While it may take a little extra thought and planning, a vegetarian diet is more than adequate to meet a runner’s calorie and nutrient needs. The most important factor to be aware of is that you are getting adequate calories and that the foods being eliminated from your diet are being replaced with nutrient-dense alternatives.
Protein preserves lean mass and is important for rebuilding muscle broken down after a tough run. Aim to get 15-20% of your daily calories from protein (or about 0.5 to 0.8g per lb). When many, or all, animal products are eliminated from the diet, so are a lot of our protein options. See a list of protein sources for vegetarians below.
Iron carries oxygen in the blood to all body tissues (like your muscles during a run) while zinc boosts the immune system, helps muscles recover, and heal injuries. Runners are particularly susceptible to iron loss due to repeated foot strikes, which cause blood cells to burst, and to the loss through sweat. Unlike animal sources, the plant-based form of iron requires vitamin C to enhance absorption (found in foods like citrus fruits and green leafy vegetables). Good sources of iron include spinach, lentils, beans, soybeans, blackstrap molasses, whole grains like quinoa, and fortified cereals. Zinc is found in lentils, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, and soy products.
Calcium is important for strong bones, especially to prevent injuries and stress fractures. If you eat dairy, 3-4 servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese per day should do the trick. Good non-dairy sources include tofu, dark leafy greens like kale and collard greens, legumes, almonds and almond butter, Brazil nuts, and soymilk.
Vitamin D is necessary for calcium to be absorbed, so when you can, get in the sun for 15 minutes a day and don’t forget to include fatty fish, eggs, fortified cereals, and milks into your daily routine. A supplement can also be helpful.
Only found naturally in animal products, this B vitamin is crucial for turning dietary fat and protein into energy, and often difficult for vegetarians to get enough of. If you eat dairy and eggs, you should have no problem getting the B12 you need. Other foods are fortified with B12 such as cereals, soymilk, and meat substitutes. A multivitamin is a good idea if you don’t include these foods in your daily routine.
Dairy: Greek yogurt (low in sugar, with twice the protein of other yogurts), cottage cheese (high in sodium, which runners need to ease or avoid muscle cramps)
Eggs: 6-7 grams (g) each, depending on size
Tofu: 10g protein per serving; also a good source of iron and rich in isoflavones (antioxidants that can speed your post-run recovery by reducing free radicals)
Tempeh (a meat alternative that’s less processed than tofu): 19g protein and 13g fiber per serving
Soymilk: 6g protein per serving (1 cup) plus calcium and vitamin D
Beans/lentils: 10g protein per serving (½ cup); also a good source of iron
Grains: quinoa, farro, bulgur, oats, and freekeh (all 6-7g per serving); also rich in high-quality complex carbohydrates
Dana Pitman is a registered dietitian and a New York State−certified dietitian nutritionist based in New York City. She earned her BA in psychology from Muhlenberg College and her MS in clinical nutrition from New York University. Her professional experience includes positions in private practice, clinical, and community settings. Dana is a clinical nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery, where she is an active member of the employee wellness committee and the community education program, lectures on a range of nutrition related topics, contributes to social media, and counsels clients privately.