Sports

Plant powered athletes

Everywhere we turn, more and more people are hopping on the vegan train – but can athletes really thrive on a plant-based diet? Katy Brennan investigates
Do veggies make you run faster? Image via Pexels.com

There’s no doubt that veganism has been rising in popularity in recent years – a lifestyle that was once obscure has now become common. Still, the words vegan and athlete don’t seem to go together.

When it comes to sports nutrition, we are told protein is key. This is often wrongly assumed to be something a plant based diet can ultimately lack – conjuring the image of one who follows the diet as a frail, weak, possibly malnourished person.

Thankfully it’s 2021 and that particular image is, slowly but surely, dying out. 

“I was always interested in nutrition, especially for improving performance,” says Gerard Prendergast, a gym owner, personal trainer, triathlon coach and yoga instructor.

“I felt [veganism] would suit my training at the time which was endurance sports. I was blown away at how my body adapted to eating a wholefoods, plant-based diet. I had more energy, felt lighter, my stamina improved and even my mood and mental health seemed to improve.”

Prendergast began boxing and weightlifting at an early age and went on to play for the ROI VI International Futsal team at 28. At 32, he completed his first triathlon, which encouraged him to take on bigger and more challenging events.

Gerard Prendergast crosses the finish line at DecaUK – Image courtesy of Gerard Prendergast

“In 2017 I entered into DecaUK, 10 Ironman distance triathlons in 10 consecutive days. Every day for 10 days I was required to swim 3.8k, Cycle 180k, and run a full marathon – 42k. I won that event 4.5 hours ahead of the second place finisher.

“In 2018 I completed 52 Ironman distance triathlons in 52 weeks to raise money for Mental Health Ireland. I have completed other challenges such as 100 mile run on a 500m loop and cycling the height of Everest on an indoor trainer.”

Judging by Prendergast’s impressive lifestyle, it appears there’s no doubt a vegan diet can provide an athlete with the power they need to succeed.

“Athletes absolutely can thrive on a plant based diet,” he says. “It’s been proved all over the world over the past few years with athletes like Serena Williams, Novak Djockovic and Lewis Hamilton all seeing great benefits to their careers by eating plant-based. I myself can back that up, after struggling to finish a 5k run in 2012 to becoming a Deca Ironman champion.”

“Athletes absolutely can thrive on a plant-based diet and it’s been proved all over the world over the past few years.”

Gerard Prendergast

“I had always worked out and eaten well but I really wanted to go even further with knowing what is in my food,” says Dawn Butler, a 35-year-old athlete from Kildare. 

An ex professional wrestler, Butler now trains in Brazilian jiu jitsu as well as partaking in weightlifting. On days spent away from the intensity of the gym and training, Butler enjoys long walks, hikes, and hill climbing.

After recovering from stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Butler turned to veganism as a way to repair and nourish her body.

Dawn Butler on a plant powered hike in the Connemara mountains. Image courtesy of Dawn Butler

“I took my time and looked into lots of research and eventually I just couldn’t stand dairy anymore. I was really put off when I saw where dairy comes from and I knew I couldn’t be a part of that world,” explains Butler.

“I knew with the level of training I do that I have to really pay attention to my nutrition. I always check in with how I’m feeling and I always get a good variety of foods. I notice that I have more energy being vegan.”

Despite her fitness level and rigorous training, Butler admits she is no stranger to ridicule from her gym buddies due to her diet choices.

 “I train as hard as anyone I know – I have muscles and strength and I train with a lot of men. I definitely do not feel I am any weaker because of my diet. I get very frustrated when some people try to tell me about my protein intake when, in fact, they can’t tell me theirs. They assume because they eat meat they get more than me when in truth I probably get twice the amount of protein.

“If I am seen having a protein shake, it’s because my diet is ‘wrong’, but that does not apply to a meat eater who also uses protein shakes. I don’t use protein shakes because I am vegan. I use them as part of the diet and lifestyle that I have.

“People assume and don’t ask. If somebody asks me about it I’m happy to chat and educate but when someone assumes my protein intake it gets very disheartening. It feels like a throwaway ‘fact’ and a way to debunk veganism.”

As annoying as such remarks might be, Butler has no plans to ditch her plant based diet any time soon and has her sights set on pursuing Brazilian jiu jitsu, currently training to take part in a tournament later this year.

Veganism undoubtedly has the potential to enhance one’s athletic performance, but Butler has some advice for those starting out.

“I do believe it’s possible for athletes to thrive on a vegan diet. I do however think it is harder. There is less room for error and I think you need to keep on top of it. It’s very important to keep the range of foods wide and get sources of everything in there.”

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