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  • AutorenbildTina Christmann

Powerful points for a plant-based athlete diet

Aktualisiert: 3. Mai 2021

Athletes eat a lot. Especially endurance athletes. 3000-5000 k cal can be the norm on extensive training days. And fuelling our body in the best possible way is one key factor to success. However, given the huge amount of food needed per day and the attached ecological footprint of requiring a lot of food, for me one big priority has always been to get that energy into my body in the most environmentally friendly and feasible way.

After turning to a vegetarian diet at the age of 18, and a couple of years later to a plant-based diet, and still managing to perform at a high athletic level, I though it would be about time to share some of my plant-based performance experience through 6 powerful points for plant-based diets . Whatever lifestyle change you endeavour to undertake, whether its a diet or a new form of exercise or some other new routine, the easier and more pleasant you make it for yourself to fit into daily life, the easier it will be to stick to it in the long-term.

My six key tips

1. Understand what you need without being overly scientific

2. Seize your veg proteins

3. Eat smart before, during & after training

4. Use spices and flavours to make your taste buds dance

5. Love your toppings

6. Cook with team mates and spread the word

Obviously, I am no dietician and this is by no means an exhaustive professional entry, but more a summary of ideas and tips that kept me going and made my journey as a plant-based endurance athlete fun & delicious. I encourage you to experiment, get your hands dirty in the kitchen to get to know your physical requirements to work out what works best for you as an individual and in the long-term.

1. Understand what you need without being overly scientific

Broadly you'll need three macro-nutrients: carbs, fats & proteins, and micro-nutrients such as various vitamins, omega 3 acids & fibre and a few more. I tend not to worry too much about ratios and counting calories and instead focus on enjoying the process of creating a nice meal and looking forward to some delicious food during a training session and then eating a big plate of it. And as an athlete I've found that I definitely need more than three meals a day - on most days I would have a small breakfast before morning training, a big bowl of porridge after, a nice late lunch, some snacks such as fruits & peanut butter or some homemade banana bread or cake in the afternoon and a big early dinner. I don't worry too much about when I eat what, but do try to stick to roughly consistent meal times and do focus on re-fuelling immediately after exercise (see section 3).

After a few years of eating plant-based I have gotten into a routine of having meals in which about 1/3 is some sort of carbohydrate (such as brown rice, pasta, couscous, quinoa, bread or so), 1/2 some combination of different vegetables and roughly 1/6 some plant-based protein such as beans, tofu or veggie-sausages/veggie-mince. I usually top it with some delicious nuts & seeds (see section on toppings) for some extra nutrients such as omega 3 acids.

The only nutrient I consistently supplement is B12, a key vitamin for our blood & nerve system. Vitamin B12 is produced by soil bacteria and free-roaming live stock that gets in contact with soil accumulates it in its body and milk - hence some parts of meat (such as liver) contain large amounts of B12. But guess what - with our industrial agricultural systems, many animal don't roam around on pastures anymore and hence get B12 supplemented via fortified feeding. So for me it seems absurd to eat meat just for the B12. While you can get B12 in plant-based ways from some algae or also from nutritional yeast, it is hard to fulfil your daily requirements in these ways. B12 comes in convenient little tablets or in some toothpastes which is how I supplement it. Some plant-based food is also fortified with B12, such as various plant-based drinks, but usually at low concentrations.

2. Seize your veg proteins

Yes, proteins are essential to muscle growth and recovery and are the stuff enzymes are made of, but what really powers our endurance sessions are carbohydrates. So while I see a necessity to fit proteins well into meals, the constant over-emphasis on proteins is truly unhelpful (just think about the hundreds of times you might have been asked where you get your protein from....).

There are plenty of plant-based protein sources. There are so many that for me picking one is almost difficult. The key point for me is that most foods aren't either protein or carbohydrates or fats, but often a nice combination of two or three macronutrients. There are lentils, peas and beans, which all have decent amounts of proteins but also good amounts of carbohydrates; nuts and seeds in general have a lot of proteins but also a lot of fats; oats and other grains are high in carbs and proteins; and many vegetables (such as mushrooms or leafy greens) do have proteins albeit in lower concentrations.

