How to exercise on a vegan diet
How to get fit and strong on a plant-based diet: the ultimate guide to exercising as a vegan, from supplements to plant protein
Growing numbers of top athletes say no. Serena and Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic show love all for plant-based diets. Lewis Hamilton zooms around Formula 1 courses fuelled with plants, and footballers Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero as well as quarterback Tom Brady go for mostly plant-based goals. The stars are backed up by the documentary Game Changers — produced by, among others, the mainly meat-free Arnold Schwarzenegger — that trumpets the advantages of going plant-based, ranging from improved muscle efficiency to reduced inflammation. Whether you’re into down dogs or arm curls, here’s how to make exercising on plants work.
Calories for gains
The key to vegan exercise gains is simple: eat enough. That holds even if you’re aiming for weight loss. Plant-based foods tend to be less energy-dense than those made with animal products, so it’s easy to consume less calories than you think you’re tucking into. Insufficient energy leads to fatigue, plummeting performance levels and greater risk of injury — in short, you will end up abandoning your New Year’s resolution faster than you can say “grains for gains”. Go for slightly bigger portion sizes than you’re used to on an omnivore diet and add healthy fats to your meals. A handful of nuts as a side, a spoonful of nut butter mixed in with a stir fry, or an extra splash of oil are all easy ways to ensure that you have the energy to release your inner Venus Williams.
Snacking your way to better performance
You need to get in the energy, but you don’t want to exercise on a full stomach; nothing kills a gym session like a stomach cramp. Here, clever snacks are your saviour. For your pre-work out nutrition, carbs are key, even if you’re strength training (although do add more protein in that case). Toast or a banana with nut butter, a smoothie fortified with nut milk and banana, flapjacks and dates all work wonders as a pre-work out energy boost.
You should aim to tuck into something with both protein and carbs within 15-60 minutes after exercising. There’s no need to worry about mid-session cramps now, so meals like lentil spaghetti bolognese, a lentil burger on wholemeal bread, or stir fry with tofu are all excellent options. If you only have time for a quick bite, nut butters, bananas and trailmix are your friends, or you can experiment with different toppings on overnight oats; chia seeds, soy yoghurt and berries are guaranteed to not only fulfill your nutrition needs but also make your snack look fancy. Don’t overlook the vegan protein bar range, either: Larabar is hailed for its minimal ingredients and no dodgy additives, Deliciously Ella and Bounce do energy balls in a variety of nutty flavours, and Pollen and Grace squares guarantee a chocolatey experience.
Plant-based protein: yes, you can
“Where do you get your protein from?” is a question that will have vegans reaching to a plant-based pint in desperation. Against the common misconception, plant-based doesn't spell protein deprivation — even for body builders. Although there are no complete proteins (that is, all essential amino acids included in one source) readily available outside the animal kingdom, you can get all you need by combining different sources of plant protein.
There’s no need to turn each single meal into a chemistry masterclass of fitting all necessary amino acids onto your plate; it’s enough to tuck into varied sources throughout the day. As a good rule of thumb, you will get a complete protein by combining legumes with nuts, seeds or grains. That means the absolute vegan staple of hummus on wholegrain bread has you covered.
Just as with omnivore diets, vegan protein needs are usually satisfied by normal, balanced eating, and you won’t need protein powders. In general, it’s better to get your protein from ordinary food rather than powders as the latter won’t have the same fibres, vitamins and minerals in them. But if you do decide to go down the powder route, beware of whey, as this supplement favourite is milk-based. The best vegan varieties are usually made from a combination of protein sources, such as peas, hemp, and brown rice. You’re spoil for choice here: among others, Form Nutrition does a chocolate and salted caramel powder, Motion Nutrition offers a peanut butter protein shake, and there’s a matcha-flavoured option from Gorilla Juice. Protein has never sounded more like dessert.
Supplements for success?
Protein powders are not the only extra on offer: you will find influencers vouching for supplements for anything and everything. However, the only thing that all vegans need to supplement for is vitamin B12, and that holds for both gym bunnies and couch potatoes. It’s added to many plant-based dairy alternatives, and if you find yourself lacking, there is a wide variety of tablets on offer.
For most supplements, the same holds as for omnivores: in principle, you should get enough from food, but supplements come in handy if for one reason or other you’re low on something.For those engaged in a lot of exercise, and women in particular, iron is something to watch out for as iron from plant-based sources is not as easily absorbed as that from animal products. Floravital offers a liquid formula for vegans; it also works wonders for those who struggle with digesting tablets.
Looking the look
Veganism isn’t only about the diet, nor is exercise only about food, so give a thought to your exercise kit. Fur and wool are rarely featured in sportswear but the animal-based glues used in shoes make some trainers a no-go, as does blending synthetic materials with leather. However, the good news is that many of the big brands do vegan-friendly options, from ASICS to Brooks, and from Mizuno to Merrell, as long as you keep an eye out for any leather. The Swiss brand On’s range is completely vegan, while Adidas’s Parley collection hones its eco-friendly qualities by using recycled ocean plastic.
If you feel like flaunting your vegan credentials further, companies like Vegan Original do sportswear that have you declaring yourself a vegan warrior and taking pride in plant-based power. For those looking to smash their PBs at parkruns, Vegan Runners offer both kit and a social scene.
You don’t need meat for muscles — this New Year could well be a game changer for you.