Ultra-endurance athlete Robbie Balenger runs on plants. Literally. And he credits his vegan diet for letting him go the distance. Three years ago, Balenger switched to a 100 percent plant-based diet for performance and environmental reasons, and since then, he’s logged some jaw-dropping accomplishments.
“I’m fascinated with the notion of sustainable motion through space and time, which leads me to seek out mammoth athletic projects that span weeks and months,” says the 37 year old who lives in Denver, Colorado, with his fiancé Shelly Howard, dog Kasha, and cats Willie and Merle. “By exploring recovery techniques and honing diet choices, I’m investigating how I can keep going forever.”
Start with the transcontinental run he completed in 2019, logging 3,175 miles in 75 days. In March of 2021, he set a new record for the Central Park Loop Challenge in New York City, completing 16 loops (each loop is 6.1 miles) in 18 hours and seven minutes. That’s 97.6 miles in case you don’t feel like crunching the numbers. And this summer, he completed the Colorado Crush, a 63-day effort that had him traversing 1,176 miles with a 308,981 foot elevation gain. During that time, he did the Leadville Trail Marathon, tackled the Colorado Trail (a mere 485 miles in 11.5 days), completed the Leadville Silver Rush 50-miler, summited all 58 peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado and did the Leadville Trail 100-miler.
Remarkably, he only started running eight years ago. One day while dating Howard, already an accomplished runner herself, she invited him on a run. He made it all of 2.5 miles. “It was one of the hardest thing I’d ever done,” he says.
Yet he quickly got hooked. “Running is a primal necessity for us to survive and thrive, and when I move my body, this notion comes into full focus,” he says. “All my senses are heightened, I feel focused, present and at peace, and I’m right where my DNA wants me to be.”
Prior to becoming vegan, though, he ate anything he wanted – which had some less-than-optimal effects. “I would complete a long run, be famished, slam a cheeseburger, and then be bloated and sore the next day,” he says.
When he switched to a plant-based diet, his performance improved. “Meat causes inflammation, inflammation causes soreness,” he says. By abstaining from all animal products, he didn’t get sore, which meant he could continue to do strenuous efforts day after day. “Literally everything I put in my mouth is something that builds me up instead of breaks me down.”
That’s a message he spreads when he runs, raising awareness about the importance of a plant-based diet for more than just optimal health and vitality. “Choosing a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do as an individual to help mitigate climate change while simultaneously lowering the amount of unnecessary suffering on the planet,” he says.
His top tip for fitness-minded individuals who want to switch to plants? “Focus more on the positive, healthy things you’re adding to your plate – and less on what you’re taking away.”
As far as his future running plans, he’s got things cooking but can’t reveal them right now. Instead, he encourages people to follow him on Instagram at @robbiebalenger where he’ll be announcing his next moves soon.
How Robbie Balenger Runs on Plants
For this VT Food Diary, we asked Robbie Balenger to keep track of his food, training, and wellness routines for a full day to give us a glimpse into how an elite athlete really makes it work.
Who do you want to see in a future food diary? Go to the Vegetarian Times Facebook page and let us know.
5:30 a.m. – Wake up and sip a coffee, either black or latte with Oatly. Read and journal.
7 a.m. – Run for 10-plus miles. For runs like this that last longer than 1.5 hours, I have a Huma or Spring Gel every hour.
9 a.m. – Eat breakfast, which is either a smoothie (with banana, apple frozen fruit, peanut butter, chia seeds, kale and coconut water) or museli with cashew yogurt, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, walnuts, roasted pepitas, chia seed and maple syrup.
10 a.m. – Do NuCalm for 40 to 70 minutes. NuCalm is a safe, all-natural patented neuroscience technology clinically proven to help athletes get the restoration we need to maintain a healthy internal balance and achieve optimal performance.
12 p.m. – Eat tofu scramble, which is one of my favorite meals. It’s packed with nutritious veggies and protein from the tofu and black beans. I usually pair it with a couple of flour tortillas, avocado, and always Valentina hot sauce.
1 to 5 p.m. – Take care of emails, have a few meetings and run errands around Denver, mostly by bike.
7 p.m. – Dinner is usually veggie burgers and roasted potatoes. Scott Jurek’s Lentil Burgers are fantastic, and potatoes are my super food. I’ll eat them the evening before any big effort and always as my go-to aid station snack. If we’re in the mood to go out, though, we’ll hit Somebody People, our favorite restaurant in Denver. It’s 100 percent plant-based. If you’re ever in Denver, this is probably the best restaurant in town, regardless of your diet preferences.
8 p.m. – Watch a little Netflix and chill
10 p.m. – Bedtime!