It was a rather unique rise to the top for vegan athlete Chris Smalling. Back in 2008, the young central defender was playing for Maidstone United before he was snapped up by Fulham, after just eleven league appearances. In London, Smalling again played just a handful of games for his new club before making the meteoric rise to Manchester United – one of the biggest football clubs in the world.
While at Man United, Chris Smalling won the Premier League twice, the FA Cup, an EFL Cup, the Europa League and three Community Shields. He was also named the Manchester United Player’s Player of the Season back in the 2015/16 campaign. Smalling has been capped 31 times for his country, playing at World Cups and European tournaments.
Most recently, he made a loan move to Roma, Italy to try his luck in the Serie A, where he has been an important figure this season, featuring 21 times and even grabbing a couple of goals. This all seemed even more impressive when — in 2018 — he announced he was a vegan athlete. The Telegraph labelled him as the first high-profile athlete to preach the benefits of such a change.
Smalling claimed that this move to veganism — which started as a decision to make things easier for his vegan wife — had helped him to avoid stress-related injuries, as well as improving his immune system and physical performances.
On the subject, he said: “My wife is vegan and has been for a few years. She’s often tried to persuade me. She cooks a lot at home and half the time I was eating vegan anyway. I wasn’t fully vegan and when we ate out, I would have what I normally have. After a while I started to cut out red meat, because red meat causes quite a lot of inflammation and I had a lot of tendinitis in my knee, which many footballers get.
“Red meat causes a lot of that inflammation and when I was cutting that down, the tendinitis started to go. It used to be a problem in terms of warm-ups, because getting going was a bit of a nightmare. My tendinitis has got better and better.
“Now I’m a fully vegan athlete and normally the start of pre-season can be quite a tough time, but I haven’t felt it at all.
“Normally the second day after a game would be the worst. I would feel very tired, but I felt like I was recovering very quickly. In terms of the vegan diet there were a lot of factors that helped with that and I was able to keep banging out games without being too sore.”
On convincing Manchester United to get on board with the change, Smalling said: “The last step, and one that took me a little while, was the club, especially in terms of travelling.
“Mike [the chef] has been very accommodating and when I told him, we worked out different menus and options. Some of the staff are vegetarian and some of the players try bits and pieces, even though none of them are vegan. It’s about eating more good things. The club has been very good, the transition has been quite easy.”
Finally, on veganism helping him to stay injury-free, the footballer added: “When I started out I had quite a lot of injuries… Ultimately, what you’re feeding yourself has a bearing on how you’re going to perform.
“You’re never going to be bulletproof, but if you’re feeding yourself good food and making sure you’re eating the right supplements, I think you reduce the chances of getting any niggling injuries. Touch wood, I’ve not had any major problems since then and hopefully I can keep fit and play as many games as I can.”
Fans of the footballer no doubt share this hope. Perhaps a vegan athlete diet, or just a more conscious diet, is the key to preventing and minimising injuries obtained on the pitch and in everyday life, after all.