The High Performance Vegan Athlete: It Is Possible!

Contributed by Brendan Brazier. It’s certainly not uncommon for competitive athletes to try a vegan diet, just uncommon for them stick with it. With sincere intentions to improve their health naturally and benefit their performance, many high-level athletes try eliminating animal products from their diets. So why, after a short period, do the majority revert back to consuming animal products? Quite simply, there’s not enough information out there. Following is a list of problems athletes commonly have when switching to a vegan diet — and their solutions.

Thrive by Brandan BrazierHelpful books by Brendan Brazier for vegan athletes:

 

Problem 1: Constant hunger

Which can lead to low energy levels; this is common for active people who have stopped consuming animal products.

Dietary Protein: Active people need more protein than the average person does. Often when animal products are eliminated from the diet, so is a large portion of the protein. Without adequate dietary protein the carbohydrate consumed will enter the bloodstream faster, causing insulin levels to rise quickly (spike), and then a short time later decline (crash). With protein and snack added to each meal a “sugar crash” will not occur. Protein will complement the carbohydrate, allowing it to enter the bloodstream at a steady rate, thus delaying the onset of hunger and sustaining energy levels.

Protein, a vital part of an athlete’s diet, is used in the rebuilding process of muscle tissue broken down by training. During endurance training at a low heart rate (60-70% of maximum), fat is the body’s primary fuel source (90%) with protein second (10%). Because Ironman and other endurance training requires the body to be efficient at using fat as fuel, long rides in this zone are necessary. A six-hour-ride, for example, would burn nothing but protein as fuel for 36 minutes.

If dietary protein needs are not met, muscle tissue will be catabolised; in turn, strength will decline. A 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio has been shown to yield the best muscle glycogen recovery results. The small amount of protein (25%) combined with a high glycemic carbohydrate (sugar) has been shown to improve recovery over the conventional “sugar only” approach. Sweetened soy drink is a good provider of this ratio.

Dietary Fat: Once animal products are eliminated, so is a large portion of the fat. The dairy industry measures fat as percentage of volume, not as percentage of calories. For example, 2% milk is in fact 33.5% fat. Cutting all fat out of the diet is not the goal, although saturated fat should be minimized for optimum performance. A very low fat diet is OK for a low to moderately active person. However, a highly active person, especially an endurance athlete who has adopted a plant-based diet, will benefit by adding good quality fats to his/her meals.

As with protein, fat helps to slow the rate at which the carbohydrate enters the bloodstream, thus providing sustained, consistent energy. Dietary fat also helps the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin E. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that will help quicken the recovery process. Cold pressed oils such as flax and hemp are extremely valuable to the vegan athlete. Both flax and hemp oils contain omega-3 fatty acids, and, most importantly, have anti-inflammatory properties. These oils vastly speed the recovery and repair of soft tissue damage, a toll of daily training.

During times of level 1 (60-70% of maximum heart rate) endurance training in the fat burning zone (also know as metabolism training), the athlete should consume a combination of carbohydrate and protein in an easily digestible form

Solution

Consume protein and good quality fat as part of each meal and snack.

Tip: If you make bread, muffins, or any baked goods, leave out some of the flour and replace it with soy protein powder, hemp flour, or bean flour. Use hemp seed oil as a base for salad dressing or to mix with a soy drink to make it creamier. Use hemp seed oil on cereal and in baking.

Good quality protein sources:

  • Hemp seed nut and flour
  • Tofu
  • Beans (kidney, black, garbanzo, soy, adzuki)
  • Legumes
  • Soy protein powder
  • Unsweetened soy drink

Good quality fat sources:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Flax seed oil
  • Hemp seed oil
  • Avocado
  • Non-roasted nuts and seeds

Problem 2: Muscle cramps, muscle stiffness

Low sodium level: Lack of dietary sodium combined with regular sweating will deplete sodium stores. Athletes who have adopted a plant-based diet are prone to reduced sodium levels, often resulting in muscle cramping and stiffness. Dairy products in particular contain high levels of sodium. Also, salami, pepperoni, baloney and most all prepared meats contain very high levels of sodium. Most plant sources have little sodium with the exception of some seaweeds. Sedentary people, vegan or not, do not need to be concerned with a lack of dietary sodium; however, vegan athletes do. As with many nutrients, sodium requirements become elevated as activity increases.