For me this means incorporating two of these food groups into meals to get a good amount of proteins but also carbs and fats in at the same time without overthinking this. Ideas for doing this are for instance transforming a traditional sausage & mash into a lentil-based gravy with soy-sausages and sauerkraut (photo on the left), or making a stir fry with green beans, tempeh and sprinkling over some peanuts, or adding a good spoonful of peanut butter to your morning porridge.

Here again the essence I find is to experiment and to try out new combinations. The market for plant-based proteins is booming (at least in the UK) with many products now even managing to fool meat eaters and I recommend every now and then trying out some of the newcomer products and by doing so also supporting some of the newly emerging plant-based companies.

3. Eat smart before, during & after training

Training exposes our bodies to (mostly healthy) physical stress, which if the training stimulus is right results in an adaptational response of our muscles and cardio-vascular system at a higher level leading to a performance increase. However, in order for this adaptational process to take place, we need to provide our body with energy and fluids at the right time and in the right amounts. Without overcomplicating this, for me that means three practical things:

1) make sure you are fuelled and hydrated properly before training. I would usually have an actual meal about 2h before training and a little snack (like a banana, or a cereal bar) right before it in order to be well fuelled but not feel overly full. Some snacks that kept me going (linked in my recipe section) and are easy to prep or make in bulk and eat before, during or after a session are: banana bread, quick oat and seed cookies or peanut butter-apple cake.

2) Eat snacks and drink enough during long sessions (I'm looking at you 100km+ bike rides!). Especially for forms of endurance exercise that extend beyond 60-90mins you will realise a drop in performance and energy levels if you don't steadily supply carbohydrates and fluids. As a general rule you'll need about 1l of water per hour and about 30-60g carbohydrates. For me that usually means taking some sort of sugary drink on long bike rides or long runs (I go for a mix of 2/3 water + 1/3 orange/apple juice with a tablespoon of sugar and a pinch of salt) and having a solid snack every 40ish minutes. My go-to snack for long sessions are bananas, oat cookies or left-over pancakes. On really long sessions, I am also not opposed to having a halfway stop at a little cafe or tea garden...

3) Fuel properly after training. Let's be honest, how often do we actually manage to drink the required 3-4l on a long bike ride or actually eat one cereal bar and half a banana every 40mins? In most cases after a long session, we will be slightly dehydrated and under fuelled, feeling like we want to drink the content of a lake and raid the whole sweets section at the next supermarket... So, we need to make sure to properly get the energy and fluids back into the system right after training. For me that means having some immediate 'recovery' food and constant sips of water or diluted fruit juice while I am stretching, such as a quick oat-banana-soy milk-berry smoothie, or some quick leftovers from the day before. Eating within 30mins after completing your session is really key here - as during that time we are in the 'open window' state, that is a 'short term suppression of the immune system following an acute bout of endurance exercise' and during that time we also have a refuelling window, where the energy we put in our system is converted into glycogen (the form carbohydrates are stored in our muscles) up to three times faster than at other times. So make sure you use that window! I like scheduling my training sessions so that I finish them right before lunch or dinner and have constant snacks while I cook.

4. Use spices and flavours to make your taste buds dance

Ever wondered why barbecued meats taste so good? Well, mostly because of a well-thought through marinade made to complement the fatty flavour of the meat - and as most previous meat-eaters will know, meat without the spice does lack the extra kick and flavour. It is the same with many different types of vegetable and plant-based proteins - steamed by themselves they can be delicious but are often a bit bland. So it is all about the spice and the flavours and with a few tips you can make any type of vegetable, legume or tofu taste incredible - and it will be greater than the sum of its parts.

My spice cupboard consists of broadly three different categories of spices & herbs:

A) The mediterranean herb arrangement, e.g. dried rosemary, oregano, thyme & basil,

B) The curry bits & bobs, such as mustard, cumin, fennel & coriander seed, ground turmeric, ground ginger & garlic, tandoori masala and garam marsala pre-made spice mix, chilli flakes etc.

C) The frequently used flavoursome compounds such as nutritional yeast & a good dried veggie stock. Then I've got a good stock of additional flavour fairies such as tahini, peanut butter, vinegar, red & white wine, agave/maple sirup, sugar, lemons/limes and soy sauce which in various combinations give the last 'oomph' to a dish.

