In This Chapter
- Enhancing your performance with plant-based fuel
- The importance of timing with nutrients
- Tips for staying hydrated
- Dispelling myths about performance enhancers
Nutrition and athletics go hand and hand. As an athlete, the food you choose to fuel your body with may give that extra edge to separate you from the pack. And whole food, plant-based nutrition gives you what you need to push your body to its maximum intensity.
Elite athletes from many different sports have demonstrated the advantages of going plant based in their training and performance. And from what we’ve seen, the results of a plant-based nutrition plan are phenomenal.
Ultramarathoner Grant Campbell says, “On a plant-based diet, I can run 60 miles through mountains and enjoy running again the next day; running injuries don’t haunt me anymore; and I never lose training time because I never get sick.” And Carl Lewis, winner of 10 Olympic medals (9 golds) and 10 World Championship medals, is quoted as saying that his best performances came when he was 30 years old and vegan. In this article, you learn how you, too, can find success as a plant-based athlete.
Bringing Your “A” Game with Plants
Exercise has two primary impacts on the body: increased cardiovascular performance and increased tissue hypertrophy. In the latter case, physical activity breaks down tissue initiating a repair and rebuild process. It can come from intense explosive moves, as in weightlifting, or through long repetitive moves, as in lower-intensity cardiovascular exercise. Any physical stress you place on your body causes microscopic tears in your muscle tissue and that tissue is repaired and strengthened during recovery. The tougher the workout, the more damage to your muscles. The post-exercise period is a critical time when recovery, rebuilding, and enhancement occurs. At this point, providing optimal and varied nutrients that your body can easily absorb is important. This period between workouts and performances determines your improvement. If you fuel yourself properly and get adequate sleep and rest, your muscles will be stronger than before and be ready to perform more efficiently next time.
The breaking down of muscle tissue is called catabolism, and the building back up is called anabolism. Both are constantly occurring throughout your body. To maximize strength, power, endurance, and agility, you want the anabolism to overpower the catabolism. Do this by emphasizing adequate and proper fuel.
Whole-plant foods provide an extra benefit because of nutrient density; plants provide a huge variety of both the macronutrients and micronutrients your body thrives on. Remember from other articles that exercise causes an increase in the presence of free radicals. This means antioxidants are required at higher levels to alleviate the stress placed on your body and support adequate recovery. The best sources for antioxidants and free radical–fighting phytochemicals are whole fruits and vegetables.
In addition, you need plenty of energy to fuel performance. Meeting appropriate energy requirements for periodized training and performance is the cornerstone of optimal sports nutrition. Processed foods and animal products provide empty calories that take up space in your digestive tract and bloodstream; a better plan is to consume actively beneficial foods. A whole food, plant-based diet is a great choice because the nutrient density of it provides a wide range of phytonutrients that scale along with energy needs—if you eat enough to support the activity, you’ll likely get sufficient recovery nutrition. Body composition, size, and strength goals vary according to sport; some athletes aim to increase size or strength while others require smaller or leaner body size for biomechanical advantages or to meet weight requirements.
Keep in mind that athletes require more energy than nonathletes, but quality nutrition that minimizes highly refined fuel sources is key. Refined sources won’t be eliminated completely—especially with endurance activities—but many athletes still overnourish driven by the fear of deficiency. A plant-based diet shouldn’t be thought of as limiting in terms of performance. Top-level strength and endurance athletes from track and field, bodybuilding, triathlons, football, mixed martial arts, cycling, baseball, ice hockey, basketball, tennis, boxing, and more incorporate—and even break records with—a plant-based diet.
Nutrition Needs for Athletes
Sports nutrition is traditionally focused on calculating the appropriate nutrition intakes at the right times. The basis is in quantifying, counting, and measuring. We need sufficient energy to fuel physical activity and recovery, in addition to a complement of nutrients, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Too often, the focus is placed on a high level of certain macronutrient ratios, which may lead to highly refined and processed foods being substituted for quality whole-food sources.
With plant-based sports nutrition, you can broaden your body’s capabilities by thinking beyond the traditional macronutrient sources. Not all foods are treated equally after they are swallowed. From digestion and absorption all the way to how your body utilizes them when they’re in the bloodstream, the packaging of these nutrients matters. Why not choose energy that is wrapped together with powerful antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber to fight free radicals and regulate blood glucose levels? When you’re applying these nutrients to a body pushing itself to extremes with training and performance, the difference in fuel choice becomes apparent: eating whole-plant foods at the right times can take your performance to new heights.
