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Can you still train and get results on a vegetarian diet?

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For years we’ve been taught that cyclists must eat plenty of meat and dairy to help muscle recovery. According to this theory, the iron in red meat helps the body produce lihemoglobin which helps transport oxygen to the muscles.

However, with some high profile cyclists competing at the highest level on a vegetarian or vegan diet, including Lizzie Deignan, who has been vegetarian since the age of 10, it seems that a meat or animal product free diet can fuel cycling success.

In 2011, American cyclist David Zabriskie raced the Tour de France, as a vegan. Brendan Brazier, professional triathlete, swears by veganism for optimal performance and recovery. Catra Corbett is a vegan and a prolific ultra-marathon competitor who regularly tackles courses of 100 miles or more and has a national record for extreme distance running. And still people say, “you can’t be an elite athlete as a vegan.”

Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be high in fibre rich foods, which can fill you up quickly without delivering much caloric energy. This is great if you are trying to shed a kilo or two but, if you are in a heavy training block, it could leave you seriously under-fuelled. Keep a food and exercise diary and make sure you are not under-eating. If you are doing long rides, you may have to resort to more refined and calorie dense options such as, white rice, pasta and potatoes.

For vegetarians, the best sources of complete high quality proteins are eggs and dairy. For vegans, it is slightly trickier, as legumes, grains, nuts and seeds don’t always individually contain a complete balance of essential amino acids. Without these amino acids your body will not be able to synthesise the proteins to repair your muscles after hard training. Fortunately, by eating a wide variety of plant-based protein sources, you can cover all of your amino acid bases. Rice and beans is a classic combination that will deliver a full balance of essential amino acids. There are also a number of plant-based protein sources, such as quinoa, buckwheat and soya, which are complete proteins.

A male cyclist will typically require 1.2-1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight each day, with female riders requiring 15% less. This isn’t a huge amount, but plant based protein sources are far less protein dense. For example, two turkey breasts will deliver 43 g of protein, just under half the required amount for an 80 kg male rider, but to get the same from almonds, you would have to eat over eight handfuls. This means that vegetarians and vegans may want to consider supplementation.

More and more we are hearing stories of successful vegan athletes. Vegetarian athletes have been stepping up on podiums for years and there is no doubt that with well-planned diets more and more vegans will continue to step up onto podiums as well.