Can you be an athlete and a vegan? We find out

More and more athletes are cutting out meat and dairy. Claire Gorman tracks down the athletes going vegan

David Cleary at Tullamore rugby club, Co Offaly. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

David Cleary at Tullamore rugby club, Co Offaly. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

 

Cutting out meat and dairy might not seem like the most likely path to high sports performance, but some athletes could be missing a trick by dismissing a vegan diet.

The plant-based diet, favoured by well-known faces such as the Happy Pear twins, ultra marathon runner Scott Jurek and tennis ace Venus Williams, is becoming increasingly popular.

A growing number of fitness enthusiasts and athletes in a range of sports are benefiting from eating whole, plant-based foods.

David Cleary (27), a rugby player and weight-lifter based in Tullamore, Co Offaly, adopted a fully vegan diet in January of this year after gradually transitioning from being dairy-free.

“I would have had completely vegan days every couple of days and that would have become more frequent over the past couple of years. At the start I just didn’t feel like dairy was good for my body. I felt better without it,” he explains.

“It was a slow transition, but every couple of months I sort of lowered it, cut out milk, yoghurts, etc. It was mainly for health reasons at the start. Going completely vegan then was more out of curiosity to see if it impacted performance playing rugby or weight-lifting, if there were any negative effects or just positive.”

Cleary found that, although his performance suffered somewhat during his first month as a vegan, the benefits of his new diet are now obvious.

“If anything I feel better, I recover quicker from either a rugby game or a weight-lifting session. I find my recovery has actually improved, which is not what you’re led to believe,” he says.

“I think a lot of people maybe get put off by those first couple of weeks, but if you get through that you will start feeling better. It’s trying to get people through those first couple of weeks that’s the key.”

Jack English (25), a free runner and street performer with Dublin City Bboys, also admits to having felt a reduction in performance when he first became vegan three and a half years ago.

“I could still do everything while I was transitioning. The transitioning process was really challenging because I had been eating meat and cheese and everything. I think it affected my performance a little bit at the start,” he recalls.

“Eventually, I reached the same level again and then started getting better from that point. Once I got back to that level of performance I was able to keep pushing and pushing myself every day.

“It was getting easier to train multiple days in a row because I was eating really healthily, lots of water-dense foods and that’s where it comes from. When you eat living plants rather than dead animals or excretions it’s a big difference.

“It’s helped a lot with energy and feeling lighter because you don’t really have to worry about digestion.”

English says the positive impact veganism has on his performance is an added bonus, as he adopted the diet to stop supporting the animal food industry.

“I saw a Youtube video of Gary Yourofsky. It’s a famous speech and it spawned loads of thoughts in my head and I decided to research it on the internet. I discovered lots of things I didn’t know about the animal industry and how the diet affects people and what you actually eat [as a vegan], not just celery sticks,” he says.

“There’s so many [meal] options I discovered and it made me better at cooking as well. It’s just the right path to follow. I think the most important part is being aware that animals are suffering for your benefit.”

Anita Cody-Kenny excersing on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Anita Cody-Kenny excersing on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Physicality and mentality

Anita Cody-Kenny (32), who trains up to six times a week running or in the gym, has found that she has benefited both physically and mentally from the plant-based diet since she changed from being vegetarian in January.

“I was dating a vegan and he suggested I try it for January just to see if I would feel any better. I was kind of intrigued because I had spoken to vegans years ago and they just felt amazing and he was saying the same thing. I was kind of sceptical because I thought, having given up meat in July already, that I wouldn’t feel much better,” she explains.

“So I tried it for January and I did feel a lot better then but because I was finding it a bit awkward, I decided to try bringing dairy back in. When I brought dairy back in I just felt rubbish so I decided not to go back on it.

“I’ve noticeably more energy and not only that but I’m more alert in my mind. I feel healthier. I find it hard to describe but I feel very clean inside. It’s weird but my mind is clearer. It’s good for mind and body.

“When I went from a pescatarian to vegan the noticeable difference was the energy. I was feeling good anyway but after going vegan I felt even better again. That was surprisingly noticeable after a few weeks. I think your body gets used to the cleanliness of the food so even if I have something with milk by mistake, I’d notice it straight away in my stomach.”

Cody-Kenny, an English teacher at St Peter’s College in Dunboyne, Co Meath, says the change has also encouraged her to become better at cooking.

“I was a dire cook beforehand and I was just really lazy. I’d have come home from school and I’d have gone to the gym so by the time I’d come home I’d be starving. I’d literally just eat a boiled egg or a bowl of Corn Flakes or peanut butter and crackers,” she recalls.

