Vegan and Vegetarian Athletes
We've all heard stereotypes about vegans being 98-pound weaklings and athletes needing meat in order to maintain their strength. Germany's Strongest Man titleholder Patrik Baboumian (pictured at left), ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, endurance racer Paul Chetirkin, and track-and-field champion and nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis prove the aforesaid claims are nothing but mindless prejudices and outright lies.
Many other noteworthy veg athletes have proven that broccoli is mightier than meat, too. Brendan Brazier (professional Ironman triathlete and author of three books on vegan nutrition and vegan fitness training for athletes), mixed martial artist James Wilks, ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, Desmond Howard (NCAAF Heisman Trophy winner), John Salley (4 NBA titles), Bill Walton (2 NBA titles), Cynthia Cooper (2 NCAA titles, 4 WNBA titles), Bill Pearl (4-time Mr. Universe), Bill Mannetti (powerlifting champion), Stan Price (bench-press champion), Roy Hilligenn (1951 Mr. America), Joel Kirkilis (bodybuilder), Keith Holmes (world middleweight boxing champion), Dom Repta (ultramarathoner who ran 100 miles in 20 hours), Serena Williams (14 Tennis Grand Slam Titles), Martina Navratilova (18 Tennis Grand Slam Titles), Al Oerter (4-time Olympic gold medalist discus thrower), Andy Lally (NASCAR, Grand Am Rolex Series, Streetluge), Leilani Münter (race car driver), Pam Boteler (sprint canoeist who won medals at PanAm and U.S championships competing against men!), Chris Campbell (1981 wrestling world gold medalist), Neil Whyte (Swiss Ball world record holder) and Killer Kowalski (entertainment wrestler). Be sure to check out the websites OrganicAthlete and Great Vegan Athletes as well.
For information on vegan bodybuilding, take some tips from Joel Kirkilis (pictured below at left), Billy Simmonds, Noah Hannibal, and others, and visit Melbourne Vegan Strength. By the way, you might think that aging bodybuilders can't learn new tricks. But you'd be wrong. Born in 1935, Jim Morris began lifting weights when he was 19, turned vegetarian at 50, and became vegan at 65. He has been ripped his entire career. The right-hand photo below shows Morris in his 70s!
If you're still not convinced that compassionate athletes kick MAJOR ass, check out the rest of this section, and read about the many athletes who either won Olympic medals or performed amazing athletic feats as vegans or vegetarians.
In the early 20th century, Paavo Nurmi (pictured below at left) dominated distance running by setting 22 official world records at distances between 1,500 and 20,000 meters, and won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in his twelve events in the Olympic Games. At his peak, Nurmi was undefeated at distances from 800 meters upwards for 121 races. Throughout his 14-year career, he remained unbeaten in cross country events and the 10,000-meter event. Known as "The Flying Finn," Paavo Nurmi was vegetarian.
In swimming, Murray Rose (pictured at left) was only 17 when he won three gold medals in the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia. At the 1960 Olympiad in Rome, he became the first man in history to retain his 400-meter freestyle title, and later he broke both his 400-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle world records. Rose has been a vegetarian since the age of two. Meanwhile, Bill Pickering of the United Kingdom not only set the world record for swimming the English channel; he broke the world record for swimming the Bristol Channel when he was a 48-year-old vegetarian!
Olympic gold medalist and vegetarian Edwin Moses (pictured below at right) dominated the 400-meter hurdles throughout his entire career. During one famous streak he went eight years without losing a single race, and when Sports Illustrated crowned him "Sportsman of the Year" in 1984, the magazine stated: "No athlete in any sport is so respected by his peers as Moses is in track and field."
But the "baddest of the bad" just might be Marine Captain Alan Jones of Quantico, Virginia. Although crippled by polio when he was five years old, this vegetarian machine holds the world record for performing 17,003 continuous sit-ups, and also set these insane records:
September, 1974—Lifted a 75-pound barbell over his head 1,600 times in 19 hours
February, 1975—Made 3,802 basketball free throws in 12 hours, including 96 out of 100
June, 1975—Swam 500 miles in 11 days through the Snake and Columbia Rivers, from Lewiston, Idaho to the Pacific Ocean
September, 1975—Skipped rope 43,000 times in five hours
October, 1975—Skipped rope 100,000 times in 23 hours
November, 1975—Swam over 68 miles in the University of Oregon swimming pool, without a sleeping break
December, 1975—Swam one-half mile in 32°F (0°C) water, without a wet suit, in the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa
January, 1976—Performed 51,000 sit-ups in 76 hours
Scott Jurek: Ultramarathoner, Vegan
The following article originally appeared in the New York Times online, May 12, 2010.