Some of the innumerable plant-based athletes include strongman Patrik Baboumian, who broke the world record for the most weight ever carried by a human being in 2013; Alexey Voyevoda, World Armwrestling Federation champion and gold medal winner in the bobsleigh event at the 2014 Olympics; track-and-field Olympian Carl Lewis; tennis player Martina Navratilova; mixed martial artist Mac Danzig; ultramarathoners Scott Jurek and Grant Campbell; world record marathoner Fiona Oakes, the fastest female to complete a marathon on all seven continents as well as on the polar ice caps; NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez; boxers Cam F. Awesome and Keith Holmes; Ironman triathletes Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, and Jason Lester; ice hockey player Georges Laraque; triathlete Ruth Heidrich; NFL wide receiver Desmond Howard; and bodybuilders Robert Cheeke, Torre Washington, and Robert Hazeley.
One of the most important factors in sports nutrition—besides the quality of your food choices—is adequate, but not excessive, intake. Monitor closely how much you consume, depending on your activity level, sport, and individual metabolic needs. Exercising at high intensity, frequency, and duration requires a lot of calories. Ultimately, there’s no reason to change to some mythical ratio of protein, carbohydrates, or fat, but you will require adequate overall fuel for the activity. By sourcing this increased fuel requirement from whole foods whenever possible, you’ll not only meet macronutrient needs, but an abundance of additional phytonutrients will aid in recovery. Instead of using a generic formula to determine how many calories you need, follow this simple protocol:
- Eat when you’re hungry.
- Choose high-quality, whole-plant foods.
- Carefully plan your intake around your training.
- Monitor your weight. If you’re at your ideal weight for your performance demands, maintain it. If you’re losing weight, you’re not eating enough. If you’re gaining weight—and it is body fat, not muscle— either eat less or reassess the composition of your food choices.
- Just as in healthy everyday life, your body knows better than any formula. Listen to your body’s signals—hunger and satiation as well as performance—to determine what you need.
Carbohydrates: Starchy Vegetables and Fruits for Fuel and Recovery
As we explained before, macronutrients make poor food groups, so we aren’t going to talk about “carbs” here as this word tends to group calorie foodstuff that isn’t metabolically equivalent. That said, we have disputed the notion that sugar is poison or that it is the sole cause of health problems; but clearly, it’s not health food for the average person and should be limited. Rather than dive into a lecture on simple versus complex carbohydrates, we are going to examine the sources of glucose within us and identify how to best replenish those internal sources with whole-food starchy vegetables and fruits when engaged in intense athletics.
As an athlete, you have two sources of glucose to consider: circulating blood glucose that results from meals or is supplied by liver glycogen and deep muscle–tissue glycogen stores. The liver can hold approximately 400 to 600 calories of glycogen stores, and muscle tissue holds approximately 1,200 to 1,500 calories of glycogen. These stores aren’t shared sources of glucose. The liver uses its glycogen to maintain the approximately 4 grams of glucose that circulates in your blood daily, and muscle glycogen fuels explosive and repetitive moves. These stores need to be replenished daily.
During long-duration activity, energy is also replaced with simple, easily absorbed glucose sources such as gels, dates, or bars. Keep in mind that fueling a competitive sport requires a different strategy than the deficit goals of weight (fat) loss. Combining these two different physiologies (gaining muscle and losing fat) with competing dietary goals, may be why so many don’t see the expected results (e.g. too little gain or too little loss).
Running (or walking) requires about 100 calories per mile—or approximately 2,600 calories for a marathon (26.2 miles). If total glycogen stores are approximately 1,500 to 2,000 calories, or 60 to 75 percent of that required for the marathon, one would expect to hit the wall (“bonk”) at the 15- to 20-mile mark, unless some source of glucose is provided. This is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. Endurance training encourages the body to both source more of the energy from fat stores and store more glycogen in the tissue. Pushing activity too hard skews energy to glycogen stores and increases chances of hitting the wall.
Fueling glycogen for athletic success requires a combination of both long- and short-term strategies. Whole-food starchy vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of glucose to replenish deep tissue–glycogen stores. These sources include whole grains (brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa), potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, whole-grain pasta, sprouted bread or tortillas, beans, lentils, green bananas and plantains. For short-term fueling, the simple sugars found in Basil-Lemon Switchel, a homemade sports drink provide an instantly available glucose surge. Whole dates are also a fantastic whole-food option; they’re like nature’s energy gels and can rapidly replenish blood glucose. Remember that the simple sugars found in juice and even sports drinks aren’t health food per se and, outside of endurance training, long-term glycogen stores are better replenished with whole-food starchy vegetables and fruits.
