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Veganuary: Can I fuel optimally for cycling on a vegan diet?

Cyclist magazine
1 Nov 2019

Not so long ago pro cyclists were famed for eating steak for breakfast but you can still train hard if you choose not to eat meat

The expert: Dr Mayur Ranchordas is a reader in nutrition and exercise metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University. He is also a performance nutrition consultant to professional footballers and referees, cyclists and triathletes.

This is a controversial question and if you ask a few nutritionists they’ll probably disagree with each other. You can fuel optimally on a vegan diet, but you will have to pay closer attention to your diet and plan your meals carefully around your training.

In short, a vegan diet is one in which you eat only plant-based foods and eliminate all animal products from your diet, so no meat, fish, eggs or dairy. Following a vegan diet is much easier these days because restaurants, supermarkets and shops now offer a range
of vegan products and foods.

One drawback in sports nutrition terms is that a vegan diet does limit your intake of some key nutrients. If your diet is poorly planned you’re likely to miss out on sufficient protein (found in animal products), omega-3 (from oily fish), calcium (dairy), vitamin B12 (animal products), iodine (dairy and seafood), zinc (seafood and animal products) and iron (red meat).

With proper planning, however, fuelling won’t be an issue. A vegan diet doesn’t restrict your carbohydrate intake, which you can periodise around your training – so you eat more carbs for harder training sessions and races, and reduce intake for lower volume/intensity sessions and rest days.

The key is to make sure you’re consuming protein, especially from complete sources of protein, which can be done by combining different plant-based protein sources.

However, my view is that at least some supplements are also necessary to ensure you don’t compromise on performance and recovery. Firstly, a vegan protein supplement will help you meet your higher protein requirements during heavier training periods.

Vegan protein powders contain both essential and non-essential amino acids, which can be more difficult to attain in sufficient quantities through a vegan diet. I’d also consider iron, B12 and omega-3 supplements.

Iron is found in green leafy vegetables, legumes and grains, but this is ‘non-haem iron’, which is poorly absorbed. Meat contains ‘haem iron’, which is derived primarily from haemoglobin (protein in red blood cells) and myoglobin (protein in muscle tissue) and is better absorbed. An iron supplement can overcome this issue.

In performance terms, a vegan diet is more restrictive when it comes to recovery, rather than fuelling up. You don’t need to eat meat to fuel for a ride, but you may miss the nutrients meat provides when it comes to recovery. But vegan protein supplements combined with the right food choices should allow you to recover without compromise.

It is even popular among elite athletes. Adam Hansen is vegan and has won stages at both the Giro and the Vuelta, while David Zabriskie was vegan during the latter part of his career. And while it’s not quite the same thing, Lizzie Deignan has been a vegetarian since the age of 10.

In the end your diet comes down to personal choice, whether that’s dictated by taste or by your moral views. There’s no evidence to suggest a vegan diet can enhance performance and/or recovery but, similarly, there is no evidence to suggest that going vegan will impair your performance or recovery if your diet is planned carefully.

If you’re serious about performance – training hard to get fitter, faster and stronger, without running out of fuel along the way – and recovery, to ensure your body is making the most of the effort you’re putting in, you need to plan your nutrition as carefully as you plan your training routine.

Illustration: Will Haywood

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