Ultramarathoner Jurek Takes Diet to the Extreme
By Mark Bittman
I went running with Scott Jurek on a clear, chilly morning last month, an easy four-mile loop in Central Park. He ran another few miles with 50 or so adoring fans, then another few by himself, for a total of about 15. After that he showered and came to my house to cook lunch before going for a late-afternoon jog of another 10 miles or so.
That's an easy day for Jurek, 36, an accomplished ultramarathoner. But one might say he has been in a slump: he has not won a major race since the 2008 Spartathlon. On the other hand, he set a personal record there, it was his third consecutive victory on the 153-mile course between Athens and Sparta, and he holds the fifth-, sixth- and eighth-fastest times in race history.
If last year was a wash, this year he is fit and psyched for the 24-Hour Run world championship in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France, on Thursday and Friday. It is a grueling race to determine how many miles runners can complete on a 1.4-kilometer road loop (about nine-tenths of a mile) in a 24-hour period.
Jurek says he can break the American record, 162 miles, held by Mark Godale. (The world record, 178 miles, and just about every ultramarathoning record from 100 to 1,000 miles, and from 24 hours to 10 days, are, Jurek said, "unassailably" held by Yiannis Kouros of Greece, who no longer competes.)
To win Brive, Jurek said, he must: "Get on it, crank around it, and get it done. It's all in a day's work."
It's a long day, and one that raises a particular aspect of Jurek's training that makes him an especially interesting athlete: he is a vegan, consuming no animal products.
There are other professional athletes who do not eat meat: Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, a vegetarian, may be the best known, and the hockey player Georges Laraque is also a vegan. But it is difficult for some to comprehend how this lifestyle is compatible with training weeks of 140 miles and more, "easy" runs of 40 miles and interval training that includes uphill three-mile repeats, all culminating in races that are often 100 miles or more, sometimes through deserts or frozen wastelands or up and down mountains.
Jurek certainly looks healthy enough. He is tall, dwarfing most competitive marathoners, not rail thin, with a quick smile and boundless energy. A few hours after our morning run, he showed up at my house and began pulling things out of the refrigerator and pantry with abandon: vegetables, greens, herbs, miso, tofu, olives, shallots, lemons, nut butter and more.
He displayed knife skills and good culinary judgment, preparing a meal for me and his girlfriend, Jenny Uehisa, a designer for Patagonia (he is sponsored by Brooks Sports). We ate a Greek salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, loads of olives and seaweed; a stir-fry of vegetables with tofu and a miso and cashew sauce; and a mound of quinoa.
Where did he learn to cook this way? And more to the point, how does he survive? After all, I said to him, none of my running buddies, a group of nonelite but defiantly dedicated marathoners who train in Central Park, maintain as rigorous a schedule as his, and many claim to have trouble consuming enough calories even while being omnivorous.
"The whole issue," he said, "is exactly that: getting enough calories. The first thing to worry about isn't so much what you eat, but how much you eat. You have to take the time to sit at the table and make sure your calorie count is high enough. And when you're a vegan, to increase your calories as you increase training you need more food. This isn't an elimination diet but an inclusion diet."
Jurek grew up in Proctor, Minn., eating cookie dough, canned vegetables and his share of fast food. When his mother, Lynn, developed multiple sclerosis (she died this spring), he and his siblings began cooking, but the food was, he said, "very Midwest—meat and potatoes." In college, his diet began to improve, and as he "saw how much disease is lifestyle related," he began eating "real food, eating the way people have been eating for thousands of years."
He made the transition to less meat and more fish, then eventually knocked out dairy and other animal products entirely.
