing a smoothie each day as a way to get lots of nutrients, and cutting out processed carbs. No pasta, rice, noodles, bread, I only have bagels on the weekend before my long Sunday run. Salads for lunch, lots of protein and lots of extra good fats in my diet – avocados, nuts, coconut oil. And lots of food. Lots of it. My trainer has told me to eat, just eat. Healthy food of course, but lots of it. It has been hard getting used to, the idea of making myself eat, when I’ve always been conscious of what I eat to watch my weight, as girls do!
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But on a long Sunday run like today, I burn around 2000 calories. That is a lot of energy to replenish in order for my body and my muscles to recover! I have to eat immediately after, and make sure I continue eating throughout the day. Otherwise my body hurts, it hurts the next day, and for 12-24 hours my brain stops working. I can’t make decisions, so I quite often plan my Sunday and Monday meals in advance, otherwise I just don’t know what to eat, and I get really emotional. It’s interesting the effect of that much exercise on the body, so that’s why I’m focusing on my diet so much to make sure I can maintain somewhat sane during the next 5 weeks!
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So, talking about my training – Today I hit a great milestone in my training. I ran 27km and felt like I could continue going forever. I only stopped because I had to get ready for my choir concert. And I did the 27km in 2 hours 28, averaging around 5:30 per km (compared to 6 min per km on my last long run). And what’s more, I hit my peak in terms of kms for the week.

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Looking ahead, this coming week is going to be the most intense yet, and then it’s time to taper. Which is exciting but will be hard. I’m still loving running, I haven’t burnt out, but it will be hard not running as much and forcing myself to rest. Till then, I have another 70 odd km to do this week, and am experimenting with more recipes, including chia seed coconut water gels (for energy on long runs) and a delicious almond, goji berry and chia seed protein bar….yum!

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