With gyms reopening soon, how exactly might a vegan diet assist you in reaching your fitness goals and performing better?
Many of us, myself included, have spent the last 12 months being slightly lazier than we might usually have been. Lockdown is one reason, British winters another. Yet, from April 12, gyms are back.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet tend to fall into two main categories. The first are the main benefits in avoiding disease: risk of heart disease, cancers, diabetes, due to things like reduced cholesterol and blood pressure. The second are the benefits depicted in documentaries like The Game Changers, informing us we can still get ripped and perform at an elite level on a plant-based diet.
But these differences for athletes are sometimes marginal for the average person. What about the mum working out in the gym a couple times a week? Will she see a noticeable difference? Or the teenage boy giving the NHS Couch to 5K initiative a go? Will their pace pick up too if they drop the bacon? Yes!
As a qualified personal trainer and nutritional advisor, here are some of the top reasons I tell my clients why a vegan diet will help improve their fitness and performance, no matter what your go-to exercise style is:
The benefits of a plant-based diet in reducing cholesterol and blood pressure has been reported in terms of reducing the risk of blood clots, heart attacks, hypertension, etc. through the clearance of arteries and a healthy heart. Improved heart health may increase your stroke volume and cardiac output, which is the amount of blood our hearts pump in one contraction, and in one minute respectively.
If you’re a fan of the HIIT classes, it means more oxygen will get to your necessary muscles quicker, so they are likely to fatigue less quickly. You may also find your resting heart rate drops too.
Blood viscosity and blood flow
The low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol associated with this diet also lowers the viscosity of the blood, thus reducing the resistance in the arteries themselves. What’s more, high-nitrate vegetables assist in the vasodilation of arteries, so the blood can then move around the body more efficiently.
This means your heart doesn’t have to pump as fast when exercising in order to meet your energy needs. It will also mean your blood pressure is not going to spike to the same extent much during exercise because your arteries are clearer.
Those following a plant-based diet tend to decrease body fat quicker and have lower body fat overall. Certainly, this means people feel great, but it also improves their aerobic capacity too, since weight loss alone can improve VO2 max (the maximum volume of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise) by up to 15%.
For endurance runners, carrying less fat-free mass means you can move faster and have greater stamina. In fact, one study showed that after only four days of a plant-based diet, runners were able to shave off 6% of their 5k time.
Although society is insistent on pushing protein as the seemingly the utmost important macronutrient, it is a very inefficient source of energy (called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate). Those consuming high-protein diets (often in replacement for carbohydrates and healthy fats) will risk burning out during exercise and may have to convert their muscle mass into energy due to insufficient glucose.
As carbohydrates are a key component of a vegan diet, not only will your glycogen stores be sufficiently full to fuel your workout and provide the necessary synthesis for fat metabolism, but also the higher fibre content in your diet will ensure a steady release of glucose into the bloodstream, helping avoid a sugar crash and making sure you don’t use your protein reserves. To maximise your long endurance runs (over two hours), have a carbohydrate source before, during and after your workouts.
An animal product-based diet was shown to cause an inflammatory effect in the muscles, in comparison to a plant-based diet, with one study showing a 46% increase in inflammatory markers in a single month. People who partake in any exercise, especially ones that involve repeated action on certain joints such as running, are vulnerable to inflammation and injury, not to mention many free radicals.
Removing this from your diet and adding in the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of a vegan diet might just see a reduction in injury risk and improved recovery after your workouts too.
Calcium is also needed for muscular contraction, but it is also vital for bone strength as many of us know. However, what perhaps Petits Filous doesn’t let us know is that although dairy is indeed a source of calcium, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and can actually increase our risk of bone fractures.
If you’re doing strength training, weight-bearing exercises or swimming, to retain your bone density and avoid a hip fracture, maybe skip the dairy cheese.
Due to eating a broader variety of plants, a vegan is more likely to consume key minerals vital for muscle contractions and nerve impulses such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. For example, the same nitrate-rich plants assisting in vasodilation also improve the efficiency of a muscle contraction. One study showed an increase in weight lifted per repetition by 14%.
Likewise, magnesium ensures that the muscles relax after contraction. Insufficient consumption can result in faster fatigue of muscle fibres or muscle spasms. If you’re going for a personal best of one-rep max, this translates into a better chance of success.
So there you have it, a PT’s perspective on why a vegan diet will have you hitting your PBs in no time. Perhaps when our parents said “eat your vegetables”, they were actually on to something.