"It's really a mental barrier," he said, and he obviously has experience overcoming those. He said he needed 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day, "and I get that all from plant sources. It's not hard, either. I like to eat, and I don't have to worry about weight management. All I need is a high-carbohydrate diet with enough protein and fat."
He said he spent a great deal of time shopping, preparing and cooking food—and chewing. He is among the slowest and most deliberate eaters I know, and there is something about his determination at the table that is reminiscent of his determination on the road: he just doesn't stop.
He focuses on three main meals. Breakfast is key: it might be a 1,000-calorie smoothie, with oil, almonds, bananas, blueberries, salt, vanilla, dried coconut, a few dates and maybe brown rice protein powder. Unless he is doing a long run, which for him is seven hours, or about 50 miles, he eats after his first workout. Lunch and dinner are huge salads, whole grains, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and usually beans of some sort or a tempeh-tofu combination.
"None of this is weird," he said. "If you go back 300 or 400 years, meat was reserved for special occasions, and those people were working hard. Remember, almost every long-distance runner turns into a vegan while they're racing, anyway—you can't digest fat or protein very well."
Jurek said he hated running when he was in high school, enduring it only to stay in shape for skiing. But when he was 20, a friend persuaded him to try a marathon. He finished in less than three hours, good for second place and astonishing for a novice. By 1999, he ran his first Western States 100. Formally called the Western States Endurance Run, this is an up-and-down course in the Sierra Nevada with a cutoff time of 30 hours. He set the course record in 2004, 15 hours 36 minutes; won the race seven consecutive times; and in 2005, two weeks after finishing, ran and won the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race that begins in Death Valley and ends halfway up Mount Whitney.
Looking back, he wondered, "Where was my mind?"
Which brings us to an obvious question: What is Scott Jurek trying to prove? Of the few thousand Americans who consider themselves ultramarathoners, most would be happy just qualifying for Western States, and most of those would be ecstatic to finish before the cutoff.
Jurek, having proved himself in dozens of off-road races, is focused on the 24-hour record and looking forward to the flat race, "an environment where it's just me and the clock and the road under my feet."
After that, he would like to run—and win—the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, an ultramarathon in the Alps at a distance of just over 100 miles; the record is a little more than 20 hours. His best finish was 18th, and he dropped out twice, so it's a serious challenge.
"I haven't had a great race there," he said. "But though I want to win, the running is a vehicle for self-discovery. I've been racing for 15 years, but I feel like I'm still at my peak."
Evidently, it isn't his diet that's slowing him down.
Paul Chetirkin: Extreme Sportsman, Endurance Racer, Vegan
This e-mail is from one of the toughest and most talented athletes on this planet, Paul Chetirkin. He is 100 percent vegan and competes several times a year in EXTREME SPORTS competitions, including the Eco-Challenge, the world's most intense race, bar none.
From: Paul Chetirkin [email@example.com]
Sent: Friday, May 07, 2004 6:57 PM
Concerning a vegan diet for athletes, first I really have to tell everyone that I no longer even pay attention to my vegan food as it is more of a way of life now because I have been doing this for 15 years. However, not to be cavalier about it, it is very important that people pay attention to what they are eating at least when you are first starting out.
If you are a student, one thing that will most affect your choices is the availability of veg food at the school dining hall. If there is an absence of such food choices, talk to the dining hall director about bringing in veg food. Since a lot of schools are catching on with healthy eating, this shouldn't be too difficult.
The first thing I must really stress for a complete diet is VARIETY. Gary will back me up on this. In fact, when Gary recently visited, we went shopping and he did the rainbow routine at the produce section. He got something red (strawberries), blue (blueberries), green (grapes), orange (cantaloupe), yellow (bananas), etc.
Basically, I keep a variety of foods going into my body to get the greatest cumulative effect. In my case, I usually try to find something different. I like to shop at Asian groceries because you can bet they have things in there that are good for you and they are usually a hell of a lot cheaper than major retailers. I eat a ton of dark leafy greens or just dark green veggies— steamed, raw, in vegan pot-pie, whatever. This is the anchor to my diet. It's good and useful protein minus the cholesterol and other animal derived chemistry which strips your body of other precious elements and nutrients (calcium being one—and important for you as you work on your strength). So, eat the greens for the best calcium along with soy, tofu or sesame seeds which are abundant in calcium. DO NOT RELY on dairy for calcium. Dairy is the worst source of calcium as the protein found in cow milk is too acidic for our bodies to digest.