During times of heavy training, producing a high sweat rate, the vegan athlete will benefit by salting his/her food. By adding sea salt to regularly eaten foods, the athlete will notice that muscle cramping subsides and suppleness returns. Due to excessive sweating, produced by racing in a hot environment, the athlete may need sodium tablets. Leading up to a long race such as Ironman, the athlete must pay special attention to ample salt intake that will result in lower dependence on race day. Salt stores will be preserved. A healthy, active person will not experience a rise in blood pressure with the addition of dietary sodium.

Low calcium level: Low calcium levels in vegan athletes are usually due to a combination of lack of dietary calcium and hard training. Calcium is used during muscle contractions, causing many endurance athletes, vegan or not, to have reduced stores. For example, an athlete who cycles for 5 hours at the standard cadence of 90 rotations per minute will perform 54,000 muscle contractions. The contractions are from a combination of the three biggest muscles in the body (gluteus maximums, quadriceps, and hamstrings) obviously a significant draw on the body’s calcium reserves.

Solution

During heavy training a vegan athlete would benefit by adding sea salt to at least one meal or snack per day. One week prior to a long race in a warm climate, the athlete would benefit by consuming sea salt at each meal.

An athlete who consumes calcium-rich foods at each meal will benefit by developing supple, limber muscles.

Tip: Add non-roasted sesame seeds to cereal, salads, and anything else you can think of. Sesame seeds are very high in calcium with 1 cup (250 ml) yielding 2900 mg of calcium. In comparison, 1 cup (250 ml) of cow’s milk contains 300 mg of calcium. Of course, it’s much easier to down a cup of milk than a cup of sesame seeds, but once you include them as a staple in your diet, they add up quickly.

To maximize the absorption of calcium from sesame seeds, grind them in a coffee grinder. I recommend grinding a mixture of sesame seeds and flax seeds and keeping them in the fridge for convenient, daily use.

Calcium rich foods include:

  • Almonds
  • Beans
  • Dark, leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sunflower seeds

Problem 3: Low energy level

Reduced tolerance to aerobic exercise; possible anemia: When red meat is eliminated from an active person’s diet, the long-term effect is often a reduction in red blood cells often leading to anemia. Vegan or not, athletes have traditionally had trouble maintaining satisfactory iron levels for optimal performance. Maintenance of iron stores becomes increasingly difficult during times of heavy training. As with sodium and calcium, iron is lost in sweat, making warm weather training more of a draw on iron stores. Unlike sodium, iron levels can take up to six months to become dangerously depleted. Often not realizing this, the athlete will wonder how performance has declined without any change in diet or activity level. Because iron levels take considerable time to become diminished, rebuilding takes equal time. Obviously, a six-month-rebuilding phase would best be avoided. Iron is also lost as a result of compression hemolysis (crushed blood cells due to intense muscle contractions).

The more active the person, the more dietary iron is needed. Constant impact activity, such as running, reduces iron levels more dramatically due to a more strenuous form of hemolysis. With each foot strike a small amount of blood is released from the damaged capillaries. In time this will cause anemia if the athlete does not pay close attention to diet.

Solution

A bi-yearly blood test is recommended. Iron levels will always be revealed and never allowed to become depleted. Iron rich foods are best consumed on a daily basis with vitamin C to help with absorption. If running mileage is greater than 50 miles (80km) an iron supplement is recommended. Also, if training occurs in a warm climate (excessive sweating) year round, or training consistently exceeds 15 hours per week, an iron supplement is recommended.

