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Vegan Athletes Talk Performance In White Text On Top Of Green Turf And Athlete Tying Shoe With Green Smoothie In Background - PERFECT Sports Article

Vegan Athletes Talk Performance with Kate Ayers

“With whole and nutritious foods and proper guidance, athletes can excel on plant-based diets”

More Canadians are switching to plant-based diets, based on personal preferences and beliefs. A 2018 Dalhousie University study found that nearly 10 per cent of Canadians are vegetarian or vegan. This proportion equates to 2.3 million self-identified vegetarians and 850,000 vegans. Of those respondents who consume solely plant-based diets, 63 per cent were under the age of 35. This growing interest in plant-based diets means that more athletes are also looking into this option. Canadian vegan athletes talk performance and why they decided to transition to a vegan or vegetarian diets.

Mitchell Heron, Ultramarathon Runner

Mitchell is an avid ultramarathon, mountain and trail runner. He enjoys the outdoor lifestyle of Squamish, BC and never turns down an opportunity to get out and try new things. He has been vegan for about seven years.

Why did you choose veganism?

The initial change was because I was on a road trip across Canada. While living out of the back of my mom’s car, my cook stove ran out of propane. I ended up not getting more, so I stuck with eating fruits and veggies along with nuts and seeds for a couple months. When I came back to the real world, and started cooking food again, I noticed that eating meat made my gut feel uncomfortable. So, I just made the switch to cutting that out of my diet. Since then, it has evolved into being more intentional about what I am eating instead of just cutting meat out and I’ve never felt better.

Have you noticed any changes in performance or energy levels since going vegan?

I have had a noticeable increase in energy since I went vegan. I can run 30 kilometres in the morning and then enjoy slacklining in a park with friends until the sun sets without a second thought.

Training more helps with that, obviously, but I’ve noticed much less recovery time needed after big days, too.

However, I don’t think it is attributed exclusively to being vegan because I have just been eating an overall healthier diet with next to no junk food, fast food, or other unhealthy things. I find eating really well is easy as a vegan though since a lot of the unhealthy things aren’t even an option anymore.

What challenges, if any, do you face when fueling and how do you overcome them?

There are the obvious challenges that any athlete, vegan or otherwise, faces in making sure that they are eating enough food. High-quality food not only supports their training, but propels it in the direction that they want. The only supplements that I take are Vitamin D, B12 and a vegan protein blend – everything else I make sure to prioritize through my diet. 

I haven’t found this to be much of an issue, to make sure that I am hitting all the marks of a healthy diet, because I have based my diet around this. To ensure that is the case I have made sure to get blood work done whenever I have drastically changed my diet or training load to ensure that things aren’t out of balance.

What are your go-to meals, snacks or recipes for post-workout recovery?

Post-workout recovery is nearly always a smoothie that consists of a couple cups of frozen berries, some ground flaxseed and chia seed, a sprinkle of steel cut oats, and healthy portion of natural peanut butter. 

Outside of the smoothie I will normally just make a meal while I stretch out after a run. Meals are normally a combination of brown/wild rice and some vegetables (spinach, kale, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and any seasonal veggies that I have recently picked up) and I will snack on a few bowls of this through the remainder of the day.

Another solid snack is a bunch of roasted sweet potatoes with a similar assortment of veggies on top – literally just chuck them all on a sheet in the oven for the better part of an hour and you’re good to go.

Do you have any tips or advice for athletes who are looking to make the transition to veganism?

If someone is wanting to transition to a vegan lifestyle, I would highly recommend getting some blood work done to see where you are before making the change. This isn’t to say that people are going to become deficient on a vegan diet, but people generally eat very poorly so it is helpful to have a baseline to see what you may be lacking for nutrients. You can base your dietary changes around that.

Replacing non-vegan foods with processed alternatives isn’t a healthy way to go vegan. Replacing chicken nuggets with plant-based chicken nuggets is potentially healthier, but it is likely a much better call to just eat some roasted cauliflower instead – and just as easy to make.

Vegan is not synonymous with healthy. You could eat exclusively cookies and be vegan, but I don’t think anybody would argue that you’re close to healthy. Eating whole foods and high-quality foods are factors that need to be considered as well.

