Thursday, January 10, 2008

Doubt and the Vegan Athlete

I think like most endurance athletes I work on doing everything possible to improve my performance. I train smart. I rest smart. I eat well. I sleep well. I invest in decent equipment.

Nonetheless, like most endurance athletes, I hit a rough patch now and then where I just don't feel fast or fit. My race results might not be where they should be. I might not be seeing the gains I want to see during training and doubt creeps in.

I start to second guess my training.

I start to second guess my racing schedule.

And most troubling, I start to second guess my diet.

This is something I haven't heard a lot of vegan athletes talk about, and I wonder why. It seems pretty normal to me that when one spends a lot of time focusing on doing everything right in order to be the best possible athlete one can be that these sorts of doubts would creep in. Add to that comments from teammates, coaches, or competitors that, "maybe you'd do better if you ate some meat," and it produces a little bit of doubt.

If this is something that we all go through, how do vegan athletes manage dietary doubt?

In my case, I think about the fact that if I wasn't vegan it's likely I would not be an athlete at all. So, rather than impede my performance, which I don't think veganism has done, veganism enables me to do what I love to do on a daily basis. Even in the times when things aren't coming together, I'm finding it helpful to think that even a bad, bad day on the bike as a vegan is better than not being on the bike at all.

How does everyone else deal with this?


Veg*Triathlete said...

You know, I'm pretty sure that my vegan diet physically keeps me healthier than when I ate omni - I have faaaaar fewer stomach issues, which I'm sure can be attributed to eliminating meat and dairy.

But honestly, even if (purely for the sake of argument) it were true that eating meat would make me faster and stronger, I still wouldn't do it. I hate to break the news for the super-serious folks, but racing triathlons is a HOBBY. Getting faster splits would NEVER justify participation in the exploitation of another being's life and the degradation of our natural environment.

One of the reasons I actually wanted to start this group blog as a resource for people was that I got so bummed out reading about formerly vegan athletes deciding to eat meat or eggs or dairy in order to support their athletic goals. It was frustrating and disappointing to witness these choices. If anyone's doubting, I hope they will talk about it here, and pursue all possible solutions before deciding to give up on veganism.

Mark said...

I agree.

Even if veganism made me slow, I'd still be vegan.

Sometimes the doubt monster creeps in though.

Charlie said...

I think that is the same doubt athletes have when we consider using illegal performance enhancers.
Ultimately the short term gain is not worth the long term cost.

Would we turn to cannibalism if we felt it would improve our results?

Vegan Run Amok said...

I totally agree with Veg*Triathlete and Charlie. For me, ethically, it's a bright line: plant products are in, animal products are out.

On the other hand, I'm not a competitive athlete and I know this spares me some of the pressure other vegans are subjected to around this issue.

I think one strategy, though, might be to challenge the comments, at least in your head.

"Maybe you'd feel better if you ate some meat."

This can only get you if you think there's some truth to it. But is there? I mean why, scientifically speaking, would you feel better if you ate some meat? Is there something in meat that you need that you aren't getting enough of? If so, OK, but then, is it really meat you need to eat in order to solve the problem? Is there a plant source for the missing nutrient which you could eat instead? And especially when you consider all the beneficial phytochemicals found in plant foods but not in meat, wouldn't this be the more health-promoting way to go?

This kind of analysis can even be helpfully applied to the whole whey vs. soy protein thing, the one area where I have gotten a little pressure over the years from trainers and such. See this study, which found that "Soy and whey protein bar products both promoted exercise training-induced lean body mass gain, but the soy had the added benefit of preserving two aspects of antioxidant function":

Take that, doubt monster! :)

CPB said...

It is a quandry for most endurance atheletes. Everyone around you is saying that you need more protien and to eat dairy! When faced with this I tend to look at the situation: Is it okay for me to perform "better" and to allow another creature to suffer for it? Will that extra saturated fat or cholesterol really help me?

Almost every time the answer is overwhelmingingly "NO!" I highly doubt that being vegan makes me slower and if it does, fine. I'd rather save a life then be fast.

You are setting an excellent example by competing and being vegan. Way to go, you're showing people that it doesn't hurt performance and you are just as competitive as they are.

Veg*Triathlete said...

VRA, I thought the same thing, about the fact that I'm relatively slow taking off some of that pressure. It's probably easier to renounce the "temptations of the flesh" when the imagined difference would be something like coming in 1211th in a race, versus 1,599th. But still, my position is the same.

And soy vs. whey? Pshaw! HEMP protein trumps all.

Crystal said...

I know this sounds strange, but I have never even CONSIDERED eating meat/dairy to get faster and I have not had anyone even suggest that to me. I became vegan before I became a racing triathlete (I have been an athlete all my life). Now I wonder if people haven't thought that if I ate meat that I'd be faster, but if there were any doubts, my recent Ironman finish was enough to curb those doubts and the fact that I am so adamant about how triathlon is a hobby of mine also helps. It's a really good question/inquiry, though. I just had never thought about it... I just love this blog!

Matt! said...

I think that many athletes are not focusing enough on their diet and how it affects performance. Because you are vegan you can almost assume that you think about it more than average. I suggest you look at your nutrition and see where there could be improvements. Then see what the vegan option of that improvement would be.
If it's protein or amino acids you can see which foods you need to eat. And so on for other nutrients. There is lots of variance that stays within veganism. Remember, plant-based foods are exceptionally nutrient-dense. lists the details of lots of food items.

Kevin said...

I stumbled across this post and I know I am chiming in 6 months late but this has been a HUGE issue for me the past 6wks. I was in Peru for 2wks working. After 5 days I was pretty much famished because I could not get enough nutritious (non-animal) food to eat. I had gone through all of my vegan food that I brought with me (peanut butter, Clif bars etc) and finally broke down and had an egg for breakfast because I was so drained I could not even do the work I was there to do. Upon returning to the US and getting back to my regular regime I began to experience HORRIBLE stomach problems while running. The only thing I can figure is that while I was in Peru and not really eating my normal diet, I developed an intolerance to soy (protein). Now I am in a position where I am constantly tired, training has gone down hill, I cannot sleep (likely result of stress related to stomach problems) and I want a "fix". I do not have to be fast, but I have to be be able to exercise and physically feel good about it. I have even contemplated raising my own chickens for eggs. Anyone still reading this post with advice on protein other than soy (so I can get at least 100-135grams per day) I would really appreciate it.