Asked by Michele, Manchester, New Hampshire
I have been a vegetarian and long-distance runner for about nine years. I am now wondering if re-introducing meat into my diet will help with recovery after long runs/races and improve my endurance and speed.
If I did begin eating meat again, what can I expect to see in terms of gains regarding running?
Diet and Fitness Expert
Dr. Melina Jampolis
Physician Nutrition Specialist
Hi Michele -- In order to answer your question, I turned to a leading sports nutritionist, Nancy Clark M.S., R.D., author of "The Sports Nutrition Guidebook" and "Nancy Clark's Food Guide for Marathoners." Here is her response along with a few points that I've added in.
Re-introducing meat will help you if:
1. You are iron deficient. Iron deficiency anemia can certainly slow you down and contribute to needless fatigue. It is more common in female athletes due to menstrual blood loss. Your body needs iron to make red blood cells that help transport oxygen from your lungs to your working muscles. Red meat is an excellent source of iron. White meat and seafood are also good sources of iron. While vegan foods, such as spinach, almonds, lentils and tofu offer some iron, the iron from plant foods does not boost iron stores as effectively. Combining plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C rich foods including oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, tomatoes and green peppers helps increase the absorption of iron.
To assess your iron status, I recommend you talk with your doctor about getting your blood tested for serum ferritin. This will let you know if your iron stores are depleted. If so, depleted iron stores will hurt your performance. You'll notice a big improvement when you both eat red meat and take iron pills (supplements are usually necessary to get out of the iron-deficient status but usually do not need to be consumed long term). If you take iron supplements, make sure to take them separately from calcium supplements, which can interfere with their absorption.
2. You are protein deficient.
Sometimes vegetarians eat too little plant protein; this hinders recovery from hard exercise. Each time you exercise, you create tiny bits of muscle damage. Protein is involved in the repair and growth of muscles. You'll get more from your workouts if your muscles can grow to their potential.
Red meat (and white meat) are also sources of natural creatine. Vegan athletes tend to have lower creatine stores than athletes who eat meat. Creatine assists with recovery from repeated hard exercise. Hence, you might find your recovery better from track workouts and weight lifting.
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