Veganuary Chief Executive Simon Winch talks to previous Veganuary sport stars…
When Sunderland striker Jermaine Defoe publicly credited a vegan diet for his continued presence at the top level of football, people took notice. Defoe was 35 and seeking to extend his time in the sport he loves. He had long been a fan of spinach, kale and nettle smoothies, but when he cut out all animal products from his diet, he reported powerful benefits.
Defoe was not the first athlete to recognise the training benefits of a plant-based diet. In the 1980s, nine times Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis adopted a vegan diet specifically to boost his health and performance, and said that his best year of track competition was the first year he ate a vegan diet. Since then, there has been a steady stream of extraordinary athletes who are vegan or who predominantly eat plant-based foods. They include Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, David Haye and, more recently, Ireland and Leeds Rhinos’ rugby league star Anthony Mullally.
Mullally approached the change with some trepidation. His decision was an ethical one – he stopped eating red meat after watching the famous Gary Yourofsky speech online. He soon came to eschew chicken, and then fish, before recognising the impacts of the dairy and egg industries. Mullally went vegan little by little. “I was worried it would affect my performance on the pitch,” he admits. “One of our big things is strength. You need to be strong and powerful, and I was worried – but there’s not been any detrimental effects in my strength. I hit a bench press personal best this morning, and I’m having the most consistent season of my career so far.”
He found other benefits, too. “At first I lost a couple of kilos going from vegetarian to vegan, but I think that’s probably from a lot of the dairy I used to eat. Then my weight balanced again, but my body fat actually went down. So, because I maintained my weight and my body fat went down, it suggests that I’ve maintained muscle and lost fat.”
Professional freerunner Tim Shieff found the same thing when he went vegan. “Being a professional freerunner for me is about being very agile, and your strength-to-bodyweight ratio wants to be very high. It’s not about having big muscles, it’s about being really light and sprightly and springy and strong. When I went vegan, my body adapted and changed. I became leaner, but I didn’t lose any muscle, so I just lost unhealthy weight.”
Terri Walsh is a three times World Pole Sport Doubles Champion and two times National Solo Champion, and has been vegan since 2015. She has no lack of strength. “Pole Sport is a total body workout using every single muscle group and requires lots of strength and endurance,” she says. “We obtain all the protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals we need from our diet.” For Terri, veganism was an ethical choice, but she says it “accidentally led me down a healthier path and helped me to feel a lot better”.
So strength, stamina and muscle mass can all be maintained and improved after the transition to a vegan diet, but what about speed and endurance? Dan Geisler is a Team GB Triathlete who just picked up a silver medal at the World Championships, eight months after going vegan. He was challenged to take part in Veganuary by his sponsor, Pulsin, and describes his move to a plant-based diet as “a very, very good decision.” He’s finding a raft of benefits. “I’ve never been faster, I’ve never raced better, and I’ve never been able to go so deep. I find I can actually go deeper in races, and get more out of my body.”
A common question vegan athletes are asked is, what about protein? Mullally has it covered, “People think there’s protein in just meat, but there’s a lot of protein in leafy greens. You’ve got spirulina, which is really high percentage protein, your kale, your sprouts, your collard greens, but where I tend to get my main protein is from legumes, like black beans, lentils, cannellini beans. I try to stick to more wholefoods. I eat tofu.” And while his team mates add whey protein, Mullally chooses a pea protein instead.
Many plant-based athletes report that their post-training recovery has improved since being vegan, meaning they can get over a tough session faster, and be ready for another sooner. Says Anthony Mullally, “Rugby is a high collision contact sport, so no matter what you eat or do, you’re going to be sore from knocks and bruises, but I can’t remember the last time I had DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness – and that obviously helps me give more to the next session.”
Championship-winning surfer Tia Blanco has found the same. A vegetarian all her life and vegan since 2013, she has reaped the athletic benefits of an ethical decision. “I don’t get sore for long periods of time, and by eating the right foods and staying hydrated, my recovery is better than ever. I also find myself reaching a higher athletic level.” It’s a discovery echoed by Dan Geisler, “I’ve never been able to recover quicker. I used to get a lot more fatigued, and then you get a lot of brain fog and you just feel tired and sluggish all the time. And that still happens, I still train hard and it still happens, and getting the balance is still tough, but a lot less. The new lifestyle is working perfectly. I went vegan for a challenge, and now I’ve stayed vegan because it’s offered benefits to my life, better recovery, and just general better health.”
These top-flight vegan athletes – and many more – find that eating plant-based has not only helped maintain their form, performance and recovery, it’s positively enhanced them. They are stronger, fitter, leaner and faster than ever before. That’s great news for those of us whose athletic aims may be a little more modest. And with these ambassadors leading the way, the stereotype of the wimpy vegan is dead: long live the Vegan Athlete!
For further inspiration, visit greatveganathletes.com