Can Vegan Athletes Get the Nutrition They Need to Succeed?

Fiona Oakes has been a vegan since she was six years old, and has just won the women’s title in the North Pole Marathon. This is an event in which runners compete in conditions as low as -30C, and a medical team is on standby for frostbite and marshals keep an eye out for polar bears. Fiona explains, ‘The consequences of running in these temperatures are a very technical and logistically finely balanced thing. There are nutritional problems – when do you eat, what do you eat – it needs to be a military operation.’ But how does a vegan get the nutrition they need to take care of their wellness when running?

According to sports nutritionist Jo Scott-Dalgleish, different disciplines can mean different dietary requirements. She comments, ‘I work with endurance athletes and they need carbs, it’s extremely important. It’s about getting a good balance of carbs, protein and fats. You need all three to support energy use, and carbs provide energy, and proteins and fats enable your muscles to recover afterwards, and you need a good selection of micronutrients and vitamins.’

However, Adharanand Finn, journalist, runner and author of Running with the Kenyans, argues that ‘diet is still an evolving science when it comes to sports nutrition.’ He notes, ‘the traditional view is that carbohydrates are key for endurance athletes and I certainly eat a fairly high carbohydrate diet,’ but there is also a misconception that vegetarian and vegan athletes may not get enough protein without eating meat, or meat and dairy products.

Finn says, ‘I’m actually vegetarian and so omit meat and fish from my diet. This has never caused me any problems and there are lots of examples of successful vegetarian sportspeople.’ He remarks that he spent months living with world-class distance runners in training camps in Kenya, and ‘In all that time they only served meat once. The diet in a Kenyan training camp is very simple.’

Finn details, ‘Most days breakfast is just tea and a slice of bread. Lunch is rice, and beans with potatoes, carrots etc. Occasionally they’ll have an avocado with it, too. Then supper is ugali (basically maize flour and water) and stewed kale. That’s it. The same virtually every day. The athletes like to stick to their traditional diet – it has done them so well up to now, why change it?’

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