And the acidic protein forces our kidneys to excrete calcium not only from the cow milk but from our bones as well. Good calcium intake is key to your bone recovery time as much as protein is to muscle after heavy workouts. Trust me, when my team does 24-hour non-stop training sessions for adventure racing (trekking over 30 miles, biking 100 miles, and kayaking 20 miles), we always recover with lightning speed because veganism is the best diet for the human body.
The protein concern is a myth. It's based on modeling done by scientists who were hired by the meat and dairy industry. Gary is right—you can get mad protein from tofu, beans and lentils, and even veggies. Always remember this— what isn't a fat or a carb, is a protein. So eat veggies because they are mostly carbs and protein. But they don't slow you down like cholesterol-laden animal protein.
I approach this all from a very big-picture perspective. One other thing to think about concerning your body and your workout regimen is not just what you put into it—i.e., how much protein, etc.—but what it does to you once you have it. The thing about meat is, it is dead, and I am not being dramatic here. Dead food—meat—is highly acidic because decomposition occurs right away. Microbes began to break down the matter and it becomes concentrated with acids. When you put gobs of acidic foods into your body, you are telling your system that there is decomposition going on here which is the wrong signal to give muscles that are really being tested during training.
Now take the opposite—living foods are alkaline—high energy yield and output, healing effects, etc. Alkaline foods are more regenerative and have a more positive impact on your system during and after strenuous activity. Living foods like leafy green spinach salad—with a big block of tofu that you marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil with all the other veggies—is much more useful to you than a big hunk of steak. The presence of alkaline foods in your body will give you more endurance while working out, restore sore muscles faster, and also keep you young longer, meaning your level of performance will peak faster and stay there longer. I am 33 now and the strongest, fastest, with the most endurance I ever had. And I also played rugby for 10 years. Veganism has really helped to actually reverse a lot of the damage I did to my body and bones while I played.
So key is variety! If it's too difficult to buy fresh produce then even canned veggies are okay. I eat a ton of canned beans, garbanzos, black beans, kidney beans, etc. Throw those on the salad too.
Also, fresh living (alkaline) foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and grains—as opposed to dead foods which are heavy and processed (acid) like meat, cheese, lots of sugar, etc.—are key to sustained athletic performance. I really think it's critical for people to experiment and see what foods work best based on your tastes and other factors such as availability, funds, etc.
I will give you an example of my diet though. I get up and run about 6-8 miles on the beach, followed with lifting (for maintenance only) and lots of cals/ stretch work. Most of what I do I use my own body weight like tons of pushups, pull-ups, crunches, etc.
I drink a soy protein shake right after comprised of 8 ounces of apple juice, 2 scoops of Trader Joe's soy protein powder (its about 25 grams protein), cinnamon, and a little water. I usually have a banana with that, too. Then a bowl of grape nuts with raisins and cranberry juice or soy milk. I walk to work (just a couple of miles) and walk home for lunch and that's when I have that beastie salad. Spinach leaves, romaine lettuce, kidney beans, marinated tofu, artichoke hearts, onions, Bacos (hell yeah they're vegan), broccoli, peas, corn. Whatever isn't tied down, I throw it in.
In the evening, I usually hop on my versaclimber for a half hour to keep the metabolism up and for dinner I usually have something meaty. I am a meat and potatoes kind of guy. So I kill those Riblets on a big hoagie roll. The Riblets have tons of protein and it tastes like the real thing. Plus, I snack all day on fruit, especially dried fruit like nuts (trail mix).
There it is. No big secret. Keep it varied and there is no need to worry, I don't take vitamins because I don't need to. They are in all the fruit and veggies.
When I was in college, starting out as a vegan, I didn't always have time or money to really give it my full attention. And for that I say Taco Bell. Yes, I know fast food usually sucks, but there's not a hell of a lot you can do to demonize a bean burrito. It's complete protein, fast and cheap. And I lived off those bad-boys for about a year and a half.