Junk food

“Two good things that have come from it are that I can’t eat any junk food and even if I do eat junk food it’s not that bad. It also forced me to learn how to cook because if you don’t cook, you just can’t really eat anything in the evenings so you’d starve otherwise.

“It’s forced me to try out different recipes and focus on what I’m eating because you have to make sure that you get all your nutrients and everything still. I pay attention to what I’m putting into the dinner, just in terms of getting the right proteins.

“It’s actually quite hard not to get enough protein in if you’re eating loads of fruit and veg anyway but just making sure I get in things like protein, calcium, B12 and things like that.”

She says that despite initial adjustments like remembering to bring dairyfree milk to work and finding a substitute for eggs as a snack, it’s been an easy adjustment to maintain.

“Everyone thinks it’s really extreme and really difficult, but if you’re cooking for yourself and preparing your own meals it’s easy. Especially in Dublin, you can get everything you need. It just means you have to be organised so you have to have your lunch and your dinner ready or, say if I’m staying overnight or going out to my parents’ house, I have to bring lunch for two days and dinner or you can go to the shop or whatever,” she says.

“I snack quite a lot, so I make sure I have loads of snacks with me. It can be a little awkward if you’re eating out or going for dinner. Just getting used to it is the main thing.”

Cleary, who set up his blog, Plantsforreps. com, to help others with recipe ideas and advice, says that although it can be difficult to eat out, it’s no different to any other diet.

“It’s not too bad [trying to stick to it] in cities, but if you’re eating out where I’m based in Offaly at the minute there’s not many options. There’s very few, if any really. A lot of places will have a token vegetarian dish, but beyond that you’re quite limited,” he says.

“I find I very rarely go out for dinner unless I was going to a vegan restaurant or if I’m in London or Dublin. Beyond that it’s quite limited. In terms of the food itself it’s a matter of getting enough protein, which is something I would look at a lot because I still think a high protein diet is necessary and I find I recover better on it.

“It’s just trying to find the foods that are easy to prepare, high in protein and taste good as well. It may be a challenge, but it’s also been enjoyable. You have to get a bit more creative with your cooking.”

Vegan-friendly supplements

The rugby player, who has also set up Greengains.ie, a website selling vegan-friendly supplements, says he finds he needs to eat less than before and gets more benefit from the food he consumes.

“I always eat quite a bit anyway. I’m probably eating more carbs than I would have done but that probably does help training as well. I find I utilise and digest my food better on a vegan diet,” he says.

“I did eat a lot of meat, especially growing up beside a farm. I utilise the food better now and get more out of it, so that means I don’t have to eat as much as I might have done before.”

He adds that his teammates at Railway Union RFC became curious about his eating habits after initial scepticism and slagging.

“It definitely turned into a talking point. They got a good laugh out of it. The skinny, hippy sort of vegan is what most people associate with it, but then I found after a couple of months playing, some of the guys were coming to me and asking about a recipe I put on Instagram or something I put on the blog, stuff like that,” he says. “They started to get more interested in it then themselves. Rugby guys are a tough nut to crack if you’re trying to wean them off meat or dairy products, but I think they definitely warmed up to it after a couple of weeks.

“In terms of family, they were surprised as well, but there was no issue. They do their best to have vegan days here and there. Even my father has started baking dairyfree breads.”

Health conscious

English, who has been free-running for more than 10 years, says his training friends have become much more health conscious in recent years.

He assures that is doesn’t cost a fortune to follow a vegan diet: “It really depends on what you’re buying and where you’re buying it. If you’re going back to basics, say student meals, like beans and rice, is the cheapest food ever. There are ways of making it really cheap. Whereas if you want an average-priced meal you can maybe spice up the cheap meal with something like lemons or avocados or garlic. Lentils, beans and cous cous are great.

“I’m a big fan of cous cous because it only takes five minutes to prepare and you can mix it with beans as well, so it’s a really high protein, quick meal. That’s something I would cook a lot for straight after training.”

Cody-Kenny says that, although she misses sweet treats when meeting friends for coffee, it’s easy to find substitutes to suit her cravings. “I must admit I do miss cake and scones and things. If I get a craving it’s for chocolate or cake. I do miss eggs because they’re really convenient and you can do lots of dishes with them,” she says.

“You can substitute it all quite easily. You can just get some dark chocolate which I used to hate but now I like it. You can get nice desserty things like vanilla soy yoghurt and things like that.”

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