The Vegetarian Athlete, Part III

In parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series on the vegetarian athlete, I focused generally on overall nutrition, and specifically on the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), and micronutrients (iron, B12) important to those competing on a meat-free diet. In this final installment of this series, I'll discuss practical strategies for travelling and racing as a vegetarian or vegan, and what, if any supplements you should consider.

One of the most difficult things to do as a vegetarian or vegan bike racer is travel. I wrote in my first article about the normative American food supply, and how it can be a challenge when you choose a path away from the norm. Nowhere is that demonstrated more than being on the road. At home you have considerable control over your food sources and supply. You can shop at familiar stores, cook for yourself, or eat at local restaurants you know have vegetarian options. On the road, all of that goes out the window. With some foresight, however, you can still get the nutrition you need.

For short trips where your leaving from home and only gone for the day or the weekend, packing your own food is crucial. Investing in a mid-sized cooler and hitting the local natural food store the day before or on the way out of town will save you headaches, hunger, and conflicts with meat-eating teammates down the road. I like to pack soy yogurts, cereal, soymilk, oatmeal, raisins, bananas, and pre-made soy protein shakes. Peanut butter, jelly, and bread is always a nice treat, too.

If you're gone longer than one cooler will cover and you can't find a natural food grocery store, almost every mainstream grocery store these days seems to have a natural food aisle. At the very least, you should be able to find soy products like soymilk and tofu that will keep you from starving.

If you find that you've got to stop at a restaurant to eat, that's where things can turn bad. Fast food in particular is always a challenge, because you never know what's going to end up in your food. I ordered beans and rice at a Country Kitchen in the South once and got a bowl full of beans, rice, and giant chunks of ham. McDonald's recently admitted that there are animal products in their french fry flavoring, so sometimes even seemingly safe choices are a risk. Some fast food choices are better than others, though. Taco Bell works, if nothing else but for a bean burrito and side of rice without cheese. I hate being reduced to eating at a salad bar, but in some restaurants that might be your only option. I often take chances on the ubiquitous hole-in-the wall Asian restaurants. In Chinese restaurants in particular, even in the most backwoods places, you'll almost always find a tofu dish on the menu, or they can make it for you if you ask.

When it comes to the racing itself, again, you have to pay attention to the ingredients of the "powerfoods" you eat to make sure what you're using is vegetarian, particularly recovery drinks that focus on protein. The majority of protein found in recovery drinks is whey protein, which is a dairy product. If you're vegan, this is obviously not an option. You can buy powdered soy protein isolate at any health food store and mix up your own pre-and post-race shakes, however, and control the ratio of protein to carbohydrates by blending It with soy or rice milk, or adding flavorless maltodextrin powder. Most during-exercise drink mixes are primarily glucose, sucrose, and maltodextrin, which are vegetarian, but pay attention to some that have lactose, which is, again, a milk product.

I'm purposely trying to avoid naming brand names here, but I have to make one exception. I like Clif Bars. I like them because they taste good, but also specifically because they're vegan. They have plenty of carbohydrates and protein, and the protein is 100% soy protein. It's the only vegan energy bar I've found that doesn't cost $3 a bar, and doesn't disintegrate in my pocket. So, there's my shameless, unsponsored plug for a vegan-friendly energy food that I depend on daily, and pay for with my own money. Maybe a box will show up on my doorstep now.

When it comes to taking supplements, I'm of the philosophy that you should get your nutritional needs from real, whole food as much as possible. Supplementation should be just that—a supplement, not the foundation. As an athlete, there may be times where, because of the exceptional demands we place on our bodies compared to sedentary people, we need to supplement our diets to make sure we have the ingredients necessary to repair the damage we do. Still, too many athletes rely on supplements as a short cut to correct poor diet. Eating a wide variety of foods from different sources should always be your first order of measure. 

That said, I do rely primarily on a single supplement that I don't think any vegetarian or vegan athlete should be without, called Floradix. Frankly, anyone who's had issues with exercise-induced anemia and the fatigue that goes with it can benefit from its use. Floradix is a liquid iron supplement that comes from herbs and real food sources. In addition to iron it has thiamin HCl, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin C. It's like an anti-anemia magic potion, and covers all the of micronutrients a vegetarian should be concerned with. I first found out about it when I was going through a spell of low energy and correspondingly low hematocrit levels from overtraining and perhaps some inattention to my diet. 4 weeks of supplementing with Floradix saw my hematocrit go up 9 percentage points, and put me back into a healthy range. You can find Floradix on-line or at any health food store.

Another supplement vegetarian athletes might consider is creatine. We're probably all familiar with creatine's popularity now for strength athletes and weight lifters. It's a successful supplement because it's one of the few that actually makes it past the stomach and into the muscles, increasing the creatine available to fuel the CP-ATP system that powers short, intense bursts. However, part of its appeal to body builders is that it also requires additional water in the muscles for storage, making the muscles appear larger. That extra water carries some weight, literally, and any gains in maximal power for an endurance athlete might be offset by a lowered threshold power-weight ratio.

For meat-eaters, creatine is absorbed very easily in the diet. .5 pound of beef has a gram of creatine, and is the best food source. Vegetarians typically have a lower amount of stored body creatine (I couldn't confirm any plant-food sources), and as a result might benefit from some light creatine supplementation. If you choose to experiment with creatine, use it sparingly, from .5 — 1 gram per day. Try to find a balance between noticing a difference in your maximal power performance and any weight gain. In my experience, "loading" according to the manufacturers suggestions can bring on an quick weight gain of 5 pounds or more, which is more than most of us can afford.

In closing, as a vegetarian athlete you should be prepared for people to doubt you, challenge you, and criticize you. Many people will feel that if you do well, you will be succeeding in spite of your choices, and not because of them. Your friends and teammates may feel that your choices are somehow a judgement on them, and feel threatened by them. It's important to remember that life has many uncontrollable variables, and each person's body adapts and responds to these variables in different ways. Without meat I had a modest career in the US as a field sprinter, of all things. Would I have won the Tour if I ate meat? Probably not. Remember that only one rider in the world, whoever the best rider on any given day is, can say that he or she did everything right. Everyone else has doubts. So, if vegetarianism appeals to you, fear of impaired athletic performance as an endurance athlete should not be a reason to hold you back. If you use the advice here to get started, educate yourself, and put some effort into controlling your food sources, you can achieve great results without relying on meat in your diet to do so.