Can Endurance Athletes Thrive on A Plant Based Diet?

‘Nutrition 101: Proper Fueling for Endurance Events’ covers how an athletes’ diet is essential for achieving peak performance in any endurance sport. Athletes are always aiming to perform their very best and in order to do so need to consume food that replenishes energy. This is usually through eating a meat-based diet which helps replenish and repair their muscles. However, U.S. News states that more athletes are turning to vegan diets, which have no animal products, including rich sources of protein like meat, eggs and dairy. The question is whether endurance athletes can follow a vegan diet and still perform at the highest level? Here are four successful vegan endurance athletes who not only survived, but thrived in their respective sports.

Dr. Ruth Heidrich

Dr. Ruth Heidrich was the original vegan endurance runner; pioneering the plant-based movement in 1982 after she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. She refused chemotherapy, radiation and other various forms of treatment and went vegan. Two years after her diagnosis, she crossed the finish line at the Kona Ironman Triathlon. Now at 83-years-old, Heidrich has completed a total of five Ironman triathlons. Alongside that achievement, the triathlete has collected more than 900 trophies, eight gold medals in the U.S. Senior Olympics, and is the author of four books that talk about her journey to living a healthy and fruitful life. If there is anyone who proves that endurance athletes can succeed on a vegan diet, it is her.

Now just because you schedule recovery days into your program does not mean that they always need to be total or sedentary recovery days. Often times athletes will see that active recovery days actually facilitate faster recovery. The reason for this is because light physical activity facilitates blood flow, lengthens, and stretches ligaments and muscles to help flush the system faster. To recover faster try these top 8 ways to actively recover:

Venus Williams

Despite the fact that tennis is played on a small court, it is very much an endurance sport that tests a player’s physical and mental fatigue. Professional tennis player Venus Williams has won four Olympic gold medals, seven Grand Slam singles titles, and once went on a 35-match winning streak.

Unfortunately, Williams’ tennis career almost ended when she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an incurable disease which effects the immune system and forced her out of the the 2011 U.S. Open. Since Sjogren is an autoimmune disease, her dietary changes aimed to reduce inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet involves replacing sugary foods with whole, nutrient-rich food. Venus credited her vegan diet to getting her back on the court and teaching her how to fuel her body properly. This debunks the myth that only a protein rich diet will help repair the body.

Lewis Hamilton

Formula 1 drivers are some of the fittest athletes on the planet as they have to endure G-force speeds for long periods of time. The current biggest name in F1 is five-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who is regarded as one of the best racers ever.

According to an article examining the world of Lewis Hamilton, the racing star went vegan in 2017. The diet clearly didn’t affect his performance in anyway as Hamilton has won two championships since becoming vegan. Speaking to Veg Mag, Hamilton also dispelled the myth that athletes can’t get enough protein from a vegan diet, as he was able to easily put on muscle and weight (in line with new F1 rules). He told the magazine: “I have plenty of protein in my diet and I’ve gained muscle, and I’m healthier and happier than I’ve ever been. Wish I did it sooner.”

Scott Jurek

Ultrarunner, Scott Jurek, is one of the world’s most successful endurance athletes and recently held the Appalachian Trail speed record. A big part of his success has been his commitment to a vegan diet. In a post he wrote for Running Magazine, Jurek explained how vegans can consume the recommended 10-15% protein that endurance athletes need simply by meeting their caloric requirements and reducing their intake of processed foods. As the above article shows, endurance athletes can thrive on vegan diets with the best in their chosen sport doing so. One reason for this is that compared to meat-eaters, vegan athletes consume more antioxidants which neutralizes free radicals that are known to lead to fatigue and slow recovery.

While this approach may not be for everyone, a transition to a meat-free diet is by no means easy, and could take weeks, even months to be comfortable with. But like in every hard-earned victory, the results are worth it and you may find your endurance increasing over time.

~Feature post for ultraexpeditions.com

Written by Amanda Lake

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