But do yourself a favor and get into the kitchen and get crazy. Make some rice, some curry sauce (get some coconut milk and curry powder or paste), throw some tofu, onions, potatoes, into it and you will not only have yourself a healthy meal, but it will be damn tasty. If there is anything specific you want to discuss, please feel free to ask away. As Gary mentioned, I do adventure racing. I do it to show the world that you can take part in the most extreme sporting events and more than that, and that you can kick ass as a vegan, not just survive.
Mac Danzig: Cage Fighter, Mixed-Martial Artist, Vegan
With a name like Mac, the average person may snicker and think fast-food burgers are a part of Mac Danzig's meal plan. But Pride FC veteran, former 155 pound King of the Cage and Gladiator Challenge champion, Mac Danzig, has broken the mold dietary-wise by becoming a successful vegan mixed martial artist. While the visage of a pacifist hippy-like individual may appear among minds of the masses at the mention of the term "vegan", the 27 year old Danzig has carved his own path and along the way shattered stereotypical images. The lightweight fighter's success evidences a fighter can be successful without the consumption of animal products.
Despite his success as a vegan competitor in MMA, the concept that meat was pivotal to a fighter's performance was also an ideology that Danzig subscribed to early in his career. "I use to think that I needed chicken and fish as a source of protein in order to train properly", recalls Danzig, a 6 year veteran of the sport. "I subscribed to that theory for a while and then when I finally decided to cut everything out and I was doing it right, it felt really good and I didn't lose any strength at all. I feel like I recover quicker so it's been good." Read more...
Carl Lewis On Being Vegan
The following is an excerpt from Carl Lewis' introduction to Very Vegetarian by Jannequin Bennett:
Can a world-class athlete get enough protein from a vegetarian diet to compete? I've found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look. (I know that sounds vain, but all of us want to like the way we look.) I enjoy eating more, and I feel great. Here's my story.
When I grew up in New Jersey, I always enjoyed eating vegetables and was influenced by my mother, who believed in the importance of a healthy diet even though we ate meat regularly because my father wanted it. At the University of Houston I ate meat and tried to control my weight the wrong way—by skipping meals. Frequently I would skip breakfast, eat a light lunch, and then have my fill at dinner—just before I went to bed. Not only is skipping meals the wrong way to diet, but the way I did it is the worst way because your body needs four hours to digest its food before you go to sleep.
In May of 1990 I decided to change the way I ate when I realized that controlling my weight by skipping meals was not good for me. Within the space of a few weeks, I met two men who changed my way of thinking and eating. The first was Jay Cordich, the Juice Man, whom I met at the Houston radio station where I worked in the early morning. He was there to talk about his juicer, which makes fresh juice from fruits and vegetables. He said that drinking at least sixteen ounces of freshly squeezed juice each day will increase a person's energy, strengthen the immune system, and reduce the risk of disease. A few weeks later while doing publicity for a meet in Minneapolis, I met Dr. John McDougall, a medical doctor who teaches about the link between good nutrition and good health and was promoting his latest book. Dr. McDougall challenged me to make a commitment to eating a vegetarian diet and then to just do it.
I remember vividly making the decision in July of 1990 to become a vegan. I was competing in Europe and ate a meal of Spanish sausage on a Saturday and on the following Monday started eating vegan. The hardest thing for me was changing my eating habits from skipping meals to eating throughout the day—which is much healthier. I also missed salt and so substituted lemon juice for flavor.
In the spring of 1991—eight months after beginning to eat vegan—I was feeling listless and thought I might need to add protein from meat to my diet. Dr. McDougall, however, explained that my listlessness was due to my needing more calories because I was training so many hours each day, not because I needed more animal-based protein. When I increased my calorie intake, I regained my energy. I was drinking 24 to 32 ounces of juice a day. I ate no dairy products. And I had my best year as an athlete ever!
You have total control over what you put in your body. No one can force you to eat what you don't want to eat. I know that many people think that eating a vegetarian diet—and especially a vegan diet—will require sacrifice and denial. [However,] eating vegan does not have to be tasteless and boring. As Jannequin Bennett says, "vegan eating is a truly indulgent way of life, as vegans regularly partake of the very best foods that nature has to offer."