Never try anything new before a game, race, or performance. Practice what you eat and drink—and the timing in which you do so—beforehand to prevent a negative response.
Muscle: Gym-Built, Not Kitchen-Made
Stimulating muscle growth, or hypertrophy, may involve increasing volume, increasing muscle fibers, or both. This requires enough fuel for the exercise to stress the tissue and sufficient nutrition to then rebuild and repair that tissue. Of course, the first thing everyone wants to focus on is eating enough protein to build the muscle. As we learned before, it is the essential amino acids (the protein building blocks) that are required in our diet. The rest of the 20 amino acids can be synthesized by our body. While no animal makes every amino acid, plants must synthesize all 20 amino acids because they can’t eat; therefore every whole-plant food contains all 20 amino acids. While it is true that extra amino acid sources are needed during rebuild and repair, it’s not as much as everyone believes.
If you are eating whole foods and getting enough calories to support your sport, you are likely getting enough protein. Many athletes do well on a diet that is composed of 10 to 15 percent protein. To put that in perspective, beans and lentils are about 20 to 30 percent protein and soybeans (edamame) and soy products are a little over 40 percent protein. Legumes also have the advantage of being high in fiber and are packaged with starch to replenish glycogen stores. Let’s not forget that amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of all things living, so every whole-food plant consumed contains protein and all amino acids.
In most sports, excessive protein consumption is considered an advantage. Yet, the research is conflicting. From what we know about the harms of high-protein intake, especially from animal sources, you may be putting your body at risk for long-term damage by following this suggestion. Interestingly, because athletes require more calories, they automatically get more protein because they eat more food. Selecting whole, unprocessed plant foods makes it’s impossible not to meet adequate protein requirements. Eat enough and train hard is the best advice for packing on lean muscle mass.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of protein powders, drinks, bars, and supplements are currently on the market. These are notoriously full of hormonally active, milk-based whey and casein protein, as well as fillers, stabilizers, preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, and other compounds that wreak havoc on your body. They cost a lot of money and promise you the perfect body or ultimate performance. Yet due to the guidelines set by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, manufacturers are allowed to make such health claims on the packages as “burns fat instead of storing it,” “designed exactly to the needs of human metabolism,” or “supplies highest quality amino acids.” As tempting as these promises sound, nobody has to prove they’re truthful. Nor does anyone have to prove long-term safety of their use. So if these products don’t work, are expensive, and can potentially be harmful, what’s the point?
Believe it or not, when you eat and drink surrounding exercise may be just as important as what you eat. Fueling and recovering your body in a strategic manner benefits your performance.
In this section, we break down some general guidelines, but you know your body and how it functions best. Part of your training focus needs to be on which foods and drinks offer the most advantage, as well as when you should consume them. Practice makes perfect. Experiment until you know with precision what your body requires to thrive.
Professional Ironman triathlete and author Brendan Brazier says, “Quick recovery is the key to athletic success. 80 percent of the recovery process can be attributed to nutrition.”
Eating and hydrating before exercise improves your performance, although you don’t want to force your body to focus on digestion by filling up too much. Here are some tips for success: eat something small that’s high in easily digestible starches and sugars and low in fiber, protein, and fat—such as fruit, fruit juice, white rice, or white potato—90 minutes to 2 hours before your event. Drink 1 or 2 cups fluid—preferably a beverage including carbohydrates—1 hour before an event. During an event lasting an hour, sports drinks are helpful, especially if the event occurs first thing in the morning after an overnight fast.
For events longer than 1 hour, keep the following in mind: maintain hydration by sipping water and sports drinks that contain carbohydrates consistently throughout the event. Consume carbohydrate-rich foods in the form of dried or fresh fruit, sports gels, bars, or energy drinks at 15- to 20-minute intervals.
Immediately after an event, there may be a magical time referred to as an anabolic window of opportunity, during which your body is ready, willing, and eager to absorb nourishment. Although the evidence is inconclusive, it is hypothesized that the 30 to 45 minutes after completion may be the most critical time to replenish stores. Plus, this is also an ideal time to reduce the free radicals that were formed during your activity by eating antioxidant-rich foods.