Samantha Romano, Brock University Wrestler

Samantha is a varsity wrestler at Brock University and has been vegetarian for about a year. Following a sociology course in university, Samantha decided to transition to a vegetarian diet. Her mother and two sisters are vegans, so meals at home made it easier for Samantha to make the change.

Have you noticed any changes in performance or energy levels since becoming a vegetarian?

I haven’t noticed too many differences in my performance, mainly because I was eating a mostly vegetarian diet prior to making the switch. Wrestling is a weight-based sport though, so I do have to make weight prior to competition. I am currently doing my second weight-cut as a vegetarian, and I’ve noticed vegetarian weight cuts are easier for me! Making weight seems a lot easier than it was when I was relying on meat as my protein source because of the bulkiness to it.

What challenges, if any, do you face when fueling and how do you overcome them?

To be honest, I’m a picky vegetarian! I’ve always been a picky eater and I am not the biggest fan of most veggies. Fuelling for me and getting enough protein used to be easy because I would pack grilled chicken or sliced salami in my lunches as quick snacks, especially if I felt like I need a sodium kick. Of course, that’s not really an option for me anymore. I think in general, with how picky I am, it’s hard to find protein sources I enjoy. I get most of my protein from eggs and beans, but to make sure my iron is okay, I also started taking multi-vitamins. I’m also learning the importance of seasoning and dressing on those veggies I wasn’t a fan of pre-vegetarianism!

What are your go-to meals, snacks or recipes for post-workout recovery?

I LOVE smoothies! A chocolate strawberry smoothie is my go-to. It’s super simple – just orange juice, water, Greek yogurt, frozen strawberries, and a spoonful of hazelnut spread, and I’m set. I’ll also pair this with two hardboiled eggs for protein.

Do you have any tips or advice for athletes who are looking to make the transition to a plant-based diet?

People with plant-based diets don’t perform any worse than people with ‘normal’ diets, but this is a common misconception. Take a look at Ally Raisman, a gymnast from the United States, for example. She follows a plant-based diet and was an Olympic champion in 2012. A lot of people will say that vegetarian/vegan diets cause you to lack strength, for instance, but that’s not the case. Meat is not the only place where we can get protein and iron from, you just have to be willing to explore other options.

Jonathan Tedeschi, Laval University Track Athlete

Jonathan is a 3,000-metre and 5,000-metre track and field athlete from Quebec City. He has been vegan for about six years now, after going on a three-month backpacking trip to Asia. He was appalled by some other practices involving animals that he witnessed during this trip and decided to stop eating meat.

Have you noticed any changes in performance or energy levels since going vegan?

The change in diet dates back over six years, however, I vaguely remember feeling my level of energy and performance increased. I think one of the reasons was that my new diet allowed me to be in perfect harmony with myself and with my values.

What challenges, if any, do you face when fueling and how do you overcome them?

The biggest challenge in my athletic career has been bone health, mainly related to calcium. I had a big stress fracture in my tibia, in 2017, and the specialists concluded that as long as I am competing in high-performance sports, I should be supplementing with calcium and vitamin D for absorption. Otherwise, my iron and B12 are excellent, according to my last blood tests.

What are your go-to meals, snacks or recipes for post-workout recovery?

I often take nuts, protein bars or vegan protein powder. And certainly, fruits and carbohydrates which ,unfortunately, are too often forgotten by athletes.

Do you have any tips or advice for athletes who are looking to make the transition to veganism?

I would advise them to do a blood test with sports specialists to make sure that they have sufficient calcium, iron and B12. Given that we ask a lot of our bodies in high level sports, it is ‘normal’ that we take supplements to compensate. Also, it is often said that diversity is the key. I make sure that I eat different vegetable proteins every day. So, one day it’s tofu, one day it’s chickpeas, one day it’s black bean, etc.

I have proven over the years that it is possible to be vegan (and an environmentalist) while being one of the best athletes in the province.

Elise Coates, University Victoria Cross country and Track Athlete

Elise has followed a plan-based diet for about five years now. She started as a vegetarian and later transitioned to veganism. During this timeframe, she’s played high-level soccer and is currently a varsity cross country and track athlete for the University of Victoria. Elise also enjoys all outdoor activities, including but certainly not limited to biking, hiking and bouldering.

What challenges do you face when fueling and how do you overcome them?

