In cyclocross, you may have noticed that there’s a weird overlap between the mud-covered, barrier-hopping crowd and the mosh-pitting, punk-rock-loving scene. It seems like a lot of my cyclocross friends are either still spending Friday nights playing shows, or have hung up the guitars in favor of some knobby tires. I remember when I first started racing, I was shocked to recognize some of my longtime friends from the punk scene, decked out in spandex and covered in ads for very expensive brands. The hilarity of that isn’t lost on me. But that isn’t the point, exactly. My point with this article is, oddly enough, nutrition. Vegan nutrition to be exact, meaning (if you didn’t already know) a diet of no animal products of any kind, including meat, eggs and dairy. Because for some reason, the punk kids that I know also tended to be vegetarian, or vegan. And a lot of those kids are the ones who got into cycling after/during their punk rock days. The more I thought about it, and looked at the quality of some of their diets (Mo Bruno Roy and her amazing food blog being a prime example of vegan done right – and tasty!) I started wondering: are they stronger because they’re vegan? Is being vegan helping them race faster or keep weight down?
The overarching answer was simple: being vegan forces you to engage in ‘mindful eating’ by its very nature: you have to check ingredients, and by doing that, you’re more inclined to make informed choices. “The standard American diet, it takes a lot of effort to eat well,” vegan athlete Mark Vareschi says. “It’s the case that vegan athletes, because they already have to think about what they’re eating, tend to do it right.” Plus, as a vegan, Doritos and Reeses Peanut Butter cups are off the ‘OK to eat’ list, and a lot of junk food staples are big no-nos. While junk food vegans certainly exist, the lifestyle encourages mindful eating rather than the mindless eating that’s so easy for the larger (pun intended) portion of American people, and for cyclists post-six hour ride, when housing a whole pizza seems like the intelligent decision. But, that being said, it is most definitely not for everyone, and even the vegans that I talked to are quick to add that electing to shift to a vegan diet just to… well, diet, isn’t a smart move.
To get more technical, I chatted with the author of Racing Weight and general athlete nutrition extraordinaire Matt Fitzgerald to get the nutritionist take on the idea of veganism and athletes, and then talked to a couple of long time vegan athletes that I respect and admire to find out a bit about their motivations and how they think being vegan has impacted their performance. As you’ll see further down in the article, this isn’t an article rife with pushing for a plant-based diet. This is just looking at some of the nutritional issues/motivations faced by vegan athletes, and some suggestions from someone far more qualified than I am, if you’re reading this and considering a shift to a vegan diet/looking to improve the quality of your vegan diet as it stands.
First of all, having been a huge devotee of Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight book, I wanted to get Matt Fitzgerald’s take on veganism for athletes. I greatly admire his work, and while we’ve chatted in the past about veganism, I wasn’t sure what his take on it was. Turns out, he thinks it can work, but he has a few qualifiers about that. “In general I recommend that athletes include all of the high-quality food groups—vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, lean meats and fish, whole grains, and dairy—in their diet unless they have a special reason to eliminate one or more,” he says. “There is no health or performance advantage to be gained from artificially restricting the variety in one’s diet. That goes for veganism as well. But some athletes choose not to eat animal foods for moral or personal reasons. If it’s done carefully, there’s no reason this choice should negatively impact performance. The existence of successful vegan athletes such as ultrarunner Scott Jurek is all the proof we need.”
So you’re a vegan. Now what? Fitzgerald votes on keeping it simple, and avoiding the hype. “Include as much variety in your diet as possible within the food groups you do eat. Don’t really too much on processed foods such as vegan snack bars.” That also means places like Vegan Treats (vegan athlete Mark Vareschi’s guilty pleasure) that offer baked goods like cookies, ice cream and even cheese cake, all dairy- and egg-free, aren’t on the approved-for-healthy eating list. “They’re basically just sugar and fat,” Vareschi says, though occasionally treating yourself isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. After all, even Fitzgerald admits to a daily glass of beer! Just don’t overdo it on specialty vegan foods and fake meats: try to keep ingredients basic.
But if not fake meat, where does the protein come from? Mark Vareschi, vegan since 1999 and a cyclist since 2001, laughingly calls the protein question a “red herring,” though we later agreed that a “red beet” might be a more apt description, given the circumstances. If you eat a normal diet, it’s hard to not get enough protein in the mix, as Matt Fitzgerald explains. He thinks that while, “Vegans should definitely ‘audit’ their diet occasionally to make sure they are getting enough carbs, fat, and protein,” it’s really not as dire as one might think. “Much is made of the possibility of protein deficiency on a vegan diet but it’s actually quite rare, especially among athletes, because there’s so much awareness of it and humans don’t require a ton of protein (about 10 percent of total calories) anyway. Essential fat deficiency is more likely. This can be avoided through the inclusion of EFA-rich plant foods such as flax oil and hemp seeds in the diet.”
