Monday, May 10, 2010

The Vegan Athlete

Over the last five years I have competed in endurance events ranging from triathlons to road races of all distances that include 10k's, half-marathons, and many marathons. About three years ago I discovered trail running and ultramarathons and they have been my passion and main focus ever since...although I still dabble in other races as part of my training.

Lately, I have been getting numerous emails from people all over the country regarding being a vegan athlete. Most are intrigued and have questions about how I get certain nutrients. Just recently I received an email from a Montrail sponsored athlete named Matt Hart who has a lot of experience and such enthusiasm for endurance sports. I have noticed that Matt also has a true thirst for knowledge and information and recently has been on a nutrition kick. He asked me if I'd be willing to share a little bit about my typical day of training and eating, and I gladly agreed to share some of my experience of being a vegan athlete.

This blog post is about how I fuel myself nutritionally day in and day out and gives a little insight into being a vegan athlete.

First...a brief history:

About two and a half years ago after watching a documentary by Woody Harrelson called "Go Further" a seed was planted in my brain about changing my diet and lifestyle. Check out the trailer's worth watching in it's entirety because, not only is it very eye-opening and informational, it is quite entertaining as well!

From that point on Erica and I decided to give it a go but only lasted about 12 days until I "caved-in" at a restaurant and ordered a NY strip steak while she ordered the jumbo scallops. I wrote it off as, "I'm an athlete and I need the protein, etc." and I really was feeling a little sluggish and tired in those 12 days. As we fell back into our "old" diet the thoughts of Woody's documentary still lingered in our heads and Erica continued to read more literature about veganism. She would continually read me tidbits of information and I would kind of push them away still thinking along the lines of, "that doesn't apply to me...I'm an athlete...I have special needs!" But, like Woody said...a lifetime of eating and thinking is difficult to change right away.

As time went on we continued to stay open-minded to more information and came across a woman named Colleen who started "Compassionate Cooks". Honestly this was the nail in the coffin for me. On the podcasts delivered by Colleen she debunked myth after myth for me and did so in a way that was not "preachy". Something shifted inside of me and I felt that this was beyond just nutritional needs, but for the sake of other living beings. That would be the last time I purposely consumed animal flesh or products save a few very minimal pieces of dairy here and there.

Long story short I continued to learn and read on and on about the whole world of endurance sports athletes that are successful on a vegan diet. Of course the big ones are Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier and I have been in contact with both of them and greatly respect them as athletes and their philosophies. I also lived in the same city (Ithaca, NY) as the world renowned researcher at Cornell University (and author of "The China Study") T. Colin Campbell, and have learned so much in that book. Campbell has joined forces to create a powerful movie that will be airing this summer called "Forks Over Knives". Watch the trailer HERE. There are many more excellent books out there and tons of information on the internet if you are interested.

Since I have been vegan I have experienced way more benefits than I ever would have imagined. I have gotten much faster and stronger. My endurance and energy levels have improved immensely and I recover so amazingly quick. Most importantly I feel extremely healthy spiritually knowing that I didn't have to kill or exploit another living being in order for my wants. I get all my nutritional needs from plant-based whole foods and to make sure of it I just had a blood test to confirm. My doctor even raised his eyebrows!

So what does a typical day look like for me in terms of training and eating?

A lot of my philosophy involves simplicity and variety and fun. I try to eat many different types of foods that are in their natural state and am lucky to have a farmer's market to buy local fruits and vegetables walking distance every Saturday morning. Then the fun part is finding recipes, putting on the chef hat, and hitting the kitchen!

One of my favorite morning recipes is one for Steel Cut Oats...seen HERE. It cooks while you sleep and for early morning risers and runners this is perfect to get you out the door. I will usually have a little before I go, and then some more when I return from my 6-10 mile morning run, coupled with about two or three different types of fruits. Lately I have been eating those little Cutie Mandarins, Grapefruit, Apples, Medjol Dates, Oranges, Berries, Cantaloupe. Like I said I always mix it up as far as fruit goes.