Excellent post-event, whole-food choices include the following:
- A green smoothie with lots of fruits, leafy greens, and coconut water
- Whole-grain pasta with oil-free marinara sauce and leafy green vegetables
- Quinoa, or other whole grain, with legumes and vegetables
- Stir-fry with brown, red, purple, or wild rice and veggies
- Veggie sushi rolls made with cucumber, avocado, seaweed, edamame, and other veggies
- Whole-y Hydration
Proper hydration during exercise is critical for performance and for your safety. Dehydration, a loss of 2 percent of your body weight from fluids, can compromise your performance; impair your mental function; and even lead to serious, life-threatening consequences. Signs of dehydration include muscle cramps, spasms, decreased performance, thirst, and diminishing rate of sweat.
You lose fluids and electrolytes at increased levels during exercise, thanks to your increased breathing rate and sweat. Depending on the duration, the intensity, your fitness level, and the weather, the amount of fluids and electrolytes you need varies.
Preventing Dehydration and Hyponatremia
Normally, your body is extremely proficient at maintaining proper electrolyte balance. Slight fluctuations occur, but a drastic shift can have life-threatening consequences.
People with kidney disease or those who take certain medications can experience problems balancing electrolytes. However, certain behaviors can cause an imbalance as well. Consuming large amounts of water without also taking in sodium can cause a condition known as hyponatremia, which can cause confusion, drowsiness, muscle weakness, nausea, vomiting, brain swelling, headaches, twitches, and seizures. To prevent hyponatremia, don’t overhydrate before an event or rely on water as your sole fluid source during endurance events.
Electrolytes are minerals found in the blood that help balance fluids and maintain normal functions like your heart’s rhythm and muscle contraction. The main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate. Hyponatremia, also known as water intoxication, is an abnormally low concentration of sodium in the blood (less than 135 mmol per liter) that can cause cells to malfunction and can be fatal. It can result from prolonged, heavy sweating with failure to replenish sodium or from excessive water consumption, so it has become common in high-endurance athletes.
Follow these tips on maintaining proper hydration:
- At least 2 to 4 hours before you exercise, drink 2 to 4 milliliters of water per pound of body weight (5 to 10 milliliters per kilogram of body weight) to optimize hydration status.
- Because fluid needs vary greatly during exercise, you can determine your fluid requirements by routinely measuring your body weight before and after training. Weighing yourself before and after exercise can help you learn how to prevent a loss of 2 pounds over the course of the session.
- Generally, try to take in about 0.4 to 0.8 liters per hour (or approximately 1⁄2 to 1 cup) of fluids every 20 minutes during exercise.
- For athletes with high sweat rates or exercise events lasting longer than 2 hours, sodium (e.g. via a sports drink) should be ingested.
- After exercise, drink 1.25 to 1.5 liters of fluid for every kilogram of body weight lost (0.56 to 0.68 liters of fluid per pound lost).
Sports Drinks: What Type and When?
For events lasting longer than 90 minutes, sports drinks with sugars and electrolytes help spare glycogen, prevent dehydration and hyponatremia, and maintain electrolyte balance.
Several varieties are commercially available, but most of them contain large amounts of sugar, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. Instead, you can substitute coconut water or make your own sports beverage with diluted 100 percent pure fruit juice and a touch of sea salt.
Ergogenic aids, nutritional products that enhance performance, are widely used in the athletic community. No matter what promises the labels claim, very few of them are effective.
No pill, powder, or supplement can produce the same results as hard work and consistency in training. Worse, many of them are dangerous to your health. And some are against the rules. National and international sports organizations monitor for certain ergogenic aids with random urine testing to prevent their use in competitions.
Pushing your body to the ultimate extreme is the essence of athleticism. This population, more than any other, requires optimal nutrition to succeed in performance and recovery. Careful attention to nutrient timing and consistent hydration takes your body and your results beyond what you thought possible as an athlete. If maintaining a whole food, plant-based diet is effective when challenging your body at its maximum capacity, it represents the potential for every body to be plant-strong.
The Least You Need to Know
- Athletes require optimal nutrition because their bodies are constantly breaking down and rebuilding cells.
- Eating a whole food, plant-based diet can take your performance to the next level.
- As an athlete, you don’t need excessive protein or different ratios of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
- Eating enough calories from high-quality, whole-plant foods naturally provides what your body requires.
- Whole fruits, smoothies, and starchy vegetables provide excellent fuel both before and during workouts, as well as give you post-workout replenishment.
- Proper hydration not only drastically impacts performance but is also critical for your safety. Stay well hydrated with water, and include sports drinks with sugars and electrolytes if your event lasts longer than 90 minutes.