Plant Power: how a vegan diet could boost your cycling Performance
Giving up meat and switching to a plant-based diet could help you to become a fitter and healthier cyclist. We reveal everything you need to know about becoming a plant-powered cyclist
There are many potential benefits to adopting a plant-based diet, from helping the environment to improving your long-term health and body weight. But many cyclists still wonder if it is possible to perform at their best if they completely give up meat, which has always been considered the optimal source of muscle-repairing protein for athletes.
However, a range of professional cyclists have now shown that it is possible to reach the top on a veggie diet. Britain’s 2015 world road race champion Lizzie Deignan hasn’t eaten meat since she was ten years old. Australian pro Adam Hansen says his plant-based diet helped him to finish a record 20 back-to-back Grand Tours. And vegan cyclist Dotsie Bausch, from America, became the oldest medallist in her discipline when she won silver in the London 2012 team pursuit, aged 39.
These impressive personal stories are now backed up by a range of scientific papers which suggest that vegan athletes have nothing to fear. A study in the journal Nutrients confirmed that “well-planned, appropriately supplemented vegetarian diets appear to effectively support athletic performance.” And an Australian study has shown that there are no performance differences between vegetarian and meat-eating athletes.
In fact, many experts think that following a plant-based diet could help to strengthen an athlete’s heart by reversing plaque build-up, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, increasing blood flow and tissue oxygenation during exercise, and reducing inflammation afterwards. And recent research papers suggest that plant-based diets can help to improve athletes’ performances by decreasing their weight and improving their stamina.
To reveal how cyclists can benefit from plant-powered diets, we asked Alex Parren – an experienced nutritionist, trainer, coach and ambassador for Sundried eco-friendly activewear (www.sundried.com) – to explain how to become a plant-powered athlete.
Can a plant-based diet really help a cyclist to perform at their best?
“There are several peer-reviewed, scientifically proven ways a plant-based diet can improve athletic performance and therefore help a cyclist to perform at their best. It’s important at this point to note the difference between just a ‘vegan’ diet and a ‘plant-based’ diet. Vegan diets are not necessarily any healthier than an omnivorous diet. They are simply free from animal products. For example, you could live on deep-fried potatoes and technically be a vegan. But that would not be healthy! Plant-based, on the other hand, prioritises fruits, vegetables and legumes, which are inherently healthy and will contribute to an improvement in an athlete’s performance.”
How might a plant-based diet help a cyclist’s general health?
“Cyclists, especially dedicated endurance cyclists, may think that they are safe from diseases typically associated with a sedentary lifestyle, such as heart disease. However, a review published by physicians in the journal Nutrients recently found that 44% of endurance cyclists in one study had coronary plaques, which can lead to coronary heart disease. A plant-based diet has been proven to reduce cholesterol and even reverse this plaque, reducing the risk of heart disease.”
And how might a plant-based diet help a cyclist’s performance?
“The benefits of a plant-based diet include reduced inflammation, thicker blood viscosity, which in turn helps more oxygen reach the muscles, and improved blood flow. All of these are key indicators for athletic performance and will help a cyclist perform better.”
What is the best way to adopt a plant-based diet?
“As with anything, it is best to take it one step at a time so that you are less likely to quit. We now live in an age where going vegan has never been easier and there are more plant-based options available in supermarkets and restaurants. So you do not have to go out of your way to go vegan. And it does not have to be an expensive transition.
But rather than eliminating foods from your diet, which can lead to disordered eating and cravings, it’s best to add new plant-based foods to your diet over time. Eventually you will no longer have the need for fast food, sugary treats and processed meat, and therefore you will not miss them when you no longer eat them.”
Are there any potential nutritional deficiencies to watch out for when adopting a plant-based diet?
“Typically, when going vegan, someone who previously relied on meat for the majority of their protein intake will need to be mindful of their protein sources. It’s easy to eat enough protein on a vegan diet – even as an athlete – but you may need to just be more aware of how much you’re getting in a day and from which sources.
The other nutrient that vegans are notoriously asked about is Vitamin B12, and this is because it is not found naturally in a vegan diet. However, it’s very easy to find vegan-friendly foods which are fortified with Vitamin B12, or you could simply take a supplement.
It can also be difficult for vegans to get enough Omega 3, which is vital for any healthy diet. This is because most vegan sources of Omega 3 are high in natural fats and super calorie-dense – for example, chia seeds. So eating enough to get the required amount of Omega 3 also means eating far too many calories! This is why a sustainable, vegan Omega 3 supplement will be a better option for many vegans.”
What might a typical daily meal plan for a vegan cyclist look like?
“Oats are among the healthiest foods in the world, so homemade porridge, perhaps with a topping of blueberries and strawberries, would be the ideal vegan breakfast for a cyclist. Oats provide slow-release carbohydrates which will fuel a long training session, while the berries provide antioxidants which improve athletic performance as well as a hint of sweetness for palatability.
An example of a vegan lunch for a cyclist might be a sweet potato wrap. It will provide slow-release energy, with plenty of salad ingredients for nutrients and perhaps beans, legumes or pulses for added protein. A good example would be chickpeas or lentils.
There are lots of vegan dinner recipes which would suit a cyclist, such as chilli non carne (vegan chilli) with vegetables and kidney beans, which are a good vegan source of protein. Or perhaps a chickpea curry – again, chickpeas being an excellent source of vegan protein. Sweet potato dhal is made with red lentils, which are a great source of vegan protein and really delicious.”
What are some good mid-ride cycling snacks for vegans?
“It’s best to keep mid-ride snacks simple and convenient so as not to interfere with your ride. Plenty of the usual options will be vegan-friendly, such as rice cakes, pretzels, or the classic banana. Lots of energy bars and energy gels are also vegan-friendly so it should be very easy to find something that works for you.”
by Mark Bailey