My moving to a plant based diet was the main reason for me to be able to play tennis in my forties. It made me mentally sharper, and made it possible for me to endure the physical conditioning that is required to compete at that level ~ Martina Navratilova – tennis champion 1965 through 2005
Plant Powered athletes
Many elite athletes have proven it is possible to thrive on a plant based diet. Martina Navratilova, tennis champion who won 18 Grand Slam Singles titles, 31 major women’s doubles and 10 Grand Slams mixed doubles titles; Dave Scott, a multi-winner of the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii; Chris Campbell, a four time world champion wrestler and captain of the US Olympic team; Carl Lewis, 8 times Olympic Gold medalist; Peter Siddle, Australian Test cricketer, who plays for Victoria and Australia and who has become the 100th Australian to score 1,000 Test runs; Alan Murray and Janette Murray-Wakelin, who broke the world record in running 366 marathons each in 366 consecutive days. The list goes on.
On this page, we address the common myths and issues raised by athletes wishing to adopt a plant based diet.
A common question asked is “do athletes need to consume a high protein diet? The simple answer according to many experts is No1,2. Athletes simply need more food (calories) which includes protein. That is, athletes do not need to consume diets more concentrated in protein.
The number one nutrition issue for whole foods plant based athletes is getting enough calories. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine1, a low calorie intake when exercising intensely will have an effect on the loss of muscle mass, menstrual hormonal dysfunction and probably the loss of bone density.
Protein is used as fuel during times of extreme calorie deprivation, such as starvation. Fat is used when no other sources are available. Carbohydrates however are the body’s preferred “go-to” fuel for high intensity as well as daily exercise. Feelings of “fatigue” result from low carbohydrate stores in the body and according to Dr McDougall2, following a high fat, high protein diet for 3-4 days will exhaust the body of its stores of carbohydrates. Because plant based diets are high in carbohydrate and low in fat content, it is an optimal sports diet1. Consuming a plant based diet brings in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to a potentially stressed body, which are important nutrients that help the body use energy and protect it from the stress of exercise.
According to Dr McDougall, the increased need for protein is automatically met by the fact that exercise stimulates appetite which causes the athlete to eat more food and therefore nutrients which include protein will be consumed. An example according to McDougall2 is a 70-Kg desk-bound man who typically burns 2000 calories on a diet of potatoes, beans, and broccoli. This combination of foods provides him 56 grams of protein per day which is 0.8g for every kg of his body weight. If he starts training for a marathon, running up to 2-3 hours daily he might increase his calorie intake to 4000 calories a day which translates to 112 grams of protein from his meals of potatoes, beans and broccoli. He is now consuming 1.6 g of protein per Kg of body weight which is an automatic increase in protein, and possibly an amount in excess of what is scientifically recommended2.
In order to build muscle a person will also need a calorie surplus. A healthy intake of protein is 10%-15% of our caloric intake. Whole food sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans/nuts will naturally meet this requirement. All whole plant foods contain protein, so if you are getting enough calories you will have plenty of protein to be a healthy and active individual.
At EVER we have created a meal mentor sheet for endurance athletes. This sheet offers three days worth of meal ideas specifically designed for athletes. Click here to view “EVER’s Meal mentor for endurance athletes“.
Robert Cheeke, a plant based athlete for over 20 years and a champion bodybuilder, recommends the following3:
- Center your food around higher calorific dense whole plant foods rich in complex carbohydrates such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice; starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkin; legumes such as lentils, beans and tofu.
- Fuel your body before exercise to give yourself fuel and a range of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates, water, and fibre) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and other important phytochemicals).
- Eat 5-6 small meals during the day until you are comfortably full. This will help you obtain enough calories. Whole plant foods are lower in calorie density, so it is important to have more meals.
- To calculate your own personal caloric needs, Robert Cheeke recommends using an online calculator: the Harris-Benedict calculator. This will reveal your estimated Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which is the average number of calories you would burn if you slept all day and your daily calorie needs, taking into account your activity level.
For more inspiration, podcasts and newsletters from plant based athletes here are some suggestions to follow:
- Vegan Body Building & Fitness by Robert Cheeke
- Thrive Forward by Brendan Brazier
- Transform your life by Rich Roll
- The No Meat Athlete by Matt Frazier
- Calisthenics by Frank Medrano
- Raw Vegan Path by Alan Murray and Janette Murray-Wakelin
- Great vegan athletes
- EVER_Meal_Plan_Vegan_Endurance_Athletes (pdf)
- The Australian sports commission on vegan eating
- PCRM -Food Power for Athletes
- Dr McDougall – Building Your Own High-Performance Athletic Body
- Engine 2 blog posts:FAQ: What about pro level athletes?
Plant-Strong Athletes Consume Power Through Plants
The College Greens: Plant-Strong Athletes
 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 2014. Food power for athletes. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/food-power-for-athletes.
 Dr McDougall. 2003. Building your own performance athletic body. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/030900puathletesarepeopletoo.htm.
 Cheeke, Robert Shred it, Gavin Press LA, 2014