Ten months ago as a cash-strapped student, I changed my dietary habits and gave up meat in a bid to save up some money for a new time-trial bike and the rapidly escalating maintenance costs of road cycling and triathlon. After a few weeks off the meat, I was surprised how good I felt already; better digestion, no bogged-down feeling, and a general sense of having more energy. This led me to become interested in the relationship between a vegan diet and athletic performance as I’d previously held the idea like many, that vegans were weak and frail and unable to perform well in high-intensity endurance sports. Since then, my approach to training and racing has considerably changed. This post is certainly not a ‘how to’ guide on nutrition nor is it another gimmicky ‘the ultimate diet to go faster’ plan, as such self-claimed scientifically based articles are found in droves across the internet and sports magazines (each claiming to be truth and often contradicting one another). Rather, what this post does aim to do is to share my own personal experiences from racing and training as a vegan cyclist and triathlete and its effects nine months down the line.
How and why I transitioned from no meat to veganism
As a natural competitor, I’ve always been super keen on seeking out different ways to improve my athletic performance and to be honest I’ve tried a fair few diets in the past but nothing really seemed to work for me. I did some research on the relationship between a vegan diet and performance and was surprised what I found. There were already many high-performing pro-athletes that had made the jump and were reporting on the ‘incredible’ results they’d had with it such as ultra-runner legend, Scott Jurek, Mike Arnstein and former pro-Ironman athlete Brendan Brazier. Having read about their experiences and passion for the diet that reportedly made them thrive, I decided to give up the fish, dairy and eggs and see whether it would make a difference to my athletic performance. I was slightly concerned about making the change considering that I’d heard all about the common critiques related with the diet such as not being able to get enough protein, fatty acids, omega 3s, vitamin D and B12, but was eager enough to give it a try at least. I decided to keep a close inspection on my health and performance through blood tests and the new addition of my power meter on my bike, able to record my power output in real time, and heart rate monitor. I told myself that a marked decline in either or both health and athletic performance and I’d change the diet and reincorporate animal products. This gave me the reassurance that I wasn’t just mindlessly doing it and was able to know on a pretty accurate level what effects it had on my training and racing.
What I eat on and off the bike
Whenever I meet new people and tell them about my diet, the first thing I usually hear is a big gasp followed by ‘…but what can you eat?’ as if to imply that all foods are derived from an animal. Plants, is what I usually reply to that question, whole plant foods make up the entirety of my diet. I generally follow the 80/10/10 macronutrient ratio, whereby a minimum of 80% of my total calories come from carbohydrates, a maximum of 10% from fat and 10% protein, enabling me to keep the excess bodyweight off whilst still having plenty of energy in store. This is especially important for sports such as cycling, where keeping the lowest body weight for the same amount of power output is one a the main preoccupations know as the power-to-weight-ratio. I also generally aim for the bulk of my calories to come fruit as I’ve found it to be the perfect nutrient dense and energy fuelling food on and off the bike and packing heaps of anti-inflammatory properties. Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, beans and nuts and seeds also form part of my diet. I avoid refined foods and stimulants as much as possible such as oils, white sugar and coffee. My staples on the bike are undoubtedly dates and ripe bananas, being both super portable and easily digested sources of carbs. Post-workout I’ll aim to replenish my depleted glycogen stores within the 30 minute absorption window, aiding with recovery and ensuring that my glycogen stores are topped up and ready to go for next time. Another crucial part of my diet is the inclusion of leafy greens, such as spinach, kale and broccoli, that contribute towards my keeping my iron levels high, ensuring a good red blood cell count optimising the transportation of sugar to the muscles and maintaining alkalinity against the acid-erosion of bones. I’ll mostly strive to keep the bulk of my diet raw but I don’t like to become over-obsessed by it as the most important thing I’ve found is to get enough calories in. I made this mistake in the beginning, as even though I felt full I hadn’t eaten enough calories in relation to what I’d spent, which had left me feeling slightly lethargic. However, once I’d understood that I physically needed to eat more, I felt invincible and able to go all day long.
Perceived effects of the vegan diet
The most significant difference I’ve noticed since adopting a vegan whole foods plant-based diet is my ability to recover from the stresses of training and racing. As a result of the high levels of anti-oxidants contained in fruit and veg, especially those of a darker colour like cherries, berries and plums, the free-radicals and acids built up during exertion are much rapidly and easily flushed out meaning that the muscles and joints recover faster translating into the ability to train harder for longer. For example, when out on a bike ride I experience much less fatigue than before and being able to ride harder for longer is definitely an amazing experience. Furthermore, as a result of the anti-inflammatory properties the likelihood for overtraining related injuries is massively reduced and I’ve since (touch wood!) been keeping any niggles at bay, despite upping my training load in duration and intensity. As a result of being able to recover faster and hence train harder my power output on the bike has continued to rise, something that has surprised me even despite losing body weight. This is my main indicator of performance and as long as it continues to creep up, I’m satisfied. Another amazing benefit I’ve noticed since changing diet is that my stress levels have reduced meaning better quality sleep and optimum recovery, which also means I no longer crave stimulants such as caffeine.
Dates are ideal for carrying in a cycling jersey pocket- no faffing about trying to take wrapper off and full of sugar! However, asserting that all is jolly and perfect on this lifestyle would be somewhat lying. The social implications are usually what turns people off due to the numerous complications related to travelling outside the ‘vegan bubble’. For example, going to a restaurant with friends and demanding that the chef doesn’t add any cheese, milk, eggs, fish, meat, and leave out the oil and vinegar from the salad can attract rather bizarre looks and can sometimes create a bit of an issue but you learn to deal with it. Also, unfortunately not everywhere sells good quality cheap fruit and veg and sometimes it can be fairly hard to get. So, even though I started off seeking a cheaper alternative diet, eating sufficient amounts can be quite costly but I’ve found that if done properly with a bit of planning (e.g. buying in bulk or heading to markets for cheap deals) it is possible to bring down the costs.
After nine months on a high-fruit vegan lifestyle my approach to training has changed, my ability to recover on and off the bike has improved, I have lost weight, yet continued to increase my power output. I sleep better at night and feel energised during the day and my body feels stronger against niggles and injuries. All in all, my athletic performance, as a result of my diet, has improved and hopefully will continue to do so. Despite the slightly higher costs and minimal social implications I feel as though if I can do it, living on a student shoe-string budget, then anyone can!
Until next time, carb up and race hard!