The Vegan Athlete: 5 Tips for Maximising Performance and Recovery
For the competitive athlete or sports-person, there are a list of priorities they need to consider to ensure they get the most out of their training and squeeze out every ounce of performance possible.
The foundation of getting the most out of our training and maximising our performance is making sure that we are healthy! Although eating for health and performance have some potential differences, if we aren’t at optimal health then we are not in the position to get the most of our bodies when it comes to training and competition.
This is true of all athletes, but the vegan athlete may have to pay extra care and attention when it comes to their nutrition because there are potential barriers to reaching optimal health.
1: Work out where you might be deficient and fix it
Although fruits, vegetables and whole grain carbohydrates are packed full of micronutrients and fibre, which are essential to promote overall health, there are some areas where vegans may have to pay a little extra attention in their diets.
Athletes in general are at risk of mineral insufficiencies and one of the most common of these is iron. Iron is important for many functions but is most ‘famous’ for producing oxygen carrying red blood cells. It should be obvious that low iron status isn’t going to be ideal for performance and can be particularly problematic in women due to blood loss during menstruation.
The potential for iron deficiency is especially high in vegans and vegetarians as although ‘greens’ such as spinach are rich in iron, the type of iron is much less easily absorbed than iron from meat sources. Spinach and other greens are also high in ‘phytates’ and these can bind to minerals preventing them being absorbed effectively in the body.
The solution for this is actually simple, we can either use an iron supplement, combined with vitamin C (which helps increase absorption), ensure that when we’re eating our greens we combine them with lemon juice or other citrus fruits to increase absorption (which also breaks down phytates) and making sure that vegetables are gently cooked which will also help break down phytates and prevent it from binding to iron, zinc and other minerals.
Another area that may need a little extra attention is ensuring adequate intake of vitamin B12. This is important for nerve function and is again essential in the creation and function of blood cells and low vitamin B12 status is associated with conditions that cause fatigue and tiredness… probably not ideal for athletic performance! Supplemental B12 can be essential to the vegan athlete, but it is also worth checking vegan foods, especially milk alternatives and cereals, to see if they are fortified with B12.
Other potential issues can be a lack of calcium due to an absence of dairy, which is important for bone health and of extra concern to the athlete due to increased bone loading. Calcium is also essential in the process that allows muscles to contract. Again, supplementation with calcium may be of help and keeping an eye out for vegan foods that are fortified with calcium is probably a good idea.
2: Make Protein your Best Friend
Protein is important for recovery, not just of the muscles but of pretty much all tissues in the body that are stressed due to hard training. The amount of protein you require will be determined by your sport and the demands it places on the body, but typically for athletes in the ball park of 1.4-1.8g per kg of bodyweight should do the job.
Aside from consuming enough protein, vegans also need to ensure they consume all the essential amino acids the body needs. Often plant sources of protein only contain a few, but not all, of the essential amino acids required to support health and recovery.
There are however several complete plant protein sources; these include soy/tofu, seitan/gluten extract, quinoa and Quorn products. We can also use vegan protein powders that also combine different plant sources so that all essential amino acids are included in the diet.
Combining different foods, so that at each meal essential amino acids needs are reached, is also an option; good combinations include peanut butter on wholemeal bread, hummus and pitta bread, rice and peas/beans.
3: Maximise your recovery protocols
Depending on how often and how long you train determines how quickly you need to refuel and to some extent how to go about it.
Carbohydrates are important to replenish glycogen stores after training, and if training multiple times in a day, needing to refuel during long training sessions or even having to refuel large amounts before the next day’s training/performance then carbohydrate powders are a great way to refuel.
All-in-one supplements can also be of use for a convenient source of protein, carbohydrates and other ingredients that may help promote recovery and performance, such as creatine, which is another performance boosting and recovery ‘compound’ found normally in good amounts in animal protein sources.
4: Get enough sleep
I can’t reiterate enough the importance of getting sufficient amounts of sleep. The more research that is published on the role of sleep in recovery, performance and overall health it becomes clear that most people, including athletes do not get nearly enough.
7 hours a night should be the minimum aim, less than this you will start to see reductions in coordination, mood state, recovery and other performance parameters… in short make sleep as much of a priority as your training and put just as much thought into how to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep as you would your training program.
5: Hydrate like a pro
Even small amounts of dehydration can impair physical and mental performance. Recent research has shown that many athletes do not understand how to stay adequately hydrated and are sub-optimally hydrated even before they start training or competing.
Making sure you are drinking water consistently throughout the day and until urine is almost clear (although vitamins can turn urine a bright colour!) is a basic starting point. If you are training in hot or humid environments and are losing a lot of water in sweat, then it is probably wise to weigh before and after training to monitor water losses and replace them adequately.
Electrolyte tablets/powders might also be of help if training for long periods, or when sweating profusely, these are lost during sweat and important for maintaining cellular fluid balance and muscle function.
For vegan athletes, or athletes of any kind, the basic principle of providing the body with essential nutrients in sufficient amounts to promote health should be the main priority. This focus on health also includes getting adequate sleep and staying properly hydrated.
Taking a ‘food first’ approach should help vegans meet most of their nutrient and energy requirements, however special attention to potential deficiencies and the use of appropriate supplementation is recommended for the serious vegan athlete.