If you think vegetarians and vegans can’t be hardcore athletes, then you’ve clearly never heard of Canadian vegan triathlete and endurance runner Brendan Brazier, or Australian vegan bodybuilder Billy Simmonds.
There’s a long list of notable athletes who use a plant-based diet to fuel their bodies, with great success. That’s because a plant-based diet has been shown in numerous studies to offer a variety of health benefits, including having lower cholesterol, being thinner, having lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of heart disease.
So why do vegan and vegetarians have the stigma of being weak or unhealthy when it comes to professional athleticism? In the past, where a variety of plant-based proteins, foods and supplements were hard to come by, this may have been the case, but no longer. A varied vegetarian diet can supply plenty of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats — the same dietary guidelines recommended for meat-eating athletes.
If you are wondering how a vegetarian or vegan diet can work for your athletic goals, here are training tips from some of the world’s most successful, plant-noshing athletes.
1. Focus On Nutrition
As with all athletes, proper nutrition is key. Billy Simmonds, who won the Mr. Natural Universe competition in 2009, suggests lifting heavy weights and eating protein-rich plant foods for muscle gains. For the vegan or vegetarian athlete, focusing on high-energy, nutrient dense foods is extremely important. For Brendan Brazier, Professional Ironman Triathlete, vegan-based food is the only way to fuel his workouts. He credits athletic performance as his main reason for going vegan. “Most think I continue to improve as an athlete at a fast rate in spite of being vegan – that’s not the case. A highly alkaline, easily digestible, mostly raw diet is without a doubt the best diet for performance.”
2. Target Protein-Rich Vegetarian Foods
All athletes know that protein is an important part of training. Vegetarian athletes can easily meet or exceed recommendations for total protein intake by eating a wide variety of protein-rich vegetarian foods to meet the added demands of competition and training. Lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, almonds, peanut butter, quinoa, tofu, and sprouted grain breads are just some of the protein rich vegetarian foods available. Vegans and vegetarians don’t have to include “complementary” proteins at each meal as long as they are eating a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day, which should supply the necessary amino acids.
3. Fuel Workouts With Complex Carbs
Many athletes have adopted vegetarian or vegan diets in order to meet their increased needs for carbohydrates during training. Carbs are the body’s primary fuel for physical activity, and adequate stores are needed for optimal athletic performance. Carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa, legumes, potatoes and yams should be an important part of any vegan or vegetarian athlete’s diet, particularly before a workout or event.
4. Pump Iron
No, not that kind of iron… (though you should be doing that too, of course!). Iron is crucial to athletic performance, and this is even truer for vegan and vegetarian athletes. Iron is needed to transport and deliver oxygen to muscles, and the non-heme iron found in plant foods has less bioavailability than heme iron found in animal foods. Eating plenty of iron-rich plant foods, like dark leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and iron fortified grains is important, and they should be paired with foods that are rich in vitamin C, like strawberries and bell peppers, to increase the absorption of nonheme iron. Additionally, vegetarians and vegans may want to consider an iron supplement that also contains
5. Load Up On Zinc
Zinc is an important mineral that is depleted following strenuous exercise. Zinc is needed for protein synthesis, immune function, and blood formation, so it is important for vegetarian athletes to eat plenty of pumpkin seeds, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and soy to keep their zinc levels up, particularly if they live and compete in hot, humid environments.
6. Don’t Pass On The Salt
A vegetarian or vegan diet is already naturally low in sodium, and athletes who are low on sodium can experience muscle cramps and stiffness. Sodium requirements are elevated with increased activity levels, and during heavy training vegan and vegetarian athletes can benefit from sprinkling sea salt regularly to their foods. Sedentary people, whether vegetarian, vegan, or meat-eaters rarely have to worry about a sodium deficiency (they’re also more likely to eat frozen, processed and junk foods, which are laden with salt), but athletes must be sure they get enough of this mineral to ensure proper muscle function. Stay away from refined table salt, which is a highly refined product full of additives with no nutritional value (that’s why it is iodized, refined salt needs to have minerals added to it). Sea salt contains trace amounts of essential minerals like magnesium, calcium, and potassium.
Laura Kline, a vegan Duathlon World Champion, has more advice for anyone thinking of going vegan. “Don’t feel like a vegan diet is limiting. As the vegan diet becomes more mainstream, there are plenty of options to suit everyone.”
If you’re wondering whether a vegan or vegetarian diet can fuel your athletic performance, know that there are plenty of high performing professionals who will tell you a plant-based diet is the key to success.