D) different oils, such as olive oil, sesame oil and various flavoured olive oils like basil or chilli-oil.

The combination and order in which you use these ingredients is key - and by no means a wizard's work! There's just a few tricks you can use to create incredibly fragrant meals:

For tofu and any other kind of 'meat replacement', such as tempeh, quorn or saitan it's all about the marinade. For a rich marinade you could look at a combination of soy sauce, some agave sirup and peanut butter, or you could go for something more mediterranean such as a marinade with oil, oregano & paprika spice. Cut the tofu/seitan/quorn fillets into the desired shape & marinate for 1h+. For a crispy tofu you'd drain the tofu for an hour (or put it in the microwave for 1min), then cut it into cubes, marinate in the marinade - then dust it with some cornflower or starch and bake it in the oven for 20ish minutes. This crispy tofu can be served with any kind of dish really - for instance on a bed of couscous salad or on top of some past

However, if you want to have those plant protein powerhouses in a curry or in a more saucy dish - then it's all about the sauce. Add the tofu/seitan/quorn early on, so they can absorb the sauce and look at having enough liquid and some rich substances in the sauce, such as coconut milk or soy./oat cream.

When cooking a vegetable stir fry I go with the general rule of combining some sweet, salty & spicy flavours - so for an asian-inspired version I would heat up some sesame oil, toast a few chilli flakes & sliced garlic & ginger in the oil, stir in some finely chopped vegetables and after a few minutes stir in a few tbsp of soy sauce, a tbsp of agave sirup and a tbsp of rice vinegar. Top with some sesame seeds & coriander and you'll have an incredibly fragrant stir fry which you can serve with some rice or rice noodles. For an Italian version on the other hand I'd go with olive oil in which I heat up a stalk of rosemary and garlic with some red onions, then add courgette, aubergine and maybe some cannellini beans. After 5 minutes or so I'd stir in some tomato paste, add a bit of hot water, some oregano, a tbsp of balsamic vinegar and a tsp of sugar. give it a good stir & add salt and pepper to taste and voila - you'll have a nice italian-inspired dish.

The good thing with these spices & favours if that many of them are incredibly healthy, packed with anti-oxidants and many of the sauces & marinades you can create come with a decent amount of healthy fats (I'm looking at you Tahini!).

5. Love your toppings

I love adding some rich additions on top of my meals - and often they do help in getting some good calories in and increasing the caloric density of a meal, such as needed after a really long cycle ride or a training camp day.

Broadly I have 3 categories of toppings: 1) nuts & seeds, 2) oily things and 3) fresh herbs.

My all-time favourites are pumpkin & sunflower seeds, as well as flax seeds & walnuts (both rich in omega 3 acids). Just add a few tbsp over any kind of meal and enjoy some extra crunch and flavour. If you toast the seeds you can even get some greater flavours out of the nuts & seeds - such a some roasted almonds or pine seeds over a creamy pasta dish or some crumbled walnuts over a beetroot-bulgar stew.

For my breakfast I add a big spoon on smooth peanut butter over my oatmeal or porridge or for an indulgence sometimes a few chunks of dark chocolate.

Over curries or stews I usually add some fresh chopped herbs, such as fresh coriander or spring onions.

6. Cook with team mates and try out new things

The power of a plant-based diets and the environmental benefits they bring truly unfold when you spread the word and when more than one person goes plant-based. Without being dogmatic and telling everyone not to eat animals, what about inviting your team mates to a nice plant-based dinner or making a nice loaf of banana bread for the whole squad? When I started rowing for Oxford, most people on my team, including my coach, were sceptical of a plant-based diet - mostly because there wasn't a lot of precedence - but it didn't take long until some of team mates tried a more vegetarian diet and to become more creative by trying out new plant-based recipes.

Nowadays the web is full of incredible blogposts, insta feeds and recipes of delicious plant-based foods - often simple dishes or some of our childhood classics re-imagined and there are thousands of plant-based athletes with great success stories (take a look at Ironman Rich Roll for instance). For me, showing that I can perform well, mostly powered by plants, was a stepping stone for many others to follow and I am proud of having the courage to talk about it and get others on boards. In a decade or so, I am sure plant-based diets will be the norm and I am truly looking forward to it.

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