Fuelling vegan athletes

| Post published on April 8, 2019
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How active you are largely determines how much energy you need to feed your body but that’s not where it ends. Younger people tend to have faster metabolism; more muscular people need more protein to sustain or build the muscle mass; and we all have a different speed of burning energy so there’s no fool-proof formula for success – you’ll just have to experiment a little.

Being vegan is not just a healthy choice, it offers a wealth of health benefits to boot, so many professional athletes are switching to veganism to gain advantage and improve their performance. Why?

  1. Plants offer healthy carbohydrates – essential for sustained energy release
  2. Plants have better protein – easier for your body to digest, better ratio of amino acids than animal protein
  3. Plants provide healthy fats – all the essentials and good for your heart
  4. Plants are rich in antioxidants – they help you recover better
  5. Plants contain fibre – it helps to keep your digestive system healthy 

Rules of the game

First of all, forget calling foods by their main nutrient – they aren’t ‘protein’, ‘carbs’ or ‘fats’ unless you’re talking about extracts (protein powders, sugar or oil) and this kind of pigeonholing can do more harm than good because it’s distorting your perception of what you eat. Plant foods are usually a source of all three and more!

  • Fruit and vegetables: perfect source of healthy carbohydrates (both simple and complex); antioxidants; minerals, such as iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium; vitamins C, K and most from the B group
  • Pulses: great source of protein; complex carbohydrates; B group vitamins; many minerals, including iron and calcium; antioxidants
  • Nuts and seeds: excellent for protein; healthy unsaturated fats (apart from coconut); fibre; antioxidants; minerals including zinc and selenium; vitamins E and B group
  • Wholegrains: source of healthy carbohydrates; protein (unlike refined grains!); some minerals and vitamins (depending on the type of grain); antioxidants too!

As a rule of thumb, only eat smaller amount of food before you exercise and leave bigger meals for after. Your body needs energy to fuel your performance but too much food cannot be digested fast enough and can make you feel sick and sluggish. It’s best to have a piece of fruit or an energy bar if you need to – that is if you’re doing intensive training. If you’re going to the gym for a regular class or workout, going for a run up to 10k, cycling one hour or doing a yoga class, there’s no extra pre-workout food you need.

Post-workout, something you digest fast is best to get the nutrients to your muscles quickly – but what that is depends on your aim.

Want to build muscle? Have a smoothie with protein powder.

Want to maintain what you already have? A smoothie with a spoonful of nut butter or chia seeds would be excellent.

Want to lose weight? A piece of fruit is a great light snack.

To avoid being caught hungry (and grabbing an unhealthy emergency snack) or lacking in energy, plan ahead and make a smoothie to-go, carry some dried fruit, nut and seed packs, your favourite energy bar or simply make a wrap with hummus or nut butter, beans and veggies – that’s what the famous ultrarunner Scott Jurek does. Not everyone is a fan of sweet snacks!

For main meals, combine the wholefoods mentioned above to get a wide range of nutrients. Try not to rely on processed foods too much – an occasional treat is fine but your body responds much better to wholefoods. And on top of all that goodness, make sure you have a reliable source of vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fats. For omega-3s, make flaxseed, chia seeds or hempseed a part of your regular meals or you can take an algal supplement.

Starchy carbs?

As carbohydrates are digested, they release glucose into the bloodstream. Glucose is our main fuel that every single cell in your body needs. Different foods release it at different speed, which is called glycemic index (GI). Foods that release glucose fast have a high GI and are a source of fast energy – dates, refined cereals, potatoes. Foods that release it slowly have a low GI and are good for sustained energy release over a longer period of time – most fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds. And then there’s a whole range of foods with a medium GI – wholegrain products, brown rice, oats.  

Starch is a complex carbohydrate and a natural part of many plant foods that release their energy gradually (have a low or medium GI). And those are also some of the best sources of energy! For long-lasting fuel, you do want to eat starchy foods, such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, beans, lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, oats, quinoa and more. 

Protein – how much do you need?

An average person needs 0.8g of protein daily per kilogram of bodyweight. If you’re a serious athlete or want to build big muscles, you’ll need to increase your protein intake but not much – professional athletes eat 1-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight.

It’s easy to get enough protein on a vegan diet – unless you’re on a very restrictive diet, you’re most likely getting all the protein you need. When looking at protein content of foods, don’t forget to consider how much of the food you actually eat. If you have a chickpea curry with brown rice, you might get around 17 grams of protein, a small snack of mixed nuts (a couple of tablespoons) would mean around five grams of protein, couple of slices of wholemeal bread will give your around ten grams and a breakfast of muesli with fruit and added seeds could pack 15 grams.

Unless you’re an athlete, bodybuilder or do physically demanding work on a daily basis, you probably don’t need protein powders.

Energy boost

During long training sessions or endurance races, you’ll need to replenish energy fast and that means eating fast carbs on the go. The best natural sources are dates, bananas, mashed sweet potatoes and raisins. These foods help to provide energy to fuel the performance when the body’s own energy stores start running out. You only need to worry about this if your workouts last longer than 60-90 minutes (depending on intensity).   

You can get the fruit in its natural state, buy a ready-made energy bar or make your own! There are so many products that offer an easy solution but they tend to be pricey – with a food processor, you can easily blitz and blend your favourite ingredients and make handy energy bites at a fraction of retail price.

Hydration is crucial

Water is essential for every process in your body so drink up! It’s absolutely crucial that you drink enough water, especially when you’re physically active. Being dehydrated hinders your performance, recovery and your body’s natural detoxification that happens through the kidneys.

When training, it’s best to rely on pure water. Before a workout, drinking a coffee can help boost your stamina but is also more likely to send you running to the bathroom half-way through so weigh up your priorities wisely! Post-workout, it’s no coincidence smoothies are the go-to choice for so many people – they provide both nutrition and hydration!


About the author
Veronika Charvátová
Veronika Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. Veronika has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.

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