Posted by: Joe English | April 12, 2010

Training — Can I be a vegetarian runner?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

We receive a lot of questions from young athletes and often we see that the advice they are be given by their coaches or mentors is out of step with current thinking. Here’s a great example:

“I’m 16 year-old girl that runs on my high-school track and cross-country teams. My coaches have been getting on me, because I’m a vegetarian. My coach told me that other day that I can’t be an athlete and be a vegetarian. I thought that I read in some of your posts that you are a vegetarian. Is it true that you can’t be a vegetarian and athlete at the same time?”

I’m glad you asked this question and this one has a simple answer. Your coach is incorrect. You can certainly be both an athlete and a vegetarian. What this illustrates is that your coaches either doesn’t understand nutrition or they don’t understand what it means to be a vegetarian. You just need to educate yourself a bit and you’ll see that you can be a vegetarian athlete if that’s what you choose for yourself.

Protein is a nutrient that is required for the body for critical body functions. As an athlete you need protein to build new muscle and repair the damage done by your workouts. Protein is also important in helping you to recover from your workouts.

Here’s where your coaches have it wrong. While animal protein (also called “meat”) is one source of protein, it is not the only source of protein. So while you require protein, you don’t have to get it from animal sources.

Protein is found in nuts, seeds, grains, and dairy. Some of the highest quality proteins are hemp, chia, and soy. Many beans are excellent sources of protein, such as black beans, adzuki beans and kidney beans. In the grain family, quinoa, wild rice and brown rice have high quality protein as well as the carbohydrates that your athletic body needs.

The issue here is not the source of the protein, it is ensuring that you eat enough protein and that those proteins are high in quality. As a vegetarian eater, it is important to eat proteins from a diverse set of sources to ensure that you eat all of the proteins that your body needs.

As an athlete, you need to spend some time figuring out how many calories you are burning and how much protein and carbohydrate you need in your diet. Once you know how much you should be eating, then you just need to eat the foods that make you happy that contain those nutrients.

Many very accomplished athletes are vegetarians and many of them are very healthy eaters on top of that. Don’t let outdated information get in the way of making healthy choices for you and eating in a way that nourishes your body and soul. You can be a both a vegetarian and an athlete if that’s the choice that you make for yourself.

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News



  1. Can you be a runner and vegetarian? Two (and probably more) of the world’s best ultra-marathoners are vegans: Scott Jurek (multiple time Western States 100 winner) and Charlie Engle (one of 3 runners to ever run across the full Sahara desert). In addition to being creative in obtaining protein needs, Those runners also supplement with Omega 3/6/9’s to enhance recovery.

  2. It’s also important to understand that cows & pigs & chickens are not magic protein machines. Animal’s bodies manufacture protein from the vegetables that they eat, just like human bodies do.

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