Terence Gerchberg is fit to be tied. Literally, fit to be tied. In June, he and four friends tied themselves together and ran the God's Country Marathon in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, breaking the Guinness world record for "fastest marathon completed by a linked team," with a time of 3:26:15.
He will likely complete his tenth consecutive New York City Marathon this weekend, plus a 50-mile run on his 40th birthday in March, followed by the Boston and the London Marathons in April (which are six days apart), all running on a vegan diet.
Gerchberg, who was also a finalist on the reality show The Amazing Race, was a vegetarian for many years before going completely vegan a year and a half ago. He says the change has been significant and positive.
"I just focus on a lot of great grains. You know, steel-cut oatmeal, different kinds of raisins and nuts and berries," he says. "The only thing I eat that's not vegan is honey. I'm coaching people in about two hours, so I'll have an almond butter rice cake and then come back and have some quinoa and couscous. Just make sure you have lots of beautiful foods with color in your body. I get food from really good sources, and that's why I get great responses from my body. Because I'm consistent about the food that I put in it."
Gerchberg, also a trainer and running coach, steers clear of most soy-based faux meats, opting for whole, "real" foods instead.
"I try to get as little packaged food as I can. I just said to a client the other day, 'Eat some oranges.' And the client came back and said, 'Can't I just drink orange juice?' And I was like, 'Can you just eat an orange? Is it that hard to peel?'"
You may be wondering,"But how does he get enough protein?" Gerchberg gets this query from clients all the time.
"I tell them everything has protein," he says. "All the quinoa, the couscous, grains, bread does, oatmeal does, some vegetables even have protein. Personally, I think you guys are getting too much protein. Look at you versus me. Look at what I'm able to do on a physical level. If I'm not getting enough protein, how am I able to compete at this level? How am I able to do all the things that I do, if I'm malnourished?"
So where does this misconception come from?
"It's just the meat industry [that's convincing people they need so much protein]. There's no 'vegan industry,' there's no 'vegetarian industry.' It's just the meat and the dairy industry."
Boris Fernandez, a Miami-based former triathlete who won more than 20 races and now serves as an elite coach, also advocates a vegan diet for endurance athletes (although he recommends using some supplements that are not vegan, such as a mussel-shell based Omega-3 gel cap called Moxxor). He cautions, though, that athletes adhering to a vegan diet be especially mindful to ensure proper nutrition.
"On the vegan diet, you have to be very careful, because you could be missing out on some nutrients. You have to look for foods that are very nutritious and balance your diet with different choices and high quality foods," he says.
Among the foods he recommends are a variety of grains (including brown rice, Chinese black rice, and quinoa); potatoes and sweet potatoes; organic fruits and vegetables (for their higher nutrient density as compared to conventional produce); raw maca powder; protein supplements from the natural foods company SunWarrior (who sponsored Fernandez to swim the English Channel); spirulina (for its high iron content and its very absorbable protein); and a decent amount of coconut and almond oil.
Fernandez says its completely possible to compete at a high level while fueled by a vegan diet. It does, however, require some careful attention, and probably eating significantly more food than one would need if consuming more calorie dense foods (like meat).
But if it's so much easier to just eat chicken and beef, why bother to train on plants?
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"By not eating meat, you're helping out your diet, the earth, and all the animals," Fernandez says. "Meat is really bad for you. It's toxic, it's difficult to digest, and you're putting yourself in a position to get sick," he says, citing Dr. T. Colin Campbell's China Study as a source of evidence.
There's something to chew on while you consider running the 2012 ING Miami Marathon (or Half Marathon) on January 29.