Currently, the challenge is ensuring that I get the right nutrients post-workout and a sufficient amount of protein, and calcium, during snacks. Snacks and post-workout meals should ideally, for me, contain approximately 20g of protein. My nutritionist and I have been experimenting with a variety of bars, but my go-to right now is a peanut butter and jelly bagel and a smoothie. The smoothie is made with vegan protein and calcium enriched nut milk, and the smoothie cubes I use contain pea protein.

Additionally, being a vegan athlete comes with the challenge of explaining that I don’t eat like a rabbit! I love my pastries, and big carbs, as much as anyone, especially as an endurance athlete! I eat a lot, and it’s tricky when people or restaurants assume you don’t because of your nutritional values. I’ve noticed at some restaurants, there will be vegan options, but they come in small portion sizes or consist of a lot of lettuce. As a result, I usually order multiple options when I go out to eat.

Have you noticed any changes in performance or energy levels since going vegan?

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that I get sick a lot less! Being plant based ensures that I always get enough vitamin C because I’m always feasting on fruit and great micronutrient-rich sources.

A lot of vegan culture promotes clean eating and non-processed foods. It’s very easy to fall into the habit of eating too clean. A performance booster for me has been including some off-the-shelf, processed items into my diet. The quick sugars some of those items provide post-workout have been awesome when it comes to recovery. Also, like any endurance athlete, I burn a lot of energy and sometimes it’s hard to eat enough in a day to properly replenish those stores. Right now, to get enough fuel, I eat two lunches everyday – one after my first training session, and another in the early afternoon. That has been crucial to my performance and recovery lately.

What are your go-to meals, snacks or recipes for post-workout recovery?

When workouts are in the evening, I love to have dinner ready to go. Some of my favourites are:

  • peanut butter tofu on rice with roasted broccoli and brussel sprouts
  • stir fry with edamame on rice or vermicelli noodles
  • black bean tortilla soup with toasted tortillas or a seedy loaf
  • burritos with refried black beans
  • chickpea and sweet potato, or lentil, curry with naan bread

Immediately after a workout though, I always have a protein bar and my all-time favourite recovery drink.

Protein shakes and smoothies are effective and convenient ways for athletes to meet their post-workout recovery needs. Vegetarian and vegan athletes will be happy to know that research has found pea and whey proteins compare similarly in terms of supporting athletic performance. A 2019 study2 examined the outcomes of 24g of whey and pea consumption in athletes who participated in cross-fit training four times a week. The research team concluded that whey and pea protein produce similar outcomes in measurements of body composition, muscle thickness, force production, workout of the day performance and strength following 8-weeks of high-intensity functional training.

In 2015, a 12-week study1 examined an upper limb resistance training regime and found both pea and whey-based proteins promoted muscle thickness measurements with no significant difference. This result supports the use of plant-based and whey proteins interchangeably. DIESEL Vegan is an amazing option to add into your routine if you’re an athlete looking to go green and get the same results as whey proteins. Human-matched aminos, 6 ancient organic grains and 23 grams of protein per scoop means that it provides an insane amount of nutrients – not to mention up to 50% of daily Iron as well!

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is – if you want to go green and perform well, its possible! As a vegan athlete you’ll need to take care of the small details by stacking and planning meals. You’ll have to make sure that you’re keeping a close eye on your nutrients and supplement anything that you might be lacking, whether through vegan protein or more specific products! You’re choice to go vegan is your own, but your performance doesn’t have to suffer so long as you put the work in.

References

  1. Babault, N., Païzis, C., Deley, G., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Saniez, M.-H., Lefranc-Millot, C., & Allaert, F. A. (2015, January 21). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey Protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4307635/.
  2. Banaszek, A., Townsend, J. R., Bender, D., Vantrease, W. C., Marshall, A. C., & Johnson, K. D. (2019, January 4). The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30621129/.
Kate Ayers Team Canada Runner, PERFECT Sports sponsored athlete and writer

Kate Ayers – author

Kate grew up on a beef and cash crop farm in Simcoe County, Ont. She completed a degree in agricultural science at the University of Guelph while competing in athletics internationally. Kate combined her passions for agriculture, sport and storytelling by becoming a freelance writer. Now in Victoria, she’s an Athletics Canada 1500m runner training for the Olympics.

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