It takes careful planning and food know-how to be sure you are getting enough nutrients and energy to perform well on a plant-based diet.
Until fairly recently veganism was considered both faddy and restrictive – the idea that you could run or compete at a high level without eating meat was pretty much unheard of. But since the introduction of Veganuary and Netflix’s 2019 documentary The Game Changers – which discusses the link between plant-based diets and athletic performance – the appeal of plant-based diets has soared. There are now vegan-specific run clubs (Vegan Runners, anyone?) and an increasing number of high-profile athletes, including the likes of Venus Williams and Lewis Hamilton, have switched to a vegan diet. The message? You don’t need to eat meat to perform well in sport.
Every athlete, vegan or not, should think carefully about their diet – and how it’s contributing to their training. But if you’re considering going vegan (and, ultimately, cutting certain food groups from your diet) you need to make sure you’re taking on enough nutrients that will fuel your workouts and promote recovery.
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It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
“If you are transitioning, remember to allow time for your body – and gut – to adjust to your new diet,” says Emily Kier, runner, nutritionist and half of Twice the Health. “Start by trying vegan meals for one day a week or substituting more vegan meals for meat during the weekend, and see how your body reacts. There will be a bit of a trial and error phase where you might feel a bit slower or more sluggish when running, and this is due to the change in your gut microbiome.”
Ultramarathon runner and blogger Flora Beverley, who went plant-based five years ago, agrees. “Incorporating easy vegan meals into your current diet a few days a week means you’ll have more success when you eventually transition to a completely vegan diet.
“It also gives time for your gut to adapt to the higher fibre diet. If you’ve been lacking vegetables up until now, your body will likely need some time to adjust. It’s worth it though – vegan diets have on average almost twice the amount of fibre of an omnivorous diet, which is great for gut health and linked to mental health and longevity.”
Vegan athletes aren’t always able to find nutritious food on the go, so it’s important to plan your meals ahead of time, especially if you have a heavy training schedule.
“Find recipes that are easy, affordable and that you can knock up off the top of your head,” advises Beverley. “If you have to prep food for 90 minutes every evening, you’re unlikely to want to continue your new regime. My favourites are things like stir fry with crispy tofu, pasta with mixed veg sauce and vegan burger and chips – none of these take more than 45 minutes from start to finish.”
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Make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is really difficult to consume through a plant-based diet – “this is because B12 is most prevalent in meat and eggs,” explains Kier.
It’s important for everyone – runner or not – to have enough vitamin B12 in their diet, in order to maintain healthy blood and a healthy nervous system. “If you’re worried your diet may be lacking, ask your doctor to check your B12 levels and think about taking a vegan B12 daily supplement.”
Consider taking supplements
Although a well-planned vegan diet is recognised as containing most of the recommended nutrients for all-around health, there are certain nutrients that all vegans (and vegetarians) should take – specifically, you should consider supplementing your plant-based diet with iron, B12, calcium and B3, says Kier.
“While you can still consume all of these in a vegan diet, the bioavailability tends to be lower than that of an omnivore diet,” she says. “A B12 supplement is usually a non-negotiable for vegans, whereas calcium, omega 3 and iron requirements can vary depending on your diet, lifestyle and menstrual cycle.”
“Of course, supplements should not replace a balanced and varied diet,” adds Beverley. “Many things are better absorbed when consumed in food form, not to mention better tasting – but getting any diet right is key to living a healthy, energetic and happy life, and the same goes for veganism.”
Be diligent about protein
Athletes need more protein than the normal population to help repair and rebuild the muscles torn during hard workouts and long training runs. “The average human needs around 0.8-1.5g protein per kg of body weight per day,” explains Kier. “However, if you are more active, you should aim for 1-2g protein per kg of body weight per day.
“Make sure you’re eating a wide variety of plant-based proteins – such as soy products, beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds,” adds Kier. “You generally need to eat a wide variety of plant-based proteins in order to consume all nine essential amino acids – you need 20 amino acids to create the proteins your body needs to function properly; 11 of these your body can produce itself, but the nine essential must be consumed via your diet.
“A protein source with all nine is known as a ‘complete source of protein’ – which is super easy to find in animal products but can still be done by combining plant-based proteins. This could be a problem if you have nut allergies, for example, or further restrict your diet and only eat grains or beans every day – this is where supplementing with a vegan protein powder, for example, could help.”
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