Vegan Sports Nutrition

How to fuel your performance in the best possible way

When it comes to sport, good nutrition is vital. Vegan athletes all over the world are demonstrating just how amazing plants are as a sports fuel – and they have top-level results to prove it. It’s no coincidence, a vegan diet can provide more than just all the nutrients your body needs – it offers a range of extra benefits to athletes.

There’s no magic trick; a healthy vegan diet based around fruit and vegetables, pulses, wholegrains and nuts and seeds offers huge advantages, thanks simply to its nutrient content. Its power lies mainly in these key components: 

  1. Plants provide healthy carbohydrates – essential for sustained energy release and to replenish your muscle energy stores
  2. Plants have better protein – easier for your body to digest, better ratio of amino acids than animal protein
  3. Plants provide healthy fats – all the essentials, naturally low in saturated fats and no cholesterol – great for your heart and blood vessels
  4. Plants are rich in antioxidants – they help you recover better and faster, keep your airways healthy and mucus-free
  5. Plants contain fibre – it helps to keep your digestive system healthy, important for maintaining energy levels

The vegan advantage

Research shows that plant-based diets increase athletes’ aerobic capacity, which can enable you to exercise for longer before feeling exhausted and improves your performance – that’s helpful for both strength and endurance training. Other studies have revealed that runners fuelled by plants have better-quality diets overall and increased stamina when compared to their meat-eating counterparts. 

Wholesome vegan diets also reduce the levels of inflammation in the body which is important for recovery. The micro damage that naturally happens in the muscles when you’re training is being constantly repaired – but any damage within the body also triggers small inflammatory reactions. A plant-based diet, with its antioxidants, phenols, polyunsaturated fats and fibre, lowers these inflammatory reactions, limits damage and leads to faster recovery. Many meat-eating athletes take antioxidant supplements but when you go vegan, you don’t need any extra help!

Which foods are best for fuelling your performance?

As an athlete, you need long-lasting energy and that means healthy complex carbohydrates. The best sources include wholegrains (eg wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, millet, oats, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa), starchy vegetables (eg sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, taro, cassava, root vegetables, squashes and pumpkins, peas and corn) and fruit (fresh and dried). These foods are important whether you’re training for strength, endurance, weight-loss or general fitness – without them, your energy will be flagging. 

Your hard-working muscles need protein and antioxidants for efficient and speedy repair. The best sources of these are pulses (eg beans, lentils, chickpeas and soya) and products made from them (eg burgers, falafel and hummus), nuts and seeds, and wholegrains. Yes, wholegrains like oats or wholemeal bread pack a decent protein portion! Plant-based protein powders may be a useful addition to your diet if you have higher protein requirements or no time to eat – they offer some clean lean protein – but you don’t necessarily need them, as long as you eat enough calories. 

Lastly, you also need some healthy fats. We don’t need much fat but we do need the right kind as it’s crucial to your performance and blood pressure regulation. To get the all-important omega-3 unsaturated fats, add some chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seed or walnuts to your daily regime. Use small amounts of vegetable oil for cooking and enjoy avocados – they also add some healthy fats to your menu.  

Each of your meals should contain good sources of these nutrients – for example vegetable stew with beans and sweet potatoes or rice with peas, peanuts and vegetables. 

To find out how much of each nutrient and energy you need daily based on your sport/training regime, click here.

And to learn more about essential nutrients and vegan diet, including the overview of all vitamins and minerals, go here.

Rules for pre-, during and post-exercise snacking

Snacking is important for your athletic game so it pays to do it well. The key to performance-enhancing snacking is to get the right kind of energy at the right time.

Before – focus on carbohydrates. Exercising on a full stomach is a big no, so always leave at least two to three hours after a main meal before you start any kind of exercise. However, a small snack around 30 minutes before you start training can be helpful. It should be carb-based for an energy boost – a piece of fresh fruit, a few pieces of dried fruit, an energy bar or a smoothie.

During – focus on hydration and electrolytes. During 60-minute workouts, you only need water to stay hydrated. If you train for longer though, or extra hard, have an isotonic drink to replenish your electrolytes – minerals lost through sweating – and some sugar for an energy boost. You can easily make your own: combine 300 ml water with 200 ml fruit juice and a small pinch of salt.  

If you are an endurance athlete, you may also need a quick snack during your training – please check our Snacks section for some exciting ideas! 

After – focus on protein and carbohydrates. To support your muscle recovery and energy restoration, you should eat or drink something nourishing within 30 to 45 minutes of finishing your training. Your muscles need protein for repairs and carbs for replenishing energy stores. The easiest option is a smoothie/shake or a protein bar and some fruit. Be prepared and make a fresh smoothie at home before you get started; throw in some protein powder, nut butter or seeds and you’re sorted! A good old sandwich or a pack of nuts and dates are also good options. See our Snacks section for a lot more ideas!

Complete package

To be at your best, don’t forget to hydrate! It’s absolutely crucial that you drink enough water. Being dehydrated hinders your performance, recovery and your body’s natural detoxification that happens through the kidneys. 

Top up your diet with vitamins B12 and D that are lacking in our modern lifestyles and use iodised salt (sparingly) to make sure you’re getting enough iodine and your body will work like a dream. 

When we run on plants, we are fuelled in the best possible way. Even though the motivation to go vegan doesn’t usually revolve around health, it’s undeniable that plants do the body good and can also make you a better athlete.  

For more information on vegan sports nutrition, including specific advice for different sports, meal planning and changing your diet, click here. 

If you have a question about veganism and sports, head over to our Vegan Sports Nutrition FAQs.