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Five Reasons Veganism Helped Me Become a Better Triathlete

By Matthew Vuolo | May 25, 2018, 4:11 p.m. (ET)


When new friends and acquaintances discover that I'm vegan, the first question they invariably ask is: “But where do you get your protein?" I respond with a question of my own: “Well, where do you think the animals you eat get their protein?" Unfortunately, we animals cannot naturally synthesize all of the amino acids necessary to make vital proteins. But do cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and bison — all herbivores — experience chronic, widespread muscle atrophy and heart problems from a diet deficient in protein? Of course not. Common sense suggests that many animals, including most of the animals that humans regularly consume — get protein from greens, legumes, grains and nuts.

Switching to a vegan diet is obviously not for everybody. It limits you to plant-based, whole foods, which, for one thing, turns you into that guy or gal who is difficult at dinner parties and restaurants. But despite the minor social annoyance, here are five reasons why going vegan has helped fuel me to new PRs as a triathlete.

  1. Energy leap. I was a pescatarian for nearly 20 years before joining the vegan camp. When I stopped eating meat and poultry, it was primarily for health reasons (there are solid environmental and ecological reasons too, but that's another article). Simply put, I wanted to lower my LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels because heart disease runs in my family. But it wasn’t until I stopped eating dairy, when training for my first marathon in 2012, that I noticed dramatic physical changes. Within two weeks, I shed 10 pounds and my energy skyrocketed. Milk products, while abundant in many vitamins and minerals, also contain lactose, casein and tryptophan — which may be linked to fatigue. Give up dairy completely for a few weeks and take note of your stamina, whether working out or just working.
  2. Natural healing. Fruits and vegetables contain what are called phytonutrients, chemicals that help plants prevent and even repair damage. According to researchers at the University of California, compounds found in soy, garlic and carrots have been found to reduce blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and cell destruction, respectively. I've experienced the benefits of a plant-based diet firsthand after switching from a standard American diet to, ultimately, veganism. I've noticed improvement in my performance, an increase in speed and quicker recovery times. Phytonutrients in red grapes (and therefore red wine!) can lessen the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle inflammation — and the less inflammation, the less muscle damage and soreness, and the quicker a triathlete can return to training pain-free. Also, the scientific literature is replete with studies that suggest phytonutrients boost our immune response broadly. You don't have to be a weekend warrior to say amen to that.
  3. Basic plants. So no meat and no dairy, because cholesterol and heart disease concerns. OK, but not even egg whites or low-fat fish? Ever? Yeah, that’s right. You don’t need them for endurance, or to build muscle, or to be healthy. Many plant-based foods — including cauliflower, leafy greens and root vegetables are alkaline, which means they help balance your otherwise acidic diet and guard against inflammation.
  4. The fiberful athlete. Full-distance triathletes tend to do a good job training their muscles, heart and lungs, but too often neglect their gut. It’s common for endurance athletes to experience gastrointestinal discomfort during and after hard exercise. And no one can swim, bike or run at peak performance when weighed down by bloat or indigestion. The morning of an IRONMAN race my stomach is typically in knots, and restricting my diet before or during the race will not head off potential GI trouble (nor enhance performance). A plant-based diet is high in fiber, which supports digestive health and keeps your bowels operating predictably and smoothly. In other words, I've trained my gut to accommodate the nerves, as well as the performance-enhancing fuel I consume throughout the race. By experimenting and learning what works best for your body, you can fuel without anxiety. And better yet, without unwanted pit stops. [Note: Too much fiber can be performance limiting to athletes around high-intensity workouts and competition.]
  5. The skinny. For endurance athletes, especially long-course triathletes, size matters. It's hard enough to master running, biking and swimming — carry too much weight on your frame, and your speed and times will suffer. Studies show that veganism is the only diet that, on average, will yield a normal body mass index (BMI). Plant-based foods have significantly less fat than animals, which contain few, if any, carbohydrates. A vegan diet, coupled with exercise of course, will almost certainly lighten your load.

It's true that we're not cows. We don't have four stomachs or special fermentation chambers in our intestines, and so we can't digest cellulose to extract maximum protein from simple grass. But we do have big brains. We're smart enough to discover high-protein alternatives like quinoa and buckwheat, foods that make and keep us strong and don't come with the ethical and unsalutary trappings of animal consumption. Give veganism a try to see what changes for you. Be that guy.

Registered dietitian’s note: Veganism has it’s benefits but it also creates challenges that must be accounted for when designing a healthy and performance-enhancing vegan diet. Athletes need to be mindful of nutrients that could be limiting in a vegan diet, such as B12, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. Deficiencies can compromise health and performance. Although a vegan diet can achieve the dietary needs of most athletes, it requires careful planning and attention. Some athletes may find it difficult to achieve optimal energy intake during high volume training loads and a poorly constructed diet, due to reduced appetite, busy scheduling, lack of vegan food availability and GI discomfort can make it difficult to meet energy and nutrient needs. The consequences of insufficient energy include compromised immunity, weight loss and loss of muscle mass, reduced stamina and strength and fatigue. If an athlete is or is becoming a vegan, he/she should consult with a Board Certified Sport Dietitian to ensure that the athletes needs can be met with a carefully planned vegan diet. – Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N

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