Vegan Athletes

By Alex Lockwood

Who doesn’t want to run away from work sometimes? So, on Monday nights, I do. It’s about 30k home along a beautiful, quiet coast, which takes just under two hours. It would take me nearly that on public transport anyway, on a bad day.

My students (I’m a university lecturer) are amazed I would want to do this. But it makes sense. I’m training for marathons and ultras (anything over the marathon distance of 42.2km) so combining commuting and running is an excellent way to reach my weekly mileage total (80k-100k a week).

So on Sundays I do a lot of cooking, and bake a lot of cake, to make sure I have plenty of carbohydrate during the day before the run (as teaching can be tiring, right?!). I bring it into class and share it with my students. An excellent student not afraid to share her opinion comments, “It’s just like real carrot cake. Yum.”

It is real carrot cake,” I reply with a smile.

No, I mean with the proper ingredients,” she says. “You know. Milk, eggs.”

Vegans don’t eat that stuff,” says another student. This other student looks at me. “Don’t you get tired, you know, doing all this running, well, without…”

Without animal products? Since I turned vegan three years ago, the biggest difference in my general lifestyle is at work: I no longer get so many colds or illnesses. I am less run down. Any college lecturer or teacher will tell you that colds and flu are part of the job; come the new term, all that mingling of bodies and breathing, students returning from different parts of the country, and they’re all lethargic and snotty because of their generally unhealthy student lifestyles. Colleges are petri-dishes for bugs. And yet I stay cold-free. And that means I don’t miss breaks in training. Illness can be worse than injury for being able to run.

This is almost the number one training reason for running on a plant-based diet. You stay fitter for longer. And you recover quicker. Dozens of the world’s best runners and sports professionals including the ultra-runner Rich Roll and the No Meat Athlete Matt Frazier talk about how switching to a fully plant-based diet, espousing animal proteins, especially dairy, meant their recovery times between training reduced dramatically. As triathlete Brendan Brazier, of Thrive Fitness fame, says, when you’re not wasting energy on digesting difficult animal protein products, your body can use that energy for rebuilding muscles instead. And it’s now looking as if bio-available protein from plants is in fact much more useful for the body in repairing itself. All this means, too, that your immune system, which becomes suppressed after a hard workout, recovers much more quickly when you’re working out on a vegan diet.

But don’t just take my word for it. Have a look at Rich Roll’s latest article on “Slaying the Protein Myth” over at the Forks over Knives website, and his list of amazing vegan athletes, including:

It was very easy to switch to being vegan as a runner. Because I was already vegetarian, and because I cared about my nutrition to focus on good performance, I was already thinking carefully about what I put in my body. As I became more knowledgeable of the horrors involved in dairy and egg production, and as I discovered the why these products are bad for you, as well as the simple facts such as milk being 1% pus, then it was a relatively easy step across to a vegan diet.

So I gave up grains for breakfast and followed Rich Roll’s advice to get my greens in early. I now have a kale and spinach smoothie with Rice and Hemp milk every morning for breakfast. I now never get a mid-morning dip. I eat mainly Raw Till Four with a salad, pulses, fruits and nuts/seeds for lunch and snacks. And I treat myself to home-grown sweet potatoes, courgettes, even some rice, for dinner, or cook something simple from Isa Moscowitz’s Isa Does It cook book.

But I said an improved immune system and recovery times were almost the best reason for being a vegan runner. In fact, the simplest and best reason for being a vegan runner is one of motivation and compassion. I am free to move my body how I like, and I choose running. And yet billions of animals every year have absolutely no choice in how they move or freedom to express themselves through natural movement. Nothing gets me running more than this, and it’s what got me finished during my recent 66k run with Toronto Cow Save.

As Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary and himself an ironman triathlete, explains it, “movement is not merely a function of our being animals, it’s an expression of self-identity. Factory farming and the culture that supports it denies other animals the simple pleasures of moving their bodies in a way that they want to. These creatures may have lived every moment of their short lives in a barren cage no bigger than their bodies, but when given the opportunity to express who they are, even the most genetically manipulated of them want to try to move.”

Running is an intrinsic sport. We run to run, not to achieve a means to an end. But I also run for those who cannot. Like Jasmin Singer, co-founder of vegan indie-media brand Our Hen House, I run to keep myself healthy so I can do more activism work, avoid burnout, and enjoy nature. To do this with compassion and respect and authenticity means doing so on vegan diet. It just happens to be healthier, too, and has helped me improve my half-marathon time from 2hrs to 1hr 24m over the last three years.

A vegan diet is not a panacea for all the health problems you might ever encounter—just ask marathoner and vegan, Scott Spitz, who is currently battling stomach cancer. But without a doubt a vegan diet is being shown, through science and by its practitioners, to help sports individuals to not only perform but to thrive. Brendan Brazier talks about high net energy foods: why waste your energy digesting foods that take energy away from you, when you could be eating plant-based foods that give you more than they take? For anyone in sport, that’s a very simple rule to follow.