Having a vegetarian or even a vegan diet is not necessarily detrimental to athletic performance. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet can actually help improve performance.
There are many successful vegan athletes at the top of their game today, including NFL star Bryant Jennings, boxer David Haye, and triathlete Hillary Biscay. As with any athlete, the secret lies in eating a varied diet and getting the right balance of carbs and protein to boost energy.
Training for a triathlon on a vegan or vegetarian diet may require more research and careful planning, but there is no reason why it should affect overall performance.
Each athlete will require adjustments to their diet depending on factors such as their height, weight and the number of hours they spend training. Typically, an athlete in training needs to take in around three to 12 grams of carbohydrates for each kilogram of their body weight each day, with intake increasing as the training schedule gets heavier.
Protein requirements are between 1.2 and 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight daily, while the ideal amount of fat is around 1g per kilogram daily. Plant-based diets need to be combined with a corresponding amount of proteins and fats to ensure peak performance.
One mistake made by many athletes new to vegetarianism is overloading on carbohydrates. Carbs are essential for energy but should not be consumed at the expense of having a varied diet.
One study showed that fewer than half of all participants in an Ironman event were consuming the RDA of carbohydrates for endurance performers.
Adding regular portions of healthy carbs such as legumes, seeds and nuts to the diet can help get the right level of carbohydrates into the body without gorging on starchy, unhealthy carbs.
Getting enough protein is essential to be able to exercise and push the body to its limits. Meat-eaters usually get enough protein, but vegetarians and vegans need to consciously add high-protein ingredients to their diets. Vegetarians can increase their dairy intake, adding plenty of milk, cheese, yoghurt and eggs to get their protein. Vegans can source plenty of protein from other sources, including nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, lentils, nut butters, and whole grains and cereals such as pasta, rice and bread.
Another area where vegans and vegetarians need to be aware of what they are eating is in terms of their iron intake. Animal products are generally much higher in iron than many other foods, so adding plenty of iron-rich plants and other ingredients to the diet is essential.
Good foods to choose include dark green leafy vegetables, seeds, dried fruits, wholemeal bread and fortified cereal bars. Foods that are rich in vitamin C help the body to absorb iron, while compounds found in coffee, tea, spinach and many herbs can prevent the body from properly absorbing iron.
Eat Little and Often
When engaging in any hardcore athletic training plan such as preparing for a triathlon, eating small meals more frequently throughout the day helps to maintain energy levels within the body and prevent exhaustion. Eating too much food in one sitting can result in a feeling of lethargy which is not inspiring. Vegetarian and vegan athletes can top up throughout the day with nourishing snacks, including fruit smoothies and protein bars, to help keep their energy levels high.
About Richard Mallett
Richard Mallett is a sports coach who has regularly competed in triathlons. He has been in training for the 2020 Ironman UK event, which has now been cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, so he will be in the first tier of athletes signing up for 2021. As a committed vegetarian, Richard enjoys exploring new ingredients and adapting recipes, which is particularly important while in training for such a challenging event.