I suppose you know one, or are soon to know one, because according to statistics the number of vegans worldwide continues to grow. They do it for the planet. They do it for animals. They do it for their health. Or maybe even for race times? Vegan athletes are on the rise, and writing about their success, Rich Roll, Scott Jurek, and authors of countless blogs such as “No Meat Athlete” just to name a few. But as a friend recently criticized, for as many vegan runners, there are many more runners, living, and winning on an omnivore diet, they just don’t preach about it, or maybe no one listens.
So, how does vegan-ism impact your athletic performance? Well surprisingly, scientists have been asking that question since the 80s and although some vegan athletes report feeling energized, experiencing faster workout recovery, joint pain relief, weight-loss etc, there aren’t many conclusive studies as to whether or not being a vegan in itself impacts ones’ athletic performance.
In becoming a vegan and researching this topic on my own, I discovered two major problems with measuring whether or not being a vegan alone will impact performance. Firstly, how is athletic performance measured, given the numerous variables. And, secondly, how do genes, training, and individual needs interact with diet to improve performance? So without a clear answer, let’s look at some of the research to date.
The primary source of exhaustion, in endurance athletes in particular, is related to low glycogen stores. Glycogen should make up the majority of an athlete’s diet, and a regular diet high in glycogen has been found to optimize the amount stored in the muscles and liver . The ideal diet for moderate exercise is 40-50% carbohydrate, while the diet for an endurance athlete competing for at least 90 minutes is 70% carbohydrate for 2-3 days before a long distance event. One study showed that Elite Kenyan athletes naturally consumed 76.5 % of their daily calories in the form of carbohydrates. Another study has shown that a runner accustomed to a diet high in carbohydrates will burn carbs at a faster rate, resulting in a quicker pace for an extended period of time.
Without dairy or meat products, the vegan diet tends to focus on carbohydrates as their main source of calories. According to data from the USDA, the average vegan diet (as percentage of total calories) is comprised with 42% cereals/breads with another 17% in fruits/vegetables compared with 22% and 9% respectively for the average omnivore diet. Therefore, vegans naturally increase the amount of calories from carbohydrates which can be stored, and released, as glycogen. Part-time marathoners often “carbo-load” before a big race, but as dietary tenancies show, vegans follow a high carb diet. This consistently provides them with more energy for training while also cutting back on energy sapping fats.
In the coming weeks I will explore the topic more, looking at the correlation between vegan-ism and optimal race weight, digestion, and muscle recovery.