Lunch time I usually go for a big salad, again, with lots of variety. Different types of greens and vegetables. I sprinkle seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin along with some ground flax seed for Omega 3's. I often accompany salad with some sort of whole grain such as brown rice, Millet, or Soba Noodles (buckwheat). Some sort of lentil or bean is usually in the mix and if you are a vegan then you definitely eat your fair share of the nutritionally loaded pseudograin quinoa. As of late I have been accompanying my lunch with one of Brendan Brazier's recipes called "Garlic Oregano Yam Oven Fries" from his book Thrive. Check out the recipe HERE...They are so tasty and very nutritions! Sometimes I run in the afternoon too based on my schedule. With high mileage training you basically have to get in the miles when ever you can...and are eating quite often!

I continue to eat fruits throughout the day and very often after a run I will make an easily digestible power smoothie in the Vita-mix. If I had to choose one thing to keep in the whole kitchen it would be this machine! It's a vegan's best friend and makes life so much easier. I add frozen fruit, greens, carrot, fresh ginger root, a little hemp milk (and hemp protein mix), banana, etc. and drink down a nutrient dense shake to replenish after a good hard mountain run. I also like to experiment with different ingredients to see what I like. My palate has changed so much over the last two years that often when I crave something sweet I usually think of some "new" fruit to try.

Dinner time is usually much of the same philosophy of trying to mix it up and give the body a nice variety of nutrients. I try to stay away from refined sugar, flour, etc. but I am not perfect and I don't attempt to be. Running at night is also a common theme during high mileage weeks (right now!) so double running days are common. Another thing I love about being vegan is that you never have to wait too long to go run because your body is not having to work so hard to break down, for example, meat. I remember when I was eating a lot of meat I would have to wait sometimes like three hours before I went running after a meal. I am not a person that relies heavily on faux meats, etc. or tofu. I do, however, like tempeh and other fermented foods, but I feel that I get all the protein I need and more from the whole foods that I eat.

The weekends are usually huge days for me in terms of running and eating and often times I devour everything in sight. Lately I have been reading a lot about leaning towards mostly a raw diet but not sure because I really like to eat whole grain pastas, cous cous, wild and brown rice, lentils, etc. But then again I never thought that I would be able to eat foods that didn't involve dairy and meat so we'll see!

There is a lot of good information about vegan diets and ultrarunning HERE. I invite you to have your own experience and try things out and make a decision based on what works and your own personal beliefs. I have found something that works for me in a multitude of ways and honestly never see myself going back to eating animal products.

I will close with something that I love that Scott Jurek told me about promoting being vegan. He said that he tries to use "the soft sell approach to make people more intrigued...and much like running an have to show that anyone can do it!"


Anonymous said...

You amaze me bro! So nice to read your thoughts! What a journey! Love you, Daura

Erica said...

So glad that you finally wrote this blog post and I hope you forward the link to Colleen at Compassionate Cooks. I have to say that I love being on the vegan journey with you and as a pregnant woman I also find that this diet gives me plenty of whole food based energy.

I think it is important to mention that we didn't give it long enough during our first attempt - and I think we felt like we were going to have to make such big sacrifices. But with the podcast from Colleen we changed our thinking - I remember her saying "do what you can do, and do it now. Don't do nothing because you can't do it all" and "there are no perfect vegans"....that gave me permission to investigate for myself how I felt eating this way. I feel great. I have watched your performance increase and your recovery time dramatically decrease since switching to this diet.

I think for me cutting out dairy was so huge - it really cleared up my skin, helped me drop weight and have more energy. No more lethargy!

Great post...

shel said...

very interesting yassine. i recently eliminated most gluten and processed foods and try to make things as fresh as possible. i was very afraid to give up bread and pasta and pretzels and all that runners food, but it makes me feel so much better.. not slow and bloated. who knows where things will end up... nice to know that you can be successful and thrive on an unconventional diet. ever seen the movie "Food Inc." you may like it.. it's a great one... it was so disturbing, not just in the treatment of animals but in the production of vegetables that it made me want to go buy land and start my own organic farm.

Yassine said...

