Fuelling The Plant-Based Athlete

Born to run

By Robyn Chuter


Dr James (Jim) Loomis knows a thing or two about helping athletes perform at their best. Not only is he a keen triathlete himself, he has also served as team internist for the St. Louis Rams football team and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. (He has also been the tour physician for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the members of which presumably have rather different health issues!)

As well as practising internal medicine and serving as director of prevention and wellness at St. Luke’s hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri, Jim runs popular plant-based cooking classes at a local culinary institute.

With that depth and breadth of experience, you would expect Dr Loomis to be a wealth of knowledge on how to eat for maximum athletic performance… and he didn’t disappoint in his presentation atthe International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference. He described in detail how a plant-based diet benefits athletes (whether professionals or weekend warriors) by enhancing metabolic efficiency, optimising macronutrient ratio (i.e. carbohydrate:protein:fat), minimising harmful oxidative stress, reducing inflammatory damage and shortening recovery time.

You can view my summary of Dr Loomis’ presentation in the International PBNHC Round-UpWebinar (2:12:52).

If you’re interested in this subject, I covered it in depth in the last “Health and Wellness: Latest Science and Hot Topics” seminar, which you can purchase a recording of here.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dr Loomis’ presentation, for me at least, was his discussion of the legendary Tarahumara Indians. Known as the world’s greatest endurance athletes, this hidden tribe inhabits the remote and nearly impenetrable Copper Canyons of Mexico, where they practise the art of distance running on an almost daily basis… without the benefit of athletics tracks, paved roads, or running shoes (in fact, they run in thin-soled sandals, and suffer virtually no foot, knee or hip injuries).

The remarkable exploits of the Tarahumara formed the backbone of Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born To Run. I had been receiving recommendations to read this book for years, and when I got my hands on it a couple of months ago, I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

It’s a page-turning read, which deftly weaves an extraordinary amount of information about the role that distance running has played in the development of our species, into a fast-paced story about some of the quirky individuals who populate the world of competitive distance running, and an intriguing insight into the tough yet tranquil Tarahumara – a people amongst whom war, theft, domestic violence, child abuse, corruption, drug addiction, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are virtually unknown.

And as Dr Loomis pointed out, they perform their amazing feats of athleticism – often running several hundred miles in one uninterrupted stretch – on a diet that is almost vegan; just 6% of calories in the Tarahumaran diet come from animal products. The staples of the Tarahumaran diet are corn (maize), pinto beans, squash, chilli peppers, wild greens and chia seeds. Instead of sucking down energy gels and Powerade to refuel on the run, Tarahumarans carry bags of pinole – ground corn, which they mix with water into a thick beverage.

I’ve never been much of a runner (I could barely make one lap around the oval in high school before my lungs threatened to catch fire), but after reading Born To Run I confess I caught the running bug, and am now running several times per week. I’ve noticed a huge difference in how my body responds to running now, on a healthy plant-based diet, compared to back when I was a teenager, eating copious amounts of dairy products and refined carbohydrates. My breathing is easy even when running uphill, my legs don’t hurt, and after the first couple of minutes I notice a wonderful sensation of lightness that borders on transcendence. Now I finally know what people mean by ‘runner’s high’!