Why a plant-based diet is no barrier to cycling performance

Rouleur Performance expert Daniel Healey on hitting peak cycling performance when fuelled by a vegan or vegetarian diet…

It’s not just because of sensational Netflix documentaries, including The Game Changers, that plant-based diets are more popular than ever. There’s evidence that vegetarianism or veganism cuts obesity, type-2 diabetes and hypertension in the general population. But what about for the road cyclist – can you succeed on a plant-based diet?

Related – Training and heat

Peak Performance on Plants

The short answer is yes. Australian Adam Hansen made history in 2018 when he finished the Giro d’Italia, making it 20 consecutive GrandTour finishes in a row. It’s a record that’ll stand for years, if not forever. For much of his 14-year career, the now-retired Hansen was fuelled by a vegetarian diet before turning vegan in 2017.

Then there’s Trek-Segafredo’s Lizzie Deignan. The 32-year-old Brit, who recently won the Tour de Suisse Women, gave up meat at 10 years old and has since gone on to enjoy a stellar track- and road-cycling career.

In short, a plant-based diet shouldn’t prevent you hitting your road-cycling goals, as long as you’re armed with knowledge. And that starts by understanding the differences that exist between these diets. Here are the most common types of plant-based diet, starting with the most extreme to the most flexible…

  • Veganism Consists of vegetables, legumes, fruit, grains, nuts and seeds. No food or ingredients from animal sources.
  • Vegetarianism Vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts and grains. May include traces of eggs and dairy, but certainly no meat.
  • Lacto vegetarianism Vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts and grains. Includes dairy but no eggs.
  • Ovo vegetarianism Vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts and grains. Includes eggs but no dairy.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarianism Vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts and grains. Includes dairy and eggs.
  • Pescetarianism Mostly vegetarian diet with the inclusion of seafood. Might include moderate amounts of dairy and/or eggs.
  • Semi-vegetarianism Mostly vegetarian diet with occasional inclusion of meat, eggs or poultry.

Which you choose is clearly a personal preference. What’s more general is that we all want to ride further and faster, whether that’s on a training ride or at a sportive. And that’s possible by following our five-step plan…

1 Fuel Your Best 

A vegan or vegetarian plan is high in carbohydrate, making it a good option for carb-burning roadies. That’s reflected in the studies into the impact of veganism and/or vegetarianism on endurance-athlete performance with negligible differences in power output or VO2max when compared to their omnivorous counterparts. 

But beware. High plant-based carbohydrate intake equals high fibre intake. That’s good if you’re looking to lose weight but makes it tricky to consume enough calories on heavy training days. If you don’t keep on top of things, consistently low energy intake can lead to persistent fatigue, reduced bone density and hormone imbalances. 

The solution? On heavier training days, simply eat more and more often. Include more healthy fats from nuts, seeds or avocado, and consume higher glycaemic-index (GI) carbohydrates – GI is how quickly each food affects your blood-sugar levels – in the four hours post-ride. High GI foods the cyclist staple of rice cakes, plus bagels and most breakfast cereal. White pasta and rice with vegetables are also excellent options at the end of those long and often hard training rides. 

  • The take-home Make sure you eat more, and more frequently, during periods of high training load. Targeting ‘higher’ GI foods during recovery is also a good strategy for increasing energy intake.

2 Recover Faster 

Road cyclists need high levels of protein, or amino acids, to stimulate recovery from long training rides. The problem is, the protein content of plants is relatively low, and few provide all the essential amino acids (EAAs) that the human body needs for growth and recovery. Plant-based protein also has a lower biological value than its animal equivalent. This means that less is absorbed and so more must be consumed to meet athletic dietary protein guidelines.  

Thankfully, there’s a double-pronged solution: whole foods and supplementation. When it comes to whole foods, aim for around 2g/kg (so 150g of protein for a 75kg rider) by consuming a wide range of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Then target plant products that are rich in EAAs such as buckwheat, soy, chia seeds and quinoa. 

As for supplementation, there are many vegan or vegetarian protein products available, which should be consumed 30mins after a hard training ride. Straight after you’ve dismounted, a protein drink will deliver superior recovery compared to whole food. Allow another 30 to 45mins for this liquid supplement to pass through the stomach and then move onto whole foods for the remainder of the day.

  • The take-home Consume a mix of whole foods such as grains, legumes, nuts/seeds and an appropriate protein supplement. Seek buckwheat, soya, chia seeds and quinoa as these are high in essential amino acids (EAAs).

3 Fat Is Your Friend

There’s overwhelming evidence that a plant-based diet is great for cardiovascular health. That’s because cutting animal products cuts saturated fat intake. Just note that a lack of fatty acids can put vegan and vegetarian cyclists at risk of immune or hormonal dysfunction, which clearly impacts performance. 

One important fatty acid to tick off is Omega 3, which is primarily found in fish. Omega-3 fatty acids come in two forms: EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). While certain nuts and seeds contain the raw material that converts to EPA, there’s no similar pathway for DHA production. 

You can bunny hop this fatty-acid hurdle by consuming more walnuts, flaxseed, chia and pumpkin seeds, and cook with olive or coconut oil. The foods and oils listed here are high in alpha linoleic acids (ALA), which converts to the EPA form of Omega 3. But what about DHA? Omega 3 DHA, which is important for brain function and sight, can be topped up via supplements that derive from algae.  

  • The take-home Include walnuts, flaxseed, chia and pumpkin seeds as these are high in ALA, which is the precursor for Omega 3 EPA. For Omega 3 DHA, an algae-based supplement is a great option.

4 Iron Equals Energy

Iron’s essential for energy production, and iron intake for vegans and vegetarians is similar to omnivores in terms of quantity. That said, issues arise for those following plant-based diets because of a difference in iron quality. Plant sources of iron are found in the non-heme form, which is less well absorbed than the heme variant found in animal products. Whole grains and legumes are good sources of iron, and also contain substances called phytates that reduce iron absorption. Due to these absorption issues, vegans and vegetarians should aim for a higher intake of iron from food than those on a mixed diet.

Coffee, though beloved by cyclists, can inhibit iron absorption

Iron-rich foods include nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables and tofu, while consuming alongside a source high in vitamin C – like a red pepper, for example – enhances iron absorption. The tannins in coffee or tea, however, inhibits iron absorption, so don’t drink these with your meal. 

  • The take-home Add vitamin C to iron rich foods such as nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables and tofu. Avoid coffee or tea with meals.

5 Supplement With B12

Vitamin B12 is the most common micronutrient deficiency for vegans and vegetarians. That’s because vitamin B12 isn’t found in plants and can’t be synthesised by the human body from other sources, either. Vitamin B12 is essential for normal functioning of the nervous system and the production of healthy red blood cells. For the keen cyclist, one of the signs of B12 deficiency is fatigue. 

The road ahead for managing vitamin B12 deficiency is through supplementation or foods that have been fortified with B12 during the production process. In terms of vitamin supplements, look for those that contain methylcobalamin, the active form of vitamin B12, which is assimilated more easily into the body. 

  • The take-home Boost Vitamin B12 intake via supplementation (vitamin B12 or multivitamin) or foods fortified with B12.

One final one: calcium and zinc intake should also be monitored. Calcium can be found in soy-based products, kale, broccoli and Bok choy, while zinc is present in cereal grains, nuts and soy.

The reasons for adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle are many and varied. Perhaps the decision was made out of respect for the environment, animals or the irrefutable health benefits of a plant-based diet? Whatever the reason, one thing’s certain: veganism and vegetarianism do not hinder cycling performance; in fact, they can enhance it, provided you adhere to these essential tips.

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