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Brendan Brazier has revitalized his triathlon career and overall wellbeing by adopting a plant-based diet. Here he explains how plant-based nutrition can help athletes – and you don’t even have to be a vegan.
Many people focus too much on the vegan diet itself when they see the words “plant-based nutrition”. The fact is that you do NOT have to be a vegan athlete to benefit from plant-based nutrition. The most important factor is to follow what I call high net-gain nutrition, my nutrition philosophy that is not based around calories but focuses instead on eating foods that are easy to digest and contain the greatest amount of each micronutrient per calorie.
High net-gain foods energise and invigorate you through nourishment, not stimulation. High net-gain foods are nutrient-dense and easy to digest, leaving you with the greatest return on your energy investment.
Start adding more high net-gain foods at your next trip to the grocery store. Because plant-based foods are alkaline-forming and easily digestible, they can help eliminate digestive stress, and allow your body to rebuild even stronger after your workout. Besides increasing the amount of leafy green vegetables you’re consuming, you’ll want to focus on getting a variety of foods to get a balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat), as well as micronutrients.
Not only can plant-based proteins provide all the amino acids necessary for building muscle, but they are also alkaline-forming and low in saturated fat. By eating a variety of plant-based proteins (found in beans, nuts, and seeds) there will be enough complete protein for your body to utilise. Try adding hemp seeds to your smoothie or beans to your salad this week. If you would like to supplement your intake with a protein powder, look for one that combines more than one plant-based protein source, is minimally processed and free of artificial colours, preservatives or sweeteners. I formulated Vega Sport Performance Protein to align with my nutrition philosophy, as well as the needs of athletes.
While eliminating carbohydrates is trendy, minimally processed carbohydrates are nutrient-dense and provide instant energy for your body. Look for fresh, whole-food sources such as raw and dried fruit, whole grains and starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes and squash). One of my favourite carbohydrates for athletes is buckwheat, a pseudo-grain that is gluten-free and high in protein. It has all essential amino acids and is rich in vitamins B and E, as well as calcium. Sprouted buckwheat makes a great breakfast or addition to trail mix or smoothies.
Eating fat will not make you fat, and healthy fats are necessary for hormone production – including growth hormone to increase muscular strength. Heart-healthy unsaturated fats are found in cold-pressed oils, avocados, nuts and seeds. Look for sources of essential fatty acids like omega-3s in chia seeds, ground flaxseed, hemp seeds and SaviSeeds (sacha inchi seeds).
You’ll get a greater return on your energy investment if your body can easily digest and assimilate your food and move on with your day. Ultimately, your body needs not just calories but nutrition: micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients; and macronutrients such as carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.
Not only are whole, plant-based foods more nutrient dense – high in nutrition for relatively fewer calories – they are often easier to digest and assimilate, so your body doesn’t have to work as hard. Higher net energy gain from these foods results in minimized stress, more energy and better sleep quality. You’ll also feel less hungry because you are giving your body what it biologically craves – nutrients.
No matter what level or type of athlete you are, it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of perfection – a perfect race, a perfect training session or a perfect time. But peak performance is more than a single event. I did not see significant improvements until I moved beyond my training plan and looked at nutrition, sleep and stress in a holistic manner. For long-term improvement in performance, you need to focus on the following components of vitality (in addition to High net-gain nutrition) so that you will improve your sport and life.
It may seem a lot to change in your training program and life, but again, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about making small changes that lead to improvement.
If you’ve hit a plateau in your training, it’s likely because you’re not getting the most return from your exercise. As you become more fit, the same exercises that you started your fitness journey on will start to lead to smaller gains. Instead of just pushing yourself harder, push yourself smarter. High-return exercise means being smart about your energy investment – if you’re not seeing the results you want from training, change it up by adding in cross-training.
While it’s easy to cut out sleep when our schedules our busy, sleep is essential for performance gains. Deep sleep allows your body to start repairing, strengthening and regenerating cells and muscle tissue. Focus not just on the quantity of sleep, but the quality.
Exercise is a complementary stress. While it is initially stressful, your body sees improvements from it – much like studying for an exam. On the other hand, other stresses may have no benefit and can even be damaging or uncomplimentary, leading to an increase in cortisol levels. Whether uncomplimentary stress is coming from work, family or friends, your training and mood will improve when you begin to manage it. Some people find yoga and meditation to be helpful in reducing stress, as well as simply doing more of what makes you happy.