Thanks Daura! I guess I've come a long way since I was buying Cheez-Its, Twizzlers, and cans of Mackerel at the grocery store ;o)

Erica: So glad that we're both on the same journey together. It would be difficult if you were cooking up chicken quesadillas while I was trying to be vegan! You were one of the people that opened me up to the possibility of being a successful vegan athlete. Thank you...xoxoxo

Shel: Thanks...glad you're testing things out and feeling lighter on your feet. I can definitely relate w/ that. Yes, I saw Food Inc. in the theater when it came out. Pretty powerful...I think it was great and necessary for Americans to see it. I hope to have a little garden someday although an organic garden would be nice! ;o)

Anonymous said...

I too am glad you wrote more in your blog! I'm thinking about trying to switch after Bighorn. Thanks for sharing, keep it up.

acekyle said...

thanks for the post yassine and for sharing your journey to veganism. i recall we talked about it for long last year, but through this post, i got the tidbits, esp. you honesty about the first failed attempts, like what happened to me ;-).
yeah, i'd definitely say that much like erica, i kepts searching and searching and reading, despite my failed attempts last year, b/c there was a voice inside me that was saying that killing other creature for our own food/palate pleasure is just palin wrong.
funny, now i've been raw vegan for 3months and i totally share what you reported: energy level, quick recovery, mental clarity, etc!
thanks yassine xo for your support and encouragements!

Rusty Keeler said...

makes me want to fire up the vitamix right now! you rule, Yassine!


Trevor said...

Thank for your post buddy. I've learned so much on the subject from you during our long runs on the trails. As you know, I've cut out almost all dairy....just haven't been able to cut out that darn chicken and the seldom eaten fish. So when are we going to Vita Cafe again?! Cheers!

Ruben said...

You don't win friends with salad!

Just kidding, can't wait for Forest Park. You are going to love racing the "home course"!

Sara said...

Great post, Yassine.

Did you go to Moosewood Restaurant when you were back east? I love their Cooking for Health cookbook.

Sara said...

p.s. I realize that Moosewood's not vegan, but they are doing more vegan and raw in their books now.

olga said...

Funny as I am trying a close path, and as Erica said, think not "giving up", but introducing more new things at first. Best of luck!

Yassine said...

Thanks everyone...great to hear your feedback and some of your own experiences as well.

Sara: Yes, we lived in Ithaca so we would frequent The Moosewood Restaurant often and we have their cookbooks too. Good stuff!

Richard Stewart said...

Hi Yassine.

Although I am based in the UK I came across your blog post via Matt Hart on Twitter and I must say after reading your post I determined to change my food choices.

I took up running 2 years ago and have been pretty conscious about my food over a longer period of time (rarely eat dairy, red meat, more wholegrain based and fruit/veg and fish) I have often debated the benefits of changing my diet wholesale to plant based mainly due to the big impact it would have not only on my own health but my family and the wider world environmentally. Thanks for putting such great content into the post without preaching to people, I really respect that and it's provided me with a lot of good leads for info and really driven home that we should be more responsible and thoughtful about our choices.

One question I do have though is that with my 2nd ultramarathon in July if i change my diet to quickly could it impact my overall training and race performance? I don't think it would but whats your view on this. I guess this is more psychological battle than a physical one.

thanks Richard

Yassine said...

Richard, Thanks for the kind words and best wishes to you in your transition. To answer your question...No...I don't think it will negatively affect your training and in fact I think paradoxically it can help! I was making my transition to veganism right around my first 100-mile race and everything worked out for fact I recovered from the race (very quickly) and went on to PR in races soon thereafter. I'd be happy to hear how your experience goes...keep me posted! Cheers! :o)

vegpedlr said...

Don't worry about "raw" as a philosophy or lifestyle. Most long lived and healthy populations have eaten a cooked food, mostly vegan diet. For more info check and for discussions on the pros and cons of raw vs. cooked. In the meantime, eat plants and run lots!

nadia said...

Wow Yassine! There are a lot of great resources in your post and in the comments! Great post. I'm inspired to change the way I eat...

James Reno said...

I am glad I found your blog, and this article in particular. It is great to see others who know that a plant based diet can provide all we need and help us excel in athletics as well. I found a good clip here of Tony Gonzalez of the NFL showing us his vegan power shake. Keep up the great work!

James Reno

David Henry said...

Good resources Yassine and well written post. I'll be sure to check them out and we'll keep in touch about how things go. Thanks for livin' it!