As of 2021, it is clear that plant-based eating is not just a passing trend, but it represents a permanent and growing change in how people are eating around the world.

Not everyone is so keen to make the shift, especially gym-goers and athletes, due in large part to misplaced preconceptions about not getting enough protein.  But this notion has now been widely debunked given the extraordinary improvements and performance reported by some athletes who have embraced veganism or plant-based eating.  But what is the truth?  Have athletes really been able to perform better without eating meat and dairy?

Is a world record enough to convince you?

On 26th May 2021, world champion triathlete Kate Strong took on an extraordinary challenge.  She didn’t just take on one world record, she took on three…at the same time, all on a static bike.  Before taking on the feat, she said, “There exists a World Record for the furthest distance cycled on a static bike in 24 hours for a male… yet not a female. I intend to rectify this.  And, if I’m intending to cycle for 24-hours, why not also attempt to break the current 1-hour and 12-hour world records at the same time!!”

How did Kate do?  She smashed it like an avocado of course, cycling 24.2 miles in one hour, 216.24 miles in 12 hours, and becoming the first woman to complete a 24-hour cycling marathon on a static bike, riding over 433.1 miles in total.  And did we mention that Kate is plant-based?  She is also 42 years of age and rode a bamboo bike!  Indeed, being on a plant-based diet allowed Kate to get herself into the condition needed to complete the challenge; before the world-record attempt(s), she said, “I believe I am in the best condition physically, mentally, and emotionally to give it my best shot”.

Why are athletes going plant-based?

There are many reasons why athletes are benefitting in terms of their health, athletic career longevity, and athletic performance, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), including:

  • Meat and high levels of cholesterol increase overall bodily inflammation, damaging the body’s ability to perform and recover. Plant-based diets have the opposite effect.
  • Those on a plant-based diet typically have lower blood viscosity (i.e. it is not as thick as in meat-eaters) due to the reduced levels of lipids and cholesterol. As a result, it is easier for the blood to reach the muscles and tissues to provide oxygen, therefore boosting athletic performance.
  • People on plant-based diets have more flexible and wider arteries in general compared to meat-eaters. This improves the flow of blood around the body.  According to PCRM, “One study found that even a single high-fat meal, including sausage and egg McMuffins, impaired arterial function for several hours”.
  • Eating a plant-based diet means we consume more antioxidants; these help to neutralise free radicals, which cause muscle fatigue and impair athletic performance and recovery.
  • Due to the lower levels of fat and increased levels of fibre consumed on a plant-based diet, body fat is reduced in plant-based athletes. This, in turn, is known to increase aerobic capacity and increase their VO2 max (this is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during intense exercise); both of these mean much-improved endurance.

Which athletes are vegan?

Kate Strong is not just a one-off vegan, however; countless top athletes do not eat meat or dairy, including:

  • Serena & Venus Williams (tennis)
  • Meagan Duhamel (figure skater and Olympic gold medallist)
  • Carl Lewis
  • Morgan Mitchell (Australian sprinter)
  • Diana Taurasi (US basketball player)
  • Novak Djokovic
  • Victoria Pendleton
  • Timothy Shieff (freerunner)
  • Kyrie Irving (basketball)
  • Scott Jurek (ultramarathon)
  • Jermain Defoe (football)
  • David Haye (boxer)
  • Fabian Delph (football)
  • Barny du Plessis (bodybuilding)
  • Hannah Teter (snowboarding)
  • Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1)
  • Chris Smalling (football)
  • Kendrick Yahcob Farris (Weightlifting)

Final words

If you are still on the fence and are concerned that plant-based eating may reduce your athletic performance, watch the movie ‘The Games Changers’ on Netflix.  This will leave you in no doubt that switching to a wholly plant-based diet or at least reducing your meat and dairy consumption in favour of more fruits and vegetables may be the single best thing you can do for your body and overall health, whether you are an athlete or not.