Being a vegan athlete can pose some challenges but it’s not impossible. Find out what you need to do to be the best vegan athlete you can!
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Training to improve sport performance and become a better athlete is different from general exercise. You have to train extremely hard and everything you eat needs to be aligned with your goals.
In short, your diet needs to be on point. And if it isn’t, it is very hard to become stronger, more powerful, and more athletic.
What can add an extra layer of difficulty to this already complex process is if you follow a vegan diet. Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that it isn’t possible — just that you need to make some important considerations if your goal is to become a vegan athlete.
Can You Be an Effective Athlete on a Vegan Diet?
Contrary to popular belief, being a vegan and being an athlete are not mutually exclusive. As long as you pay close attention to both your training and your diet, there is no question that you can have both.
In fact, there are hundreds of elite level vegan athletes around the world that have been at the top of their game for decades. The athletes listed below are from a number of different sports and have each adopted a vegan diet without seeing a decline in performance.
If this doesn’t make you realize that you can perform any sport at the top of your game while eating vegan, then I don’t know what will!
Venus Williams is arguably one of the most well-known tennis players on the planet. With seven Grand Slam singles titles and a whopping 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles, it is no wonder why.
Oh, and did I mention she also has four Olympic gold medals? Talk about being an elite vegan athlete.
Venus Williams took on a raw vegan diet after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in early 2011. It not only helped with her fatigue and joint pain but also took her performance to a whole new level.
For those of you out of the know, Lewis Hamilton is a four-time Formula 1 world champion and a vegan athlete. Lewis took on a vegan way of eating in early 2017 after taking a stand for animal cruelty in the meat industry.
Scott Jurek is very well-known an American ultramarathon runner. He has won well over a dozen prestigious ultramarathon titles and has run an incredible 165.7 miles in a mere 24 hours.
Which is obviously ultra-impressive (pun intended…).
Jurek transitioned to a fully vegan diet during college and has never looked back. He initially saw veganism as a way to avoid many of his family’s history of chronic diseases. But now he believes it may be one of the main reasons for his success.
Jermain Defoe is the seventh best goal scorer in Premier League history, with an absurd 150+ goals in the league to date. He currently plays for Bournemouth soccer club and the English national team.
To put it simply, he is at the top of his game and he credits it to adopting a vegan diet.
While not as well known as many of the athletes on this list, Barny du Plessis is someone who deserves recognition. He is one of the world’s first top-level vegan bodybuilders, providing clear proof that vegan athletes can excel in sports that require strength and muscle growth.
Hannah Teter is one of America’s top female snowboarders and a three-time Olympic medalist.
From quite a unique background, Hannah grew up in a fully sustainable house in the woods. In this manner, she was taught to appreciate the environment from a young age. Ultimately, this brought her to a vegan diet.
And, as you can see, it has not held her back!
Most people think that explosive athletes are the ones to suffer the most on a vegan diet, but Kendrick Yahcob Farris proves that this is not the case.
Farris is a vegan and an American Olympic weightlifter who finished 11th in his weight class at the 2016 Olympics. This provides a clear example that even vegan athletes can be powerful and explosive!
Last (but certainly not least) we have Nate Diaz.
Diaz is a mixed martial artist who currently competes in the UFC. (The UFC is the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization.) Interestingly, Diaz chose to become vegan at the age of 18. He was inspired by his vegan brother, Nick Diaz, who also happened to be a very competitive mixed martial arts athlete.
How Do You Create a Healthy Vegan Athlete Diet?
It is important to note that the keys to creating a healthy vegan athlete diet are not that different from any other successful athlete diet. It is just the way in which you meet your key needs are slightly different.
The key nutritional goals of a healthy athlete diet are:
- eating enough protein to recover from your training
- consuming enough healthy fats to support health and function
- taking in enough carbohydrates to fuel your training sessions
- consuming enough vitamins and minerals to maintain your overall health
Vegan Protein Sources
Because of their high training volumes, athletes require more protein than the general population. This extra protein allows them to recover from their training and adapt to become better and more powerful and robust athletes.
With this in mind, it is often recommended that strength and power athletes strive for around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Endurance athletes should aim for around 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
Unfortunately, vegan athletes tend to consume less protein than their meat-eating counterparts. This likely comes down to the fact that many vegan-friendly foods are somewhat lower in protein than animal-based products. To make matters even more challenging, plant-based protein sources are also often incomplete. This means that they don’t contain the full array of essential amino acids required for recovery.
