Running on Empty?

Writer Elle Kwan | January 10, 2017

Last year, American athlete Scott Jurek ran through 14 US states on the gruelling Appalachian Trail. He took in almost 80 kilometres a day tracking rampant forest and wild land by foot, in an epic run that took him 46 days. Jurek, who flew into Hong Kong recently to run the overnight Barclays Moontrekker, is one of the world’s best ultramarathon runners, and in his 22 years’ running, has won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run and the legendary 153-mile Spartathlon three times. So it might come as a surprise to anyone outside his regular fan base to discover that he is a committed vegan.

Jurek grew up hunting and fishing in his home state Minnesota, eating stodgy dishes influenced by his Polish ancestry. He was also a regular at fast food chains, shoring up on burgers before his races. “I never thought in a million years that I’d be a vegan,” he says.

He gave up meat in 1997, and his transition is detailed in his New York Times bestseller, Eat & Run, whose chapters end with his favourite recipes. “For me, it’s been a great adventure,” says the champion runner, about the change, which was prompted by a belief that bad nutrition caused several of his family members to become sick. Today, he is a great ambassador for plant-based diets.

Over the last decade, many more sports enthusiasts have joined Jurek, in eliminating or reducing meat in their diets. Many have been fuelled by health scares and research that shows how meat production impacts the environment, as well as the sector’s dubious farming practices. Yet, just a decade ago it was widely believed that those with active lifestyles couldn’t maintain high enough quantities of protein to perform. Meat remained a go-to, and for good reason.

“Meats contain the nutrients on which athletes heavily rely in training – proteins, minerals, and B vitamins to name a few – and delivers them in their most comprehensive, concentrated and useable forms,“ says Eve Persak, an international nutrition and wellness consultant, and nutrition advisor with the COMO Group of hotels and resorts. “It’s like ordering all-inclusive nutritional package with express home-shipping,” she says.

But if Jurek can do it, can anyone? Adequate essential amino acids that come from the diet and are a fuel for muscle tissue are “key for athletes who rely heavily on their lean body mass,” says Persak. Lucky then that more protein sources can be found outside of meat products.

Legumes, including lentils, beans, and peas, nuts and seeds, and whole grains are musts in a vegan diet, and for vegetarians, eggs and cheese still provide all nine essential amino acids, says the nutritionist. She also loves green pea powder as a protein booster, although she adds that supplements are rarely a necessity if a diet is nature-based and rich in varied ingredients. Before a race or event, she says, athletes can forego sugary snacks and eat whole grains or starchy vegetables, dried fruits and nut butters, and drink nut milk or coconut water to sustain. But a green diet doesn’t have to be holier-than-thou. Jurek says he doesn’t go into races hungover, but is an avid craft beer fan.

At Eatology, a gourmet meal subscription service based in Hong Kong, healthy meal plans are devised for the city’s busiest residents. Guillaume Kaminer, co-founder, describes his clients as ambitious, driven go-getters, for whom fitness is a natural element. Recently he’s seen huge amount of requests to reduce red meat in the plans he tailors, which the company dietician also scrutinises.

The World Health Organisation’ s 2015 classification of processed meat as a known carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen has resonated with customers, says Kaminer. “Since last year, we’ve had a lot of demand from people wanting to reduce their red-meat intake,” he says. In February, the company introduced vegan and vegetarian meal plans.

Specialty ingredients newly available to market allow the service to meet the changing tastes of its clients. Kaminer, a French native and also a comitted vegetarian, says a recently added sprouted bread and a meat-free mushroom fettuccine made with soybean pasta have been hits.

The pasta alternative is a real find, since 100 grams of pasta replacement has more protein than the same weight of chicken, he says. And that’s nothing to cluck about.

Scott Jurek’s Lentil-Mushroom Burgers

Jurek grew up grilling burgers over campfires and says these protein-packed lentil burgers taste so meaty you’ll never notice the difference. He packs a few patties with him to munch on ultramarathons, but they are equally enjoyed with sweet potato chips and a cool craft brew.

This recipe first appeared in Eat & Run by Scott Jurek.


1 cup dried green lentils (2 1⁄4 cups cooked)

2 1⁄4 cups water

1 teaspoon dried parsley

1⁄4 tsp black pepper

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 1⁄4 cups finely chopped onion

3⁄4 cup finely chopped walnuts

2 cups fine bread crumbs (about half of a day-old loaf)

1⁄2 cup ground flax seed (flax seed meal)

3 cups finely chopped mushrooms

1 1⁄2 cups de-stemmed, finely chopped kale, spinach, or winter greens

2 tbsp coconut oil or olive oil

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp nutritional yeast

1 tsp sea salt

1⁄2 tsp black pepper

1⁄2 tsp paprika


In a small pot, bring the lentils, water, parsley, one garlic clove, and 1⁄4 cup of the onion to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 35 to 40 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the lentils are soft.

While the lentils are cooking, combine the walnuts, bread crumbs, and flax seed in a bowl. Add the nutritional yeast, salt, pepper, and paprika and mix well.

Sauté the remaining onion, remaining garlic, the mushrooms, and greens in the oil for eight to 10 minutes, then set aside. Remove the lentils from the heat, add the vinegar and mustard, and mash with a potato masher or wooden spoon to a thick paste.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the lentils, sautéed veggies, and bread crumb mixtures, and mix well. Cool in the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes or more.

Using your hands, form burger patties to your desired size and place on waxed paper. Lightly fry in a seasoned skillet, broil, or grill until lightly browned and crisp, three to five minutes on each side. Extra-uncooked patties can be frozen on wax paper in plastic bags or wrapped.