Iron-rich foods:

  • Fortified cereal
  • Split pea soup
  • Cookies or other baked foods made with molasses (also high in calcium)
  • Dried peas and beans (kidney, lima, lentils)
  • Bran
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Soybean nuts
  • Prune juice, raisins
  • Enriched rice
  • Peanut butter
  • Apricots
  • Green beans
  • Walnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds

If a vegan diet is something you would like to try, make sure you go about it the right way the first time. If you have tried and failed in the past, it’s not your fault because there’s very little support available. However, as with sport itself, the rewards are worth the perseverance.

Many athletes who have properly adopted a vegan diet have noticed an improved recovery rate. Obviously, if the athlete can recover faster he/she can train more, facilitating quicker improvement. I’m not saying that more training is necessarily better, but I am saying that speedy recovery in that training is important.

Brendan Brazier is the author of Thrive: A Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life.Visit his web site

  • For more tips on plant-based nutrition, make sure to browse VegKitchen’s Nutrition page.
  • For lots more features on healthy lifestyle, please explore VegKitchen’s Healthy Vegan Kitchen page.

*This post contains affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through this review, VegKitchen receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

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21 comments on “The High Performance Vegan Athlete: It Is Possible!

  1. Nava

    Thanks, Rachel. Your comment went under my radar; sorry it took me so long to approve it—glad you found this article by Brendan Brazier useful!

  2. Pingback: The High Performance Vegan Athlete: It Is Possible! | fitvegan4life

  3. eve

    I am a runner.
    I am a vegan.
    I am having trouble understanding what is needed to fuel and refuel before and after a run.
    I am always tired and sore all the time.
    I am training for a mudder run and I am very small.
    4 ft 10.
    I need to know what is the best way to fuel for training for a marathon or anything.
    Please help.

  4. Colin

    Interesting…currently assessing if I’ve got additional needs to perform athletically. Vegetarian with eggs most of a year, no animal proteins for about a month. Is this information contained within one of the books?

  5. Nava

    Colin, since this is a guest post, I can’t say for sure if you’ll find the info you need in Brendan’s book, but he is highly respected as a vegan athlete and writer and my guess is that you’ll find what you are looking for. I recommend that you follow the link above, at the end of this post, that starts with Brendan Brazier is the author … and click through where it says “his web site.”

  6. Colin

    After some looking I did find the appropriate book over there. Love your VegKitchen site here too. Thank you. :)

  7. Rhea Mehta

    Great, straightforward article. I would add that blue-green algaes like spirulina and chlorella are also excellent sources of plant-based protein and can be added to anything (smoothies, juices, nut milks, soups, salads) in powdered form. It’s important to always make sure the soy products are organic and non-GMO. Also, soy is claimed to be an anti-nutrient (inhibits absorption of nutrients) like most nuts/seeds are, unless soaked. Soy unfortunately isn’t activated upon soaking. Instead, it must be fermented. So the best soy sources in my opinion are tempeh and miso. Coconut is another excellent source of fat. It is very quickly digested/broken down versus stored making it safe for increased use. Cheers.

  8. Nava

    Rhea, sorry I never responded to this …. better late that never — I wanted to thank you for your informative input.

  9. Brandon

    Oscar Fröberg, I believe the reason for the use of sea salt is because it contains Iodide, which we are supposed to get 150mcg every few days.

