Plant Power: How a vegan diet could boost your cycling performance

© Stefan Rachow / Mr. Pinko

Ditching meat and switching to a plant-based diet could help you become a fitter, healthier cyclist. We reveal everything you need to know to become a plant-powered cyclist

There are many potential benefits to adopting a plant-based diet, from protecting the environment to improving your long-term health and weight. But many cyclists still wonder if it’s possible to perform at their best if they completely forego meat, which has always been considered the optimal source of muscle-repairing protein for athletes.

However, a series of professional cyclists have now shown that it is possible to reach the top on a vegetarian diet. Lizzie Deignan, the 2015 road racing world champion, hasn’t eaten meat since she was ten years old. Australian pro Adam Hansen claims his plant-based diet has helped him complete a record 20 consecutive Grand Tours. And vegan cyclist Dotsie Bausch of America became the oldest medalist in her discipline when she won silver in the London 2012 team pursuit, aged 39.

These impressive personal stories are now backed up by a series of scientific papers that suggest vegan athletes have nothing to fear. A study published in the journal Nutrients confirmed that “well-planned and appropriately supplemented vegetarian diets appear to effectively support athletic performance.” And an Australian study showed that there are no performance differences between vegetarian and meat-eating athletes.

In fact, many experts believe that following a plant-based diet could help strengthen an athlete’s heart by reversing plaque buildup, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, increasing blood flow and tissue oxygenation during exercise and reducing inflammation afterwards. And recent research papers suggest that plant-based diets can help improve performance in athletes by decreasing weight and improving endurance.

©Alex Parren

To reveal how cyclists can benefit from plant-based diets, we asked Alex Parren, experienced nutritionist, trainer, coach, and Sundried Eco-Sportswear Ambassador (www.sundried.com) – to explain how to become a plant-powered athlete.

Can a plant-based diet really help a cyclist perform at his best?

“There are several scientifically proven and peer-reviewed ways that a plant-based diet can improve athletic performance and therefore help a cyclist perform at their best. It is important at this point to note the difference between a “vegan” diet and a “plant-based” diet. Vegan diets are not necessarily healthier than an omnivorous diet. They are simply free of animal products. For example, you could live on fried potatoes and technically be vegan. But that wouldn’t be healthy! Plants, on the other hand, favor fruits, vegetables and legumes, which are inherently healthy and will help improve an athlete’s performance.

How can a plant-based diet help a cyclist’s overall health?

“Cyclists, especially dedicated endurance cyclists, may believe they are immune to diseases commonly associated with a sedentary lifestyle, such as heart disease. However, a review published by physicians in the journal Nutrients recently revealed that 44% of endurance cyclists in a study had coronary plaques, which can lead to coronary heart disease.A plant-based diet has been shown to lower cholesterol and even reverse this plaque, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.

And how can a plant-based diet help a cyclist’s performance?

“The benefits of a plant-based diet include reduced inflammation, thicker blood viscosity, which in turn helps more oxygen reach the muscles, and better blood flow. All of these are key indicators of athletic performance and will help a cyclist perform better.

What’s the best way to adopt a plant-based diet?

“As with everything, it’s best to take it one step at a time so you’re less likely to quit. We now live in a time where going vegan has never been easier and there are more plant-based options available in supermarkets and restaurants. So you don’t have to go out of your way to go vegan. And it doesn’t have to be an expensive transition.

© Henning Angerer

But rather than eliminating foods from your diet, which can lead to eating disorders and cravings, it’s better to add new plant-based foods to your diet over time. Eventually, you won’t need fast food, sugary treats, and processed meat, and so you won’t miss them when you stop eating them.

Are there any potential nutritional deficiencies to watch out for when adopting a plant-based diet?

“Generally, when going vegan, someone who previously relied on meat for the majority of their protein intake will need to be aware of their protein sources. It’s easy to eat enough protein on a vegan diet, even as an athlete, but you may just need to be more aware of how much you’re consuming per day and from what sources.

The other nutrient that vegans are notoriously asked about is vitamin B12, and that’s because it’s not found naturally in a vegan diet. However, it is very easy to find vegan foods fortified with vitamin B12, or you can simply take a supplement.

It can also be difficult for vegans to get enough omega 3s, which are essential for any healthy diet. This is because most vegan sources of omega 3 are high in natural fats and high in calories – for example, chia seeds. So eating enough to get the required amount of omega 3 is also eating way too many calories! This is why a sustainable vegan omega 3 supplement will be a better option for many vegans.

What might a typical daily meal plan look like for a vegan cyclist?

“Oats are one of the healthiest foods in the world, so homemade porridge, perhaps with a garnish of blueberries and strawberries, would be the ideal vegan breakfast for a cyclist. Oats provide carbohydrates slow-release that will fuel a long workout, while the berries provide athletic performance-enhancing antioxidants and a hint of sweetness for the taste.

An example of a vegan lunch for a cyclist might be a sweet potato wrap. It will provide slow-release energy, with lots of salad ingredients for nutrients and maybe beans, legumes or legumes for added protein. A good example would be chickpeas or lentils.

There are many vegan dinner recipes that would suit a cyclist, such as non-meat chili (vegan chili) with vegetables and kidney beans, which are a good vegan source of protein. Or maybe a chickpea curry – again, chickpeas are a great source of vegan protein. Sweet potato dhal is made with red lentils, which are a great source of vegan protein and really delicious.

What are good mid-ride cycling snacks for vegans?

“It’s best to keep mid-ride snacks simple and handy so you don’t interfere with your ride. Many of the usual options will be vegan, such as rice cakes, pretzels, or the classic banana. Many energy bars and energy gels are also suitable for vegans, so it should be very easy to find something that works for you.

by Mark Bailey