I Ran 10 Marathons in 1 Year on a Plant-Based Diet
Editor’s Note: This post is written by guest contributor, Brad Knutson, and has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Minneapolis Running.
Running a marathon in all 50 states has been a long-term goal of mine, so I decided to take a major step towards that goal in 2017. I picked 10 races I wanted to run in different states and started making plans. This seemed challenging enough by itself, but like I said, I really like to push my limits. So I decided to combine running 10 marathons with changing my diet to a completely Plant-Based diet. No meat, no dairy, no animal products, for a year.
The thought of not being able to eat pizza or burgers for an entire year was giving me second thoughts. I was nervous and unsure if I could complete this challenge. Doubt was creeping in, so I knew I was onto something. This goal would be difficult to accomplish.
“But Where Will You Get Your Protein?”
The first words out of my mother’s mouth after telling my family of my intentions to eliminate meat and dairy from my diet was “how will you get enough protein?” I put on a brave front, but the truth is, I honestly didn’t have a clue. I was aware of certain foods that were high in protein and planned on eating lots of those. Foods like quinoa, almonds, beans, and peanut butter. Beyond that, I wasn’t very creative, and my lack of culinary skills became a problem almost immediately. For the first few weeks, I found myself eating primarily salads and was missing a lot of the carbohydrates and protein that my body needed to sustain my running.
This was obviously not sustainable. I watched as my “easy” running pace slowed by 15 seconds per mile in the first few weeks. I was lacking energy in my daily life, and I definitely noticed tired legs when I was running. I needed to rethink the foods I was eating if I was going to make it through my first marathon, let alone the entire year.
Marathon Performance on a Plant-Based Diet
Besides eating a plant-based diet, I didn’t change my training in any way. I had already conditioned my body to run a marathon every handful of weeks, so I ran my usual easy runs and workouts without changing my routine. I tried to keep my pre-race carb-loading as simple as possible, eating plant-based foods like pasta, rice, and bread.
Related: Minneapolis Running Vegan Recipes
My first marathon of 2017 was in Charleston, South Carolina in January. It was a little warm, but I felt confident at the starting line. The race started off great, and my pace was better than expected through mile 14. Then the wheels fell off. It may have partially been due to the warm weather, but I’m sure my diet had something to do with it as well. I ended up finishing the race in a respectable time, but it was one of my slower races.
I won’t bore you with long-winded details of each and every race, but I do want to tell the story of the second race I ran. The Austin Marathon in February was a disaster start to finish. With incredibly hot and humid temperatures, I knew I was in for a miserable day. It was one of those races where I knew at mile 1 that it was going to be a rough day. I struggled with the heat, humidity, and hills, and trotted in with what is still to this date my personal worst time (by a full 30 minutes). I finished this race a full hour slower than my PR. During the race, I was having serious doubts about being able to finish the challenge and maintaining my plant-based diet. I needed to take a serious look at what foods I was putting into my body to make sure being healthy.
It turns out there is a lifetime of information online regarding plant-based energy and protein sources. I experimented with recipes, started adding tofu and chickpeas to my regular meals, and even tried new foods (things like seitan and tempeh). It took me a couple months, but I finally figured out how to eat a properly balanced diet to get all the energy and protein that I needed.
The other 8 races went well in their own ways. Knoxville and Salt Lake City in April both saw improved finish times. Colfax (Denver) in May was my first high elevation run and I finished in a time I was happy with. Missoula in July had race day high temperatures approaching 100, but I still managed to finish in under 4 hours. None of these races were close to my PR, but I considered each race a success.
Then Something Incredible Happened
By summer, I was well entrenched in my plant-based habits and had really honed in on what worked for me. My fall race times definitely showed this. Omaha in September, Des Moines in October, and Indianapolis in November each saw about 10 minutes come off in succession. I felt strong during each race, and my confidence was soaring.
I finished out 2017 in December in Mississippi with a big PR. Yes, you read that right. I was nearly brought to tears when I finished that race. From my low point in February at Austin, I had taken an hour and 5 minutes off my time.
If you would have told me in December of 2016 that I would go a year without eating animal products then run a big PR, I would have thought you were crazy. On paper, it doesn’t seem to make sense. I set out to prove myself and others wrong, and I did just that. 10 marathons in one year (including a PR and PW), completely fueled by plants.
It’s a small sample size, but it’s hard for me to believe that my diet did not contribute to my race times. I saw the lowest of the lows and highest high within the same year. There are wrong ways to go about a plant-based diet, and there are better ways. I had to do some experimenting to find out what worked for me, and other athletes mileage may vary.
Looking Back on the Year
2017 was an incredible year for so many reasons. I finished more races than I had ever finished before. I had stayed healthy and injury free all year. I experienced the lowest point in my running career and the highest. I learned to cook new and really tasty foods and ate things I had never heard of before. I met new athletes and health junkies. It was one of the most fun and most memorable years of my life.
Would I recommend other people go plant-based? That depends. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, and I don’t think it’s for everyone. What I would recommend is that others take a look at the food that they are putting into their bodies. There are definite health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, of which there is a plethora of information online that you can research yourself.
I am reintroducing meat and dairy into my diet, but slowly and in healthy amounts. Some of the foods that I’ve come to love in the last year will remain staples in my diet, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for really looking at what I’m putting into my body. It might sound like a year of torture to some people, but I’m truly grateful that I have gone through it.
About Brad Knutson
Brad is an avid runner, with his favorite distance being the marathon. He’s working towards running a marathon in all 50 states. When he’s not running, he’s traveling, drinking local craft beer, snuggling with his two cats, or playing boot hockey.