Marathons Without the Meat: An Interview with Matt Frazier

Today, I am sharing an incredibly interesting interview with Matt Frazier, author of No Meat Athlete. Not only can Matt run very fast and far, but he does so without eating meat. Though much has been touted recently on the health benefits of vegetarianism, rarely do we hear or read about this diet choice in the same breath as endurance athletics. Today, Matt explains how he does both — runs on plants, while also running marathons (at 3:09!) and ultramarathons (and earning his PhD in Applied Math!).

I especially appreciate Matt taking the time to share his experiences just a few weeks after welcoming a new baby boy — Holden Matthew – into his family. Congratulations!

When did you first give up meat?

I stopped eating all meat except fish in March of 2009, a little over a year ago.  I didn’t really intend to become completely vegetarian, because I thought that a fish-and-plants diet was pretty healthy.  But then I started feeling bad about eating fish, so I phased that out over the next few months.

What was the real impetus behind doing so?

I’m a total nerd for Tony Robbins, the self-improvement guy from those infomercials everyone remembers.  I went to one of his seminars last year.  We did the whole walk-across-coals thing and got all fired up, and then he talked about diet and how unhealthy most meat is and how much energy it takes to digest it.  We left the seminar with a 10-day challenge to eat only fish and plants, and during that time I felt more energy than I had ever felt before.  I was hooked, and from there it was really easy to stay with it.  Although I was actually worried that my new diet wouldn’t be able to support marathon training, which is kind of funny now.

Why did you decide to give up dairy, too?

I actually haven’t completely given up dairy.  I cut out milk when I learned some unsettling facts about it, like that we’re the only species that drinks the milk of another species, and the only one that drinks milk for any amount of time after infancy.  And the conditions under which most milk is produced are horrifying.  I still eat small amounts of cheese every once in a while, but since watching the film Earthlings, I’ve been reconsidering that, mainly for ethical reasons.

Have you always been an endurance runner?

Not at all!  I absolutely hated running in high school, and even at the beginning of college.  When I used to run on the treadmill as part of a fitness program, I always said to myself, “If this is what you have to do to stay in shape, then I’ll never be able to stick with it.”

Then one day I decided to run a marathon.  I could only run three or four miles at the time, but somehow I became infatuated with the challenge of it and the idea that normal people could train themselves to run such an incredible distance.  It wasn’t pretty, but I completed the race, and then I got sort of obsessed about getting faster and qualifying for Boston. So that goal guided me along for the next seven years.  And now I guess I’m an endurance runner!

Before you were a vegetarian, did you lack energy during your sports adventures?

I wouldn’t say I noticed that I lacked energy; I just thought that was the way it was and that you were supposed to feel awful at the end of workouts and be sore for the next week.  But as soon as I became vegetarian, I noticed this drastic improvement in my ability to run.  I had been out with an injury during the time I changed my diet, and on my first long run back from injury, a month or so after becoming vegetarian, I ran 12 miles faster than I had ever done it in my life.

Looking back to the days before I was vegetarian, it’s so obvious that I was missing out on a lot of energy with what I thought was a normal, healthy diet.

What is the main way you could tell a difference after? More endurance? Better recovery?

All of the above!  Actually, it started out with speed.  I lost about five pounds right away but didn’t lose any strength.  And five pounds makes a big difference when you’re talking about all that distance.  So the first thing I noticed was that I was running my long runs at 15 or 30 seconds faster per mile than I had been previously.

And then it all just started to feel easier.  All the sudden runs of 10 or 15 miles weren’t tearing my body down the way they had before.  I felt strong at the end of them and could get back out there the next day without much pain.  So I was able to up my weekly mileage to 40 or 50 miles a week without getting injured, and those miles start to accumulate over time to make you a stronger runner.

How can you consume enough protein for the endurance running you carry out? Do you ever crave meats, or are you past this?

A real eye-opener for me was reading Brendan Brazier’s Thrive.  Brendan is pro Ironman triathlete who happens to be vegan, and his book was so helpful to me.  It convinced me that I didn’t need to think about counting how much protein I was getting as long as I made sure that every day I was eating a wide variety of foods.  It seems like we as athletes have been led to believe we need a whole lot more protein than we actually do.  So just getting over that mental block that I needed a huge piece of protein in every meal was a big step.

So I still get protein in every meal but I don’t worry about trying to hit certain numbers with it.  I get my protein from beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and a little bit of soy.  I wish I could give you a number of grams, but I just have no clue.

I don’t really crave meat anymore.  Sometimes I want it when I’m in an environment where I used to eat it.  Like buffalo wings while watching a big game, for example.  In those times, I’ll let myself eat whatever junk food I want as long as it’s not meat, and once I’m stuffed, it’s really easy not to want meat anymore!

What is a typical day/week look like in terms of your diet?

I keep a list of vegetarian recipes for athletes on my blog; this is where most of my meal choices come from. Every day is very different, but I’d say an average day goes something like this:

  • For breakfast, a raw, vegan smoothie with frozen fruit, hemp protein powder, flaxseed, a little agave nectar, and an oil blend.  (And sometimes a cup of half-caff coffee, which I’m still trying to quit!)
  • A few pieces of fruit and big handful of nuts a little before lunch.  Or maybe a bagel with peanut butter.
  • For lunch, usually leftovers from dinner.  Black bean burgers, lentil tacos, or something like that.
  • Lots of snacks in the afternoon: more fruit, a pita with some hummus and sprouts, maybe a big salad.
  • A pretty big meal for dinner.  Sometimes pasta, sometimes a hearty soup.  Lots of times something with chickpeas or lentils or black beans.  And usually a salad with whatever we’re having.

And all of this gets shifted around depending on if I’m running that day.  In that case, I’ll eat special pre- and post- workout meals.  You can find a lot of this stuff on my Natural Running Fuel page.

If you had to pick 5, would be your favorite, can’t-live-without protein-rich foods?

Almonds.  Black beans.  Barilla Plus pasta (not vegan; it has eggs).  Lentils.  Peanut butter.

Melinda Hinson