"On the subject of food, this trip proved to me that I could survive (thrive) on a plant-based diet, even under heavy exercise. I had finally made the switch to vegetarian stick at the end of July (after a decade of attempts). Adding to the complication was the fact that I was essentially eating like a vegan, since I had found out a few years ago that a good deal of my physical ailments were caused by dairy products."Then I finished loading in my recent walk, hike, run and (exercise) bike data in to rubiTrack, an activity tracking software for OS/X that I was recently clued in to. It comes with reporting capabilities, including the ability to review a data point (i.e. distance, pace) in a given set over time. You can define sets by tags, location, time, distance, equipment and more. While playing around with it, I stumbled across data that suggested something was amiss. The most telling number came from my "Speed Trials", which are walks where I walk one of a few set courses as fast as I can. I had known, from a spreadsheet that I used to keep, that my speed had decreased a little after going vegetarian. I had no idea it was so obvious, though:
It becomes even more obvious if you remove the blank month (October), though, due to the way the graph renders:
My pace has absolutely slowed over time, after July, when I was approaching the 4 mph mark. I cut out meat at the end of July.
Hiking also supports this view:
That's insane. The June hike is Lower Wolf Jaw, the September hike is Mount Marcy, and the October hike is Giant Mt. The only thing I can think is that the long walk in to the base of LWJ and the flatter sections on the Marcy hike are skewing the numbers. On Lower Wolf Jaw, my brother and I were stopping to catch our breath every 20' on the steepest portion. Furthermore, we spent a considerable amount of time checking out a series of waterfalls at the base of the climb to the col. (Perhaps the software is filtering out the stopped portions?) On Marcy I did somewhat better, but I still had to stop often to catch my breath, and Ken was usually way ahead of me. On Giant, however, Ken and I pushed hard and consistently throughout the hike. We stopped occasionally, but I feel like we stopped far less on Giant than we did on Marcy.
That was my perception, at least. I thought my performance on Giant was better than on Marcy, which in turn was better than on LWJ. The numbers say something else entirely.
On the Giant hike, Ken let me lead, so I was setting a pace that worked for me. That might explain the change in pace, but I would have assumed that a steady pace would be better than a slow, halting crawl. On Marcy, Ken and I had just carried 50-60 lb backpacks for 5-6 miles the day before climbing Marcy using day packs. I felt like I was floating without the heavy backpack.
There are other examples, too, but they're a bit more anecdotal. I ran the same 5k trail course twice during this period, once in September and once in November. I ran the one in November a full minute and a half slower, despite having kept active that whole time. It's hard to say for certain, though, what caused this decline, since I had been doing more targeted cardio prior to the September run, and that may have affected the numbers.
On the flip side, the numbers for ~2 mile walks at about 80% effort trended towards an improvement while eating vegetarian. Furthermore, on the anecdotal side, my leg muscles look bigger. A lot bigger. Whether this is due to a size increase, a reduction in fat, or both, though, I'm not entirely sure. I am at about the same weight I was went I went vegetarian. The muscle change could all be in my head, since perception is a funny thing.
So, where does that leave me? There are a few more points to consider.
Prior to this effort, I had tried several times to make a vegetarian diet work, and failed miserably. In recent years, when I had tried, I actually became angry a few days to a week after making the switch. It was this that caused me to try a semi-vegetarian diet (called "flexitarian" by those who like portmanteaus, like myself). This provided a good balance, and seemed to work, but I wasn't fully committed to it, and after a while I found myself eating meat twice a day again.
This time around, I finally managed to come across a forum where another person was going through the same thing. The suggestion there was to increase fat intake. I tried that, and it worked. I don't fully understand the mechanism. My best guesses deal with the fact that our brains are mostly fat, and also that fat (cholesterol) is used in the synthesis of testosterone, but I honestly don't know for sure what caused the change in attitude. I do know that eating more fat helped, and I began supplemented with flax seed oil in addition to eating olive oil on some portion of dinner almost nightly. I also started using coconut oil for some cooking.
Other nutrients followed, and soon enough I was supplementing several times a week with protein powder and daily with brazil nuts (for selenium). I also was careful to ensure that I was getting enough lysine every day; roughly 5-6 servings of legumes (or pistachios) were required to make this work, most of which came in the form of soy milk (which also provided calcium), peanut butter, and cooked beans. On the subject of calcium, I was also careful to split my calcium-rich meals from my iron-rich ones, and to consume vitamin C-rich foods with at least one of the iron-rich meals. In short, I read up at much as I could, and I applied it as best I could.
So, I don't think I was too deficient in terms of nutrients. I also supplemented with vitamins to hedge my bets.
One more point:
A friend and former co-worker stopped by the office where I work the other day, and we got to talking. He had been one of my motivations for going vegetarian, since he had been able to make it work for years, he was fitter than I was, and significantly faster on the trails than I am. I mentioned to him that I had finally made being a vegetarian work, and his response was that he had eaten beef the other day. I would have been shocked, except that this isn't the first time that this exact same scenario has happened. Several years ago, another friend and former co-worker went from vegetarian to eating meat occasionally around the same time that I had made the switch to vegetarian. She had been a vegan at the time we first met, and had eventually made the transition to lacto-ovo vegetarian, before finally beginning to eat meat again.
What this told me, the second time around, was that it can be difficult to maintain this diet. In both cases, the reasons for eating meat were at least partially, if not wholly, driven by social aspects. I drew the conclusion that it's difficult to sustain a vegetarian diet when your partner doesn't follow the same diet. It's difficult to cook in this situation, because you're preparing two protein dishes for almost every meal, and potentially two starch or vegetable dishes, depending on everyone's requirements and tastes. Furthermore, and this came up during my recent conversation, when you're visiting someone's house, it can be a bit difficult to turn down food that someone has prepared for you.
I could probably go on, but I'll skip to the conclusions.
I like my vegetarian diet. It has forced me to learn and grow, and my meals are more healthful as a result of that. I also feel like it's working, and I don't feel like I'm wasting away as some friends cautioned that I would. However, I cannot deny the fact that my pace has slackened over time, despite continuing efforts to increase my pace that had been working prior to the switch. I cannot say for certain that this is directly caused by my switch the vegetarianism, but I can say that it correlates. The social aspects are taking their toll, too. My wife has been incredibly supportive, but it's difficult for her to prepare meals when Thing 1 and Thing 2 are so picky, and I'm off preparing and eating my own food.
I think that a vegetarian diet can be perfect for endurance sports, which by the way, a lot of people use it for. No Meat Athlete is published by and read by people who run half marathons and up as well as triathlons on a vegan or vegetarian diet. It absolutely works. Brendan Brazier's success with a vegan diet also shows how well it can work at the ultra and triathlon level.
The problem is that it isn't working for me, once again. I engage in activities that require both endurance and strength, sometimes explosive strength. So, I'm starting to integrate fish and meat back in, in small quantities, while maintaining roughly the same diet otherwise (a semi-vegetarian diet). Hopefully that will give me the results that I'm looking for. I might give vegetarianism a try once again in the future, when I can keep a tighter control on the variables and determine more conclusively if I can make it work. I want to make it work, and I'm a bit disappointed that it didn't this time around.
C'est la vie?
P.S. Dr. Google says the missing ingredient might be creatine, which we produce within our bodies, and also ingest through meat or supplements. I sincerely hope that isn't it. I tried supplementing with that years ago, for other reasons. While the results were promising, I didn't like the way it made me feel.