Trail running in Hong Kong is booming as more people lace up their sports shoes each year to enter races or just to stay active during the coronavirus pandemic. How do you fuel yourself for trail running if you have recently switched to a vegan diet or are trying to cut down on meat, a food source commonly associated with athletic recovery? Record-setting elite athletes Vlad Ixel and Scott Jurek , who compete in many Hong Kong ultra marathons – races of any distance over 42km – believe a plant-based diet enhances performance. Indeed, anecdotal evidence from runners suggests that being vegan helps athletes recover more quickly, while their speed and endurance are on a par with those of omnivorous runners. Meat and dairy products, while good sources of protein, are acidic and eating them can add to the inflammation that may already be in the body from training. Switching to fresh foods and whole food protein sources may enable muscles to recover more quickly by avoiding additional inflammation. This is the experience of 50-year-old Hong Kong stenographer Jenny Buck, who switched to a vegan diet four years ago. How to go vegan: six influencers on the mistakes they made Since the change she has taken up ultra running, and competed in 18 events in the past 20 months alone. “I should be slowing down at my age, but I keep getting faster. I have never felt fitter or healthier,” she said. Buck, who lives in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, just minutes away from several trails, says going vegan is the best decision she ever made. “All my running achievements are thanks to much better muscle recovery than when I was eating animal products, and the back pain I used to suffer from has vanished entirely. I eat a great variety of whole foods and very rarely feel that I’m depriving myself of anything,” she says. What’s on the menu? Scientific research into the effects of a vegan diet on running performance is sparse, but nutritionists believe there are some benefits. Denise Tam, a holistic nutritionist at Food for Life, a Hong Kong online food store, says a well-planned, whole food, plant-based diet can adequately support someone new to running or an athlete training for a marathon. Her health problems vanished after adopting a whole food plant-based diet Macronutrients – “macros” for short – are the three categories of nutrients we eat the most and that provide most of our energy: protein, carbohydrate and fat. “The diet, in terms of macros, wouldn’t be any different to a person eating animal products. The only difference is finding healthy plant-based alternatives to protein, such as nuts and seeds, and plant proteins like hemp or peas, that are easily digestible,” Tam says. Easily digestible whole food carbohydrates in fruit, vegetables and legumes are best for runners and should be the focus of a vegan diet instead of processed meat alternatives. Raw-food chef Iris Mak, who was a silver award winner in the 2017 Hong Kong 100km trail race, says plant-based proteins such as beans and other legumes, and soy products such as tofu , together with healthy fats derived from oils, nuts, seeds and avocados are the best ingredients for a well-balanced diet. Going the distance When it comes to long-distance running, athletes need to ensure they are consuming enough high-quality calories. Marathon runners require a diet high in carbohydrate, with moderate fat and protein, while sprinters need a high-carbohydrate, protein and low-fat diet. During training, Mak recommends eating more complex, low-GI [glycaemic index] carbohydrates that are higher in fibre, such as brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, pumpkin, and fruit, all of which can be eaten one to two hours before exercise. How a Hong Kong raw vegan marathon runner prepares for a race Protein can be obtained from eating buckwheat, hemp seed, goji berries and spirulina. It is best to eat complete proteins which contain all nine essential amino acids. Soaking, sprouting and fermenting nuts, seeds, beans and grains before eating them – raw or cooked – can boost protein absorption. Tam also recommends making your own running snacks rather than relying on ready-made gels. Nutritious foods to eat on long runs instead of processed gels include home-made energy balls made from a mixture of oat flakes, nut butters and coconut nectar, or bananas and dried fruit. “It’s important to keep your glycogen tank filled in any endurance sport. However, I prefer eating more regularly over reliance on gels, which can be full of sugar and missing other important nutrients, like magnesium and potassium,” Tam says. ‘Don’t hide fear’: how cancer survivor beat illness – twice Teaching your body to stop burning glycogen and switch to burning fat for energy is a key component of training. Tam advises adding healthy fats such as plant-based omega 3 oils, coconut oil or MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil into the diet while depleting the body of glycogen, so that it eventually uses the extra fat as fuel. “This way, during a marathon, if your body is running low on glycogen fuel, which is used up very quickly, [it] can quickly tap into the fat stores to keep you running,” Tam says. Supplementing your diet In general, vegans should look to supplement their diet with iron and vitamins B12 and D, regardless of whether they are on an intensive training programme or not. For athletes, and female athletes in particular, replenishing iron and B12 is very important. How superfood seaweed boosts heart, gut and thyroid health Iron is a key nutrient for athletic performance, as red blood cell production increases during training to help transport oxygen to cells. However, vegans can only find non-heme iron, which is difficult to absorb. “Soy contains a high amount of iron, but in reality we may only be absorbing a small percentage of that iron,” Tam says. Veganuary: enjoy the health benefits of a whole food plant-based diet Foods with benefits Apart from quicker post-race recovery, some athletes find several other benefits from a vegan diet. “You have better digestion, a better immune system because fruit and vegetable intake provides vitamins, minerals and prebiotics. You also have higher energy levels, as less energy is needed [than] for digesting animal meats, plus clearer skin, more restful sleep and lower cholesterol levels,” says Mak. 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