Running & Fitness

Life of a Flexitarian Marathoner

Susie Duke
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A flexitarian: both the vegan and the omnivore’s worst nightmare.

I am a flexitarian.

Not trying to be a nightmare to those of you on one end or the other of the dietary spectrum.

Not here to talk horses either.

Unfortunate too, because horses are, outside of running, where I find exhilarating peace.

A girl’s gotta cross-train.

flexitarian ride2No, instead, I’m a marathoner proposing a flexible way of eating that could fill voids left by diet extremes. If your diet is spurred on by ecological, religious, ethical, or otherwise valid reasons, I hope to at least widen the margins of your view on food. I do believe, however, we will agree that: food is fuel and how you are fueled is a huge part of how you perform on race day and in your day-to-day training.  On training, recovery, mileage, and on food, I have done my research and been my own guinea pig. Fuel is just one piece of the puzzle but making some food tweaks has helped me to stop holding back, to unleash potential and race better than ever. Like, by a lot.

What is “flexitarian”?

Flexitarian was coined in 2003 by the American Dialect Society to unsurprisingly combine the words: flexible and vegetarian.  You get the best of both worlds: the fiber, nutrients, and anti-inflammatory properties of a plant-based diet (roughly 90% of the diet), while you include occasional servings of meat, eggs, and dairy for the essential amino acids they provide (1). That this reduction (about 10% of the diet) combats dangers, such as: cancer, heart disease, and obesity (2) associated with eating too much meat or dairy.

How did I become a flexitarian marathoner?

2010, I became vegan. I avoided meat, eggs or dairy of any kind, but with each race, each period of training, I always felt like something was missing. I felt unable to move to the next level, easily over-trained, slow to recover, and workouts felt, well, way more arduous than what seemed representative of someone with my fitness. In hindsight, I was likely deficient in several nutrients and not sufficiently supplementing; plus, I’m sure I was consuming too many calories from carbohydrates and oils (3), both issues common to the vegetarian or vegan athlete.

2012, when I started my blog, Flexitarian Filly, I started eating flexitarian – rarely red meat, but salmon now and then, quiche a couple of times a month and a nice blue cheese on holidays, for instance. It was that year that I finally broke that elusive 3-hour marathon mark, running a 2:59:41 at the Green Bay Marathon. Three weeks later I was pregnant. Throughout pregnancy and for the first year postpartum, I continued my partial-vegetarianism. My improvement continued stagnant, and felt like I couldn’t gain traction with training.

Finally, in the past six months I’ve taken the flexitarian diet one step further.  Earlier this spring I ran my first post-baby marathon in Carmel, Indiana.  Although I had high hopes for huge gains, I ended up with a meager two minute PR. Frustrated, yet confident that the marathon was “my distance” and that its rigors played to my strengths, I knew I had a big PR bottled up inside me.

I took time for a little more reflection. After stumbling upon Dr. Cate Shanahan’s website, someone who is far from flexitarian but health-minded nonetheless, I concluded I likely required even  less overall calories from carbohydrates, a bit more fat – grass-fed, organic, and free-range sources whenever possible, and perhaps some bone broth. I know, bone broth way out of left field! The deal is that homemade bone broth is high in glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), which, in short, are beneficial to your joints and connective tissue (4).  As runners, we’re pretty hard on our joints and connective tissue. And since GAGs are pretty hard to come by, other than through supplements such as, glucosamine and chondroitin, then that was reason enough to give bone broth a try(5).

Has flex-fueling affected my running?

2014 IMT Des Moines Half Marathon
2014 IMT Des Moines Half Marathon

I dare say it has helped.

In late May of this year, I ran a 1:24:45 half in Des Moines and then another nominal marathon PR – 2:56:35 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN in late June. Continuing to up my training, supported by focused and newly revised flexitarian eating, my body was adapting; no more slow recovery, I was killing my workouts.  Fast forward four months, I raced a fall half in Des Moines. I PRed big-time (1:18:20) and did something I’ve never done on a larger stage.

I won.

And, as I surmised, I did have a big marathon PR in me. I took a whopping 14 minutes off of my marathon time running 2:42:35 at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, November 1, 2014.

While, yes, training has a ton to do with race results, fuel can make or break the training.

You’re probably wondering, “Well, what the heck does she eat then?”

Here’s a sample day:

6:45am – 16+oz. of water. Get ready to run and then have half a banana with a small spoonful of almond butter. If it’s a shorter/ easy run, stick with water.

8:15am – breakfast and stretch – A small apple and Ezekiel sprouted grain bread with a little more almond butter, plus tea.

10:30am – green tea or a small snack.

Noon – lunch – Three or four times per week, an egg over easy or soft boiled and a small to medium-sized baked sweet potato with either coconut oil or butter and either a salad or some sort of green vegetable. Often finish with a piece of fruit or share a smoothie with my son.

1:00pm – coffee – I’m weird. I love my 1pm coffee – sometimes with coconut creamer or a splash of real cream. Second run on treadmill during son’s nap. Sometimes strength train after or before that run.

4:00pm – snack – goat cheese and crackers, raspberries and coconut milk, avocado and pineapple, or enough to get to dinner.

6:30pm – dinner – Often a salad topped with lots of vegetables and sautéed potato or sweet potato and homemade vinaigrette. Once a week soup: lentil, ginger-carrot, borscht or something otherwise good and filling. This is, of course, made with homemade bone broth. Fish or some red meat (a small 3 oz. or so), 2-3 times per week. Cap the meal often with a smidgeon of dark chocolate. Quit eating 3-4 hours before bed, to be sure to wake up a little hungry. Going to bed full typically makes the morning run the next day go quite poorly, and I feel like crap. I’m all about feeling good.

Do you think flexitarian eating could work for you?

The flexitarian diet is all about feeling good and healthy. It’s non-restrictive yet largely plant-based. Flexible! So if you’re looking for a different angle to perhaps improve your health or take your running to the next level, give it a try. You may find that flex-fueling is just what you need to get you that next big breakthrough race.

Share your thoughts below! What kind of diet to you adhere to? How has it affected your running and fitness?