As a result, vegan athletes need to consume high-quality vegan protein sources that, when combined, contain all of the amino acids required to recover. Some of the best vegan protein sources on the planet include:
Now, it is important to note that to obtain a full array of amino acids, you need to consume a number of these protein sources daily, not just one.
Vegan Fat Sources
As I’m sure you can imagine, vegan diets tend to markedly lower in both total fat and saturated fat content than typical diets. While this is actually quite a good thing in regards to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, it may have some negative effects for athletes.
Lower saturated fat intake may lower testosterone levels, which could have some negative effects on strength and power athletes. Therefore, making sure your vegan diet includes some foods that are high in saturated fats is a must.
Some great options include:
- coconut oil
- coconut milk
- cocoa butter
In addition to this, it is believed that all athletes should strive to have around 25-35% of their daily energy intake come from fats. This often equates to around 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. While this may sound like a lot, it is very achievable.
Vegan diets can easily be rich in healthy fats by simply including healthy fat-rich plant-foods, such as:
- olive oil
Vegan Carbohydrate Sources
Because they are rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains, vegan diets tend to sit quite high in carbohydrate content. This is actually of benefit for vegan athletes. It ensures that they have the energy to perform the high training volumes needed to compete at their peak.
Now, it is important to note that carbohydrate requirements can vary significantly between athletes, depending on their sport and the volume of their training. Many strength and power athletes may only need to consume around 4 grams of carbohydrate per gram of body weight per day. On the other hand, endurance athletes may need to consume up to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to meet their energy needs.
Learn More About Carbohydrates, The Glycemic Index, and Your Health
Fortunately, most vegan athletes can achieve their recommended intake pretty easily, as many vegan foods are rich in carbohydrates. Some of the best vegan carbohydrate sources include:
If you eat a diet rich in these foods, you can be sure that your training will be fueled appropriately!
Vegan Sources of Vitamins and Minerals
Consuming enough vitamins and minerals is integral to the health, performance, and function of all athletes. However, because they do not contain any animal products, vegan diets are notoriously low in vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D.
This means actively trying to eat foods that contain an abundance of these nutrients is essential for the vegan athlete.
Vegan-friendly foods that contain vitamin B12 include:
- fortified soy foods
- fortified cereals
Vegan-friendly foods that are rich in iron include:
- brown rice
- pumpkin seeds
- pine nuts
Vegan-friendly foods that are rich in zinc include:
- sunflower seeds
Vegan-friendly foods that are rich in calcium include:
- white beans
- black beans
Vegan-friendly foods that contain vitamin D include:
- fortified soy
- also, get enough sunlight!
Now, while making sure that your diet contains an abundance of the above foods is a great option, it can obviously be easier said than done. Supplements also offer a great option if you are struggling to meet your micronutrient needs.
Often a single multivitamin (I highly recommend this one!) will give you everything you need from a vitamin and mineral standpoint. This means you can focus the rest of your diet on improving performance and recovery!
Do You Need to Train Differently as a Vegan Athlete?
For a long time, people seemed to think that if you weren’t eating meat, then you for some reason needed to train differently. But that really doesn’t make any sense at all.
I mean, you are still human, right?
In fact, as long as you are meeting all of the nutritional requirements above, then vegan athletes should train exactly the same as their non-vegan counterparts. What your training looks like, though, is obviously dictated by your goals.
So, with this in mind, if you are training for a marathon or want to become a better endurance athlete, train like it! This means spending a lot of time using lower intensity training to simply clock up some miles. Ultimately, 3-4 days per week should be spent like this.
Combine this with 1-2 sessions of higher intensity interval training per week, and you are good to go!
On the other hand, if you want to improve strength and power, make sure you are getting to the gym 3-5 times per week. Make sure you use a combination of upper and lower body exercises and use a variety of rep ranges.
This is the key to making long term performance changes as a strength-based vegan athlete!
Best 4 Training Tips For the Vegan Athlete
While you shouldn’t really train differently as a vegan athlete, there are a few tips that I recommended to get the most out of your training as a vegan. While these aren’t essential, I can guarantee that they will give you an extra boost!
