You're probably aware, at least to some degree, that what you eat can have profound effects on your health. The impact of nutrition is particularly important when it comes to comes to sports performance. That’s because getting your nutrition right is a proven way to help support faster recovery from exercise, and significantly boost energy, power, and mental focus both in training and competition. And there’s a growing amount of evidence that a plant-based diet is the most effective way to reap all these health and performance benefits.
Taking the relatively short amount of time to learn about plant-based nutrition, and optimise your diet, could make all those hours you spend training much more productive and even more enjoyable, ultimately leading to huge progress in your sport and elevating you above the competition.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways in which a plant-based diet could give you the edge.
Plant foods have been shown to have, on average, 64x the antioxidative properties of meat and animal foods (1). The increased intake of plant antioxidants has been shown to both reduce the oxidative stress during exercise, and improve the body’s in-built adaptive mechanisms to drive faster recovery after training (2). And remember, the recovery from exercise, supported by your nutrition, is just as important as the training itself – it’s the critical time when your body is repairing and adapting to all the hard work you put in during the training.
On the other hand, certain components of animal foods, such as iron and saturated fat, can have detrimental effects by promoting oxidative stress and inflammation.
The higher intake of dietary flavanols found in various fruits and vegetables have also been shown in numerous studies to improve maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), ramp up fat metabolism, reduce the oxygen cost of exercise, and increase vasodilation. All these effects result in improved exercise efficiency, the delayed onset of fatigue, and increased capacity for endurance exercise (3).
Plant-based diets have also been shown to improve the fluidity of the blood, known as blood rheology, even within just six weeks of adopting a plant-based diet (4). This is mainly down to the much lower saturated fat intake when meat and animal products are reduced or eliminated. The result is that blood can flow through your capillaries more efficiently and transport and deliver oxygen to your muscles more easily, which directly affects performance (5).
Dietary nitrates, rich in various plant foods such as beetroot, celery, cress, lettuce, spinach and rocket, have been shown to increase the body’s production of nitric oxide, which signals to the smooth muscle surrounding blood vessels to relax, further increasing blood flow to those hard-working muscles when they need it most – during exercise (6).
Seeing as carbohydrates come almost exclusively from plants, it’s easy to get plenty on a plant-based diet, with pulses, whole grains, and starchy fruit and vegetables all being great sources. Carbs provide the main fuel for the brain, central nervous system, and working muscles, and are the best fuel for a range of exercise intensities because they can be used by both aerobic and anaerobic pathways.
In fact, research shows that higher carbohydrate diets delay the onset of fatigue, and maintain power output during continuous and intermittent exercise (as is required in team sports such as football) (7).
Power: weight ratio
Plant-based diets have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to keep body fat percentage low in a sustainable way – even more effective than low carbohydrate diets (8). This is important because a lower body fat percentage can improve your power: weight ratio – which is beneficial in most sports, and enables athletes to move faster, jump higher, and be more agile.
As you can see, the potential of a plant-based diet to enhance performance shouldn’t be underestimated. The act of reducing intake of saturated fat and the numerous other components of animal products that can be detrimental to performance, alongside an increased intake of the beneficial nutrients that are found in abundance in whole plant foods – such as antioxidants, dietary flavanols, and nitrates – can produce powerful effects within the body that can boost exercise performance.
Not only that, but recovery from exercise can be significantly improved too, which is crucial if you’re training hard frequently, and over the course of a whole season, the cumulative effects can be substantial.
Knowing all this, however, doesn't make it any easier to go vegan and actually stick with it. If you fancy giving a plant-based diet a go to see how it could improve your sports performance, follow these five tips to get off to a flying start.
I like to challenge clients to learn two new recipes each week and add their favourites to their repertoire. You can make delicious plant-based versions of almost any cuisine from around the world: fragrant Chinese stir fries, beautifully colourful Mexican burritos, authentic Italian pizzas and pastas, rich Indian curries, and impressive Middle Eastern mezzes, to name just a few. It’s important to add variation to your diet to get the widest spread of essential nutrients, but it’s also key to keeping your food diverse and exciting.
Although a vegan diet is healthy, your gut can take a bit of time to get used to it. So if you’re new to plant-based eating, then starting out gradually can be a good idea. Some athletes make the switch overnight with no issues at all, but for others, the sudden increase in fibre can cause excessive gas or bloating – so you may benefit from introducing the change to your diet slowly over the course of 2-3 weeks.
Beans and greens are your friends
Beans and other pulses such as lentils and chickpeas are incredible protein sources and are packed with fibre, iron, zinc, B-vitamins, and countless other phytonutrients and antioxidants. Likewise, greens are also superb nutritional packages, providing a huge array of important vitamins and minerals like magnesium and potassium, and some (particularly the brassica family like pak choy, kale, spring greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts etc) are excellent sources of calcium too.
Go easy on the fake meats
Nowadays there’s a huge range of vegan ‘meats’ designed to resemble burgers, sausages, chicken, and even bacon. While those foods can be a useful alternative and enjoyed from time to time, if you rely too heavily on them you won’t benefit from all those performance-enhancing nutrients that are found in whole plant foods. Try instead to stick predominantly to simple home-cooked meals to get the most out of your diet.
Get clued up on micronutrients
Balanced plant-based diets have been shown to provide some of the best dietary quality scores, with the highest intakes of many of the most important nutrients. There are however just a few key nutrients, such as vitamin B12, that warrant some attention, so find a reputable source of information to make sure you’ve got these covered.
TJ Waterfall is a plant-based sports nutritionist. He works with elite vegan athletes ranging in disciplines from Premier League and international footballers and endurance runners, to Olympic athletes and professional rugby players. He has a first-class master’s degree in nutrition from UCL and loves to bring clients the best advice based on the latest science and nutrition research. TJ's book, The Plant-Based Power Plan, is designed to provide you with all the evidence-based tips, advice and strategies he uses with elite sportspeople to help you thrive, both in terms of health and performance, on a plant-based diet.