A Plant-Based Diet for a Competitive Edge

How a vegan diet paved the way for peak performance

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I knew I wanted to be a professional athlete. The problem was: I wasn't good at any sports. Not enough fast-twitch muscles fibers to be fast and not enough endurance to go long. At best, I was average and realized from an early age that I'd have to work harder and smarter than others if I were to offset my lack of athletic ability enough to make sports an occupation.

Brendan Brazier
Brendan Brazier
It became apparent to me that recovery was a huge factor; the faster I would be able regenerate muscle fiber, the more training I could do in less time. Simply, it meant I would have the physical ability to work harder than the rest. And, as I soon found, 80 percent of recovery could be attributed to quality of nutrition.

So my focus went on what I ate, motivated by the fact that it would increase my odds of having a professional career as an athlete. The shift toward clean, plant-based eating allowed me to forge a seven-year profession as an Ironman triathlete out of average ability.

[See: 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet.]

Clean, plant-based nutrition removed the limitation that held many others back: stiffness, low energy, dependence on caffeine, limited range of motion, poor sleep quality, inefficient digestion, etc. Once I fine-tuned my diet to support peak physical performance, I began to share it with others through my Thrive book series, Vega line of nutrition and Thrive Forward web series.

Here is some of what I've learned.

  • Plant-based performance: the basics
  • Training breaks down muscle tissue, and food (or more specifically, the nutrition in food) provides building blocks to reconstruct it. I used to load up on pasta, white bread and pizza before a race, as my coaches and peers did. Instead of increasing energy levels, these instead robbed me of energy, by way of extra digestive strain. After months of trying to figure out why I wasn't reaching my goals, even though I was putting the time into training, I took it upon myself to delve deeper.

    It became clear to me that nutrition was more than simply carbs, protein and fats. I began to base my eating plan on foods that digest with ease yet contain the greatest amount of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants) per calorie. I called this high net-gain nutrition, which became one of the overarching foundational principals in my book, Thrive.

    [See: Top Recommended Vitamins and Supplements.]

    Observing this standard, I began swapping out my refined starchy staples, which were low in nutrition yet required a lot of energy to digest, for easily assimilated, less processed, nutrient-dense options. Fruit and pseudograins such as quinoa, amaranth, millet and wild rice became my new staples. The result was greater energy while taking in no more calories. I got leaner and developed better muscle function as a direct result.

    • Clean Eating 101
    • You don't have to be a professional athlete to reap the benefits of clean, plant-based nutrition. These principles are made to fit into everyone's modern schedule. Who wouldn't appreciate better sleep quality, decreased sugar cravings and more sustainable energy?

      Clean eating consists of a plant-based diet with a predominant focus on whole, unprocessed foods that are free of artificial ingredients and eating organic whenever possible. The consumption of foods that are heavily processed and contain genetic modification can cause nutritional stress.

      [Read: GMOs: A Breakthrough or Breakdown in U.S. Agriculture?]

      As with any stress, nutritional stress will trigger the production of the hormone, cortisol, which in turn reduces the ability to sleep in a deep restorative sleep phase. This will directly lead to lower sleep quality and therefore fatigue and will likely result in cravings for sugar and caffeine. It will also alter hormone levels, which will make fat loss and muscle toning more difficult despite regular workouts.

      • Think Add, Not Subtract
      • My nutritional approach is not one of all or nothing; think progress as opposed to perfection. I find a sensible method is one of gradual transition. A nutrient-packed smoothie is an approachable way to begin by blending fruit you like with high-nutrition foods like hemp, chia, maca, spirulina, kale and chlorella.

        [See: Seeds 101: A Guide, From Chia to Hemp.]

        Once you start to include more good foods, they will begin to crowd out the room in your stomach – and your life – for not-so-good foods. Focus on adding one food a day. Perfection is not the goal – constant improvement will get you further. Before you know it, your palate will start to change, and you'll be craving clean, pant-based whole foods as processed foods will no longer appeal.

        I'll be sharing with you my sports nutrition tips throughout the following year. Look for these monthly blog posts, and join the conversation today at thriveforward.com

        [See: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

        Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

        Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion. He is now a successful performance nutrition consultant, bestselling author of the Thrive book series, formulator of the award-winning line of plant-based Vega nutritional products and creator of Thrive Forward, an online video series designed to inspire and educate people about plant-based nutrition. For more information, please visit www.brendanbrazier.com and follow Brendan on Twitter.