How A Plant-Based Diet Made Me A Stronger Ultrarunner

If you’ll scroll back to episode 40 of the Beef Runner podcast, you’ll see I had a conversation with Registered Dietitian Nicole Rodriguez. During that conversation, we discussed the definition of a plant-based diet and ever since then, my wheels have been turning. I’ve been thinking about my own diet and how choosing a stronger diet has made me a stronger ultrarunner over the past four years.

In May of 2016, I took a challenge to take a closer look at my diet. I was forging into the realm of marathons and teetering on the edge of signing up for my first ultramarathon. At the start of that 30-day challenge, I wrote, “No one eats a perfect diet. No food is perfect. However, food is fuel and we could all pay a little closer attention to what (and how much) we eat.”

Since that time, I’ve run over 20 ultramarathons and am training for my first 100-mile race in 2020.

Now, I won’t bore you with a lesson on eating fruits and vegetables. (Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables. Got that? Do it.) But let’s not stop there.

Here are three lessons that I can share with you from what I’ve adapted to my lifestyle by eating plant-based and focusing on my whole plate.

plant-based diet beef running
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Eating More Carbs

When I started running in 2013. I got the bright idea that I needed to cut back on carbohydrates. We hear it all the time – Americans eat too many carbs and that’s what makes us fat. Well, I tried that and you can guess what happened next. I ran out of energy, had muscle cramps and things weren’t going well.

As I started taking a closer look at my own understanding of biology and how our muscles function during exercise, I realized that our bodies need carbs for building muscle and glycogen to provide fuel during the workout.

By tracking my daily macros, I’ve found the right amount of carbs in my diet to maintain performance without packing on extra pounds. So today, I aim for a quarter of my plate at meals to be whole grains such as bread, pasta or rice. I enjoy carbs, but I am more selective on the ones I enjoy.

plant based diet beans
This is not what they mean by a plant-based diet. This is what happens when the Mexican restaurant screws up your order and gives you WAY MORE pinto beans than you bargained for.

Protein – Right Time, Right Amount

You didn’t expect the Beef Runner to write a post about food and not include, protein, did you? One of the biggest surprises I found when tracking my food on a daily basis was that I wasn’t eating enough protein compared to my activity level. WHAT?!? But Ryan, we hear all the time that American’s eat TOO MUCH protein!

Yes, it is true. I used to sit down at a restaurant and order a 12- or 16-oz steak and struggled to eat it all. That was too much protein at one meal. As nutritional science has evolved, researchers have found that our bodies best utilize 20- to 30-grams of protein at each meal. The extra is excess. I should know this from my understanding of livestock nutrition. The same thing happens to cattle.

Today, I have changed my eating habits. While beef remains my primary protein choice, it now takes up a quarter of my plate at each meal. I am for 25g of protein at each meal for 4 or 5 meals throughout the day. This changes as my needs fluctuate with training load.

In addition to beef, I enjoy getting protein from a number of plant sources, fish and pork. Including a variety of foods on my plate ensures I’m getting those micronutrients that not only help to build and maintain healthy muscle, but also all the other functions needed to run (literally) all day.

plant-based steak vegetables
Photo by Malidate Van on Pexels.com

Balance and Moderation

The third lesson I’ve learned was the importance of balance and moderation. You’re probably thinking that a guy who’s currently running 63 miles each week for fun doesn’t know much about moderation. You were right at one point in time. But I am learning.

I don’t need to have the giant meal to feel satisfied. Actually, I feel better after ordering the meal with a 6- or 8-oz steak with a side of mixed vegetables. I can enjoy a beer with my dinner. And on occasion after running a day in the mountains, I can sit down and eat an entire pizza and still feel hungry. I earned it.

Balance and moderation are a tough concept to understand in a world of marketing headlines. It doesn’t sound sexy, but it works. This doesn’t mean every meal I eat is perfectly portioned. But throughout the day, I aim to find that right mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy and protein that works for me.

By tracking my food and learning to balance my plate, moderating how much I eat at one sitting, and adding a few more vegetables to the morning shake, I’ve learned that I can enjoy what I eat, reduce my food waste and put a little money back in my pocket each week.

plant-based diet beef ultrarunner

What Is A Plant-Based Diet?

If you’ve made it this far – Thank you! I know the naysayers will pass me off saying that plant-based diets = vegan or vegetarian. But who made that rule? If you’ll reference back to the conversation I had in podcast episode 40, we had a good explanation from a registered dietitian.

If you search the internet for a definition of “plant-based diet,” you’ll find that the definitions match the objective of the site. Vegan and Vegetarian sites will promote a definition that excludes most, if not all, animal products.

I’m not here to sway you to one extreme or the other. But if you look at the model plate from the USDA Dietary Guidelines, you’ll find that it already consists mostly of plants – 75% of the plate is based on plant products.

There is room for all foods in a healthy, balanced diet. We don’t need to go to extremes of excluding food groups or placing guilt on others who do not eat like we do. But I think we can all benefit from focusing on including more nutrient dense foods on our plates.

Am I being a little facetious by referencing my diet, that includes beef every day, as plant-based? Sure. But I also caught your attention and made you think again about what’s on your plate.

Eat what you enjoy. Do it in moderation. Eat more plants. And enjoy that steak on the grill this summer.

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Ryan Goodman lives in Colorado, is an avid trail and ultrarunner, and works with farmers and ranchers to help them share their stories of agriculture and how food is raised. Connect with Ryan online as @BeefRunner. #TeamBeef.
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