I’ve received a number of inquires lately asking for tips on how to succeed as a vegan athlete. This is a challenging question for me to respond to in a broad sense, as there are many factors that play a role. Everyone needs different nutrition based on their lifestyle, training type/frequency, body composition, and goals. I will do my best here to bring up some points that are important for us all to be aware of in order to thrive as vegan athletes.
Note: I am focusing on the goal of athletic performance here, not body composition. If you are looking for fat loss these tips are not as applicable. If you are looking to get stronger and fitter, this post is for you.
Nutrition serves two main purposes for athletes. It provides fuel to allow you to perform, and aids in recovery. Both of these are extremely important aspects of training. If you do not have the proper fuel you will not be able to operate at your best during your training. If you do not recover after a training session, you will have too much fatigue built up to function optimally in upcoming sessions for the next day(s). So how do we properly fuel and recover from workouts? Here are a few considerations that play a major role in athletic performance:
Total quantity of calories is probably the most important factor to consider. Calories consumed-calories expended=Net calories. If your net caloric intake is a positive number you are eating a hyper-caloric diet, and will tend to gain weight. If net caloric intake is zero you are eating an iso-caloric diet, and weight will remain the same. And if net caloric intake is a negative number you are eating a hypo-caloric diet, and will likely lose weight.
For an athlete, the goal is (usually) to build strength or improve performance. If this is the case you will want to be on an iso- or slightly hyper-caloric diet. If you are eating less calories than you are burning you will not have enough fuel for your workouts and will struggle to recover after. On the other hand, eating too many calories will lead to fat gain, which will also hinder performance in the long run.
I’m sure you’ve heard that proteins are the building blocks of muscle. In our bodies there is constantly a building and a breakdown of muscles, especially with hard training. Consuming adequate protein reduces the breakdown rate and increases the building rate. In other words, it allows our muscles to recover faster after we beat them up in training. In order to build or even maintain muscle mass it is extremely important to consume enough protein.
In many wonderful sources on plant-based diets we learn that we don’t need nearly as much protein as most people believe we do. This is completely true. We need very little protein to survive. But if we want to be big strong athletes, we need more protein than the average person. This is an important distinction that needs to be made. If you workout at moderate intensities just for health, you don’t need to worry as much about protein. If you are looking to maximize strength, size, and athletic ability, it is vital that you eat enough protein to do so.
For an athlete 0.8grams of protein per pound bodyweight should be plenty to gain and maintain muscle mass.
The main role of carbohydrates is to provide quick energy sources, especially in higher intensity sport performance and training. The higher the intensity, the more we rely on carbs for energy.
When we eat carbs we store them as glycogen in our muscles. This glycogen is the best fuel source for our bodies. We will use these stores to fuel our workouts. After a workout we must eat enough carbohydrates to replenish these stores, in order for our bodies to recover and be ready for another hard workout.
As an athlete, if you are not eating enough carbs your performance will suffer, your recovery will suffer, and you can actually lose muscle mass. Many people do not want to over-consume carbs for fear of gaining bodyfat. As mentioned before, net calories consumed is the determinant of weight gain or loss. This means that so long as you are controlling your total calories, eating more of them from carbs will not lead to fat gain.
The amount of carbs you need is dependent on your daily living activity and intensity of your workouts. The general range is between 1 and 3 grams per pound of bodyweight. If you have a desk job and you are doing one low intensity workout per day 1gram per pound is likely plenty. If you have an active job and are doing one or multiple very high intensity workouts per day you probably want to stay on the higher end of that range.
Fats are essential for life, but don’t play a huge role in athletic performance. Fats produce energy, but too slowly to be utilized in workouts, especially high intensity. They do assist with recovery, though, as they provide the slow releasing energy used while hanging out on the couch or sleeping.
So long as you are taking care of your protein and carb consumption, fats should generally take care of themselves if you remain within your calorie goal. I tend to consume and recommend a pretty low fat diet for athletes.
Putting all of this together should set up a good structure for your diet. Being vegan doesn’t change these guidelines, it simply means you have to find new foods to fit the proper calorie and macronutrient amounts for you. (Check out my nutrition guide for a list of macros of all the staple vegan foods).
I hope this helps you on your vegan athlete journey! Like and share the post if you enjoyed it and comment with any questions you’d like me to answer in the future!