  10. Gwyneth

    I think this contains a lot of misinformation. For starters “constant hunger” and “low energy levels” a vegan diet if maintained properly can be amazing for the human body as..idk if you were aware of this but we are NOT meant to even be eating meat, our digestive systems may have adapted to efficiently process it but we should be eating natural whole foods. When putting this into practice you can completely transform your entire body and can experience energy levels that are through the roof, as well as find true happiness and clarity. One thing can play a role in a vegan diet is portion sizing. At no point should calories EVER be restricted! Also eat foods that aren’t processed, not the junk in the store such as “veganese” and “tofurkey” in addition Oreo cookies are considered vegan.. But definitely not they type of food that can help you find a whole new life. Back to the “vegan junk” mentioned, even these foods are better than putting animal products into your body. And don’t believe me… I have a little experiment you can try for yourself. You know that feeling you get when you eat way too much processed food or junk and sweets and your so full you want to barf and you feel like complete crap? (I too was a former blind being *non-vegan*) well that feeling is your body being poisoned not just because your full. Later on once your food has settled you most likely wander in the kitchen looking for more right? This is because the body eats until it’s nutritional needs have been filled not calorie needs, all of this is a contributing factor in weight gain with animal products as well as processed or “fake” food. So here’s my experiment after that long rant… Try eating as many fruits as you desire, bananas and dates (I recommend together as they combine well for your digestive system) and just eat until your heart is content. Do you feel disgusting & like crap? NO. Because your body isn’t punishing you. Your body will LOVE you for putting all these nutritionally dense foods into your body. Omg…I have been going on for a while so I’ll leave off on this- I could NEVER tell you how ABSOLUTELY AMAZING a real vegan lifestyle could be so go you YouTube and type in “freelee the banana girl” your life will never be the same. Btw I’m not advertising for her in any way, I’m trying to help the world.

    -just a vegan friend❤️🐮

  11. Gwyneth

    Okay…I got a little too passionate just seeing the first few headings of your article…😁😂😂😂 buttt still just trying to contribute to saving our planet🌏 glad a message was put out there maybe my silliness will change someone’s life…so really “freelee the banana girl” on YouTube can help with all these questions & more.

  12. Sunny

    This is a really great article, esp the info on increasing fats and proteins. I’ve been following a low fat protocol and already doing better with the inclusion of more protein. Upping the fat is a little more scary!

  13. Arthur

    The only nutrient that a vegan needs to supplement is vit B12 and in some cases vit D. The varied diet of grains, beans,legumes, vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts and seeds takes care of everything required. Sea salt and table salt are both NaCl, I think the iodine is a better choice over the trace minerals, a vegetarian diet already has all the minerals. Some geographical areas’ vegetables lack iodine, depending on the soil and distance from the sea. If you are very active more grains and vegetable oils provide the calories needed. Don’t eat any grain that has been ground into flour, flour is very glycemic and is a gate way food to diabetes. Eat whole, unprocessed granos integral. Soya is perfectly safe and is not the same chemically as estrogen. Once you are on the vegan diet your health and happiness will be noticeably enhanced.

  14. Natasha

    Some good advice but, soy is a NIGHTMARE hormonally and is often laden with pesticides! Also, nuts are very high in l-arginine, dangerous to consume too much of as this can cause neurotoxicity and an l-arginine to l-lysine imbalance can activate the herpes family of viruses (Epstein barr, shingles, etc.) I recommend brown rice protein powder. Sun Warrior makes and awesome non-gmo product that is clean and fabulous!

  15. Nava

    Natasha, thanks for weighing in. VegKitchen’s policy is that soy is safe as long as it is organic and non-GMO. Pesticide-laden GMO soybeans are grown for feeding animals, which is indeed an environmental and health nightmare. There have really been no studies showing that organic, non-GMO soy products like tofu, tempeh, and miso disrupt the hormonal system. Nuts are good to consume in very modest portions for other reasons, not the least of which is their high fat content. But they are still a good food. Is brown rice protein powder organic? That’s an important consideration as well.

  16. Mario Perez

    Awesome tips! already doing most of this and have researched. i try to eat as much hemp and protein rich foods because i train 10-20 hours a week (boxing) alongaside professionals. My skill lacks to theirs, however my recovery rate and energy have more than doubled since going vegan!!! love it. Loved the sodium part, now i know why i cravy saltyness and spicyness which i didn’t before going vegan lol. Thanks!

  17. Roberta Smith

    Many thanks for this great piece of info. Ive only been vegan for 1.5 years and have been attending the gym every other day for the past 5 months, but I’ve seen a big difference in energy low levels, stiffness and cramps since attending the gym and was wondering if my normal vegan diet was not up to what I need, obviously not. Looking forward to the change though :)

    Regards
    Roberta Smith
    Ireland x

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