Christine Vardaros, a cyclocross-racing expat living in Belgium, has been vegan for years, even before beginning to race. “My venture into the world of vegetarianism twenty-one years ago did not originate from a well constructed plan or a solid grasp of its ramifications, but rather from a random thoughtless decision.” I admit, I laughed out loud when I heard this story, because it’s one that I know very, very well from personal experience. “’Let’s be vegetarian. If everyone were vegetarian, we could end starvation and save the planet,’ my best friend blurted out to me as we were enjoying a spaghetti and meatball dinner. Enthusiastically I responded, ‘Sure. Let’s do it. But what’s a vegetarian?’”
However, what happened as a snap decision turned into a lifestyle that Vardaros would use while pursuing a racing career. “While becoming a vegetarian was done on a whim, making the jump from vegetarian to vegan was a little more thought out. I had gotten into bike racing five years after that fateful day and immediately started to encounter health problems like breathing difficulties, coughing and phlegm buildup. On top of that, I was easily winded. As a mere amateur cyclist, I assumed they were all side effects of being out of shape. At least my diet kept me thin and helped me to recover from hard efforts quicker than most others.”
It wasn’t for another five years, but finally Vardaros realized that something had to change if her racing was going to continue. “After some research on optimal health for active bodies, I quickly learned that milk and all products made with it are an athlete’s worst enemy,” she says. “Among many complications of consuming milk were breathing troubles, fluid buildup in the lungs, coughing, dehydration and fatigue. Once milk was eliminated from my diet, all my symptoms went away.”
She continues: “After experiencing amazing changes in my health, I was determined to have the perfect diet for racing which led me to a complete vegan diet. Once vegan, I started to learn about the impact of my diet choice on animals and creatures. What I discovered has definitely kept me strict with my diet and lifestyle so nothing is harmed by me. I would hate to win a race knowing that an animal had to suffer for it.”
Vardaros provided a interesting account, since she raced as both a vegan and a non-vegan. For her, she found that a strict vegan lifestyle made her a better racer. “I recover more quickly than I ever imagined possible,” she says, “And I can do multiple hard training rides or races in a row and feel almost completely fresh day after day. My energy level is just as good as it was, if not better, than when I was in my teens.”
Unlike Vardaros, Mark Vareschi started his vegan journey before being a cyclist, so, as he says, “I don’t know what it’s like to race or ride not being vegan.” But he says he’s never had a problem taking in enough calories. “Plant-based foods tend to have less calories,” he says, and laughs, adding, “But I can eat a lot.”
Over the years, he’s learned a few tricks as a vegan athlete: “My emphasis has always been to mix it up, eat a really diverse diet.” To do that, since he didn’t start out knowing how much he needed to take in, or what nutrient ratios to hit, he turned to a time-tested method: the food log. “I logged everything for a long, long time to make sure I hit all the nutrients and that taught me how to eat, what to eat and when I needed to eat.”
One more vegan issue, and it’s a big one: if you have eliminated animal products from your diet, or you’re trying to shift to a vegan lifestyle, a major issue is race weekend eats, especially when you’re traveling a lot. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, it can seem daunting to pick out vegan options, or at least, pick vegan options that aren’t French fries or Oreos. Christine Vardaros has ethnic cuisine down to a vegan-friendly science: “I can better choose my menu items – or better direct the restaurant in making a meal that is both tasty and plant-based. For instance, I stay away from soups, ask Thai restaurants to leave out all fish sauces, and instruct my Mexican restaurants to omit the sour cream and cheese.” And as for the oft-heard refrain of “there’s nothing I can eat here,” Vardaros has this to say: “When preparing my own food, I always succeed in finding a wide variety of choices in any local supermarket since almost 90% of their foods are vegan.”
Mark Vareschi has a worked out plan for eating on the road: “I just have a crate of food with some basic staples: rice, pasta, cans of beans, soymilk, cereal: you can make stuff in a hotel room, in the back of a van… You want stuff that’s easy.” Want more of Vareschi’s ideas? He has a great blog post about his race traveling vegan options and I can safely say that a rice cooker, brown rice and lentils will be packed in my bag on weekends from now on. Except when I’m flying, because somehow I’m pretty sure my wicked cheap rice cooker just won’t hold up through a long flight and TSA.
Thinking of making the switch, for ethical or dietary reasons? Plan your transition carefully, especially if you’re planning on racing cyclocross as your main season, because sometimes, it takes some getting used to. “I think that the off-season or any period of moderate training between race-focused training cycles is the best time to make any kind of significant change to one’s diet,” Fitzgerald says, so if your road season is ending and you’re not racing hard in the fall, maybe now is a good time. He explains, “When such a change is made there is often an initial period of trial and error. Mistakes and refinements are made. These mistakes could wreak havoc on an athlete’s training if his or her body is under a lot of stress from frequent, challenging workouts. The cost of learning things the hard way is definitely smaller in the off-season.”
Lastly: a word to the vegans and anyone considering the lifestyle switch: it’s certainly not an automatically healthy choice, as Matt Fitzgerald says: “Just because you don’t eat animal foods doesn’t mean your diet is automatically healthy!” That said, if you ethically agree with it, or you believe that it’s the healthy choice for you, by all means: keep the meat, dairy and eggs off of your plate, just make sure to replace them with healthy, whole food alternatives, with the occasional splurge on a Tofurkey or a vegan cheesecake. Hey, we’re only human!