1. Supplement with Creatine
Creatine is an incredibly important compound that your body uses to produce energy for short explosive actions. (Think things like sprints, jumps, and lifting weights — all those things you need to do to become more athletic.)
Unfortunately, because creatine is found in muscle tissue, it is almost exclusively obtained through animal products. This means that people who follow vegan diets tend to have significantly lower creatine stores than meat eaters.
This means that to get the most out of your training as a vegan athlete, supplementing with creatine can be extremely helpful. It can help you develop strength and power and improve your athletic performance in a very big way!
2. Try a Vegan Protein Powder
I have already outlined the importance of eating protein as an athlete. I also mentioned that vegan diets tend to be higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein than animal-based diets.
This means that obtaining enough protein as a vegan athlete can be challenging if you only consume whole foods.
Adding a vegan protein powder can rectify this. Vegan protein powders (pea protein and soy protein are both great options) provide an easy way for you to increase your daily protein intake and enhance your post-workout recovery.
3. Train Around Your Meals
For any athlete (vegan or not), nutrient timing is pretty darn important. By eating the right things at the right times, you can be sure that you are maximizing both your recovery and your performance.
As a general rule of thumb, you should try and consume a meal that is rich in protein and carbohydrates and low in fat between 1 and 3 hours before you exercise.
After you exercise (within 1-2) hours, try to consume a good serving of protein (around 30 grams) to boost your recovery.
4. Watch Your Fiber Intake
As an athlete, you are going to be training a lot. This means that to meet your energy demands, you are going to have to eat a lot of food. While this isn’t always a problem, it can be if you eat a diet built around predominantly vegetables.
Like a vegan diet, for example…
See, vegetables are full of fiber. Fiber is pretty good for you in lower dosages, however, when consumed in excess it can lead to a number of digestive issues, including:
- abdominal pain
Now, besides being uncomfortable, each of these issues can make it extremely difficult to exercise — which can obviously limit your ability as an athlete. As a result, it’s in your best interest to get a good portion of your carbohydrates from easily digestible sources, such as rice and pasta.
Learn More About Fiber and Your Digestive Health
6 Best Resources for the Vegan Athlete
Taking all of the above into consideration, I wanted to offer up some of my favorite resources for vegan athletes!
I mentioned early on in this article how vegan diets tend to be a little bit lower in a number of key vitamins and minerals. While these can definitely be obtained through foods, sometimes it’s best to cover all your bases and get them through supplementation.
Seriously, why leave anything to chance?
This great vegan multivitamin by OptiVego has you covered. Made with people following a vegan diet in mind, it literally meets all the nutrient deficiencies that are commonly seen with plant-based diets.
It really is the perfect choice.
Sometimes the hardest thing about following a vegan diet is finding meals to make! This great vegan cookbook provides a number of great recipes that you can use to fuel your body every single day.
Importantly, it is written with the vegan athlete in mind — which means it covers all your bases from an exercise standpoint!
I have already spoken about the importance of protein at length. I also mentioned how one of the easiest ways to increase your protein intake was through the use of soy protein powder and this great option by Bega Sports is one of the best on the market.
With over 1,700 reviews on Amazon, it has been incredibly well received, tastes great, and simply gets the job done!
Much like the Vega Sport Soy protein powder mentioned above, this pea protein by NOW Sport is a fantastic way to increase your protein intake quickly and efficiently.
It has more than 2,800 reviews on Amazon, making it one of the most popular vegan protein powders on the market.
As a vegan athlete, supplementing with creatine can be extremely helpful. It increases the effectiveness of your training, making you a more powerful, explosive, and robust athlete in the process.
This creatine supplement by MP Essentials is the perfect option. With over 500 reviews on Amazon, it has been very well-received and does exactly as required.
Finally, I wanted to touch on something a little bit different. One of the hardest things to do is to find good quality vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants — especially if you are traveling between states or overseas.
But the smartphone app “Happy Cow” rectifies this completely.
This great app (and website) helps you find good quality vegan food in your area, so you are never without great options! This makes eating while traveling an absolute dream!
Take Home Message
Becoming the best athlete possible can be a real challenge, irrespective of your eating patterns. It requires hard work, dedication, and your diet to be completely on point pretty much all the time.
And being vegan adds an extra layer of difficulty to this.
Which is why I write this article! Using the tips outlined above, you can make sure you meet all your needs as a vegan athlete, and become the best that you can be!