Powering your workouts with plants

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So you want to power your workouts with plants, but conventional wisdom (i.e. the guy at the gym) is telling you that you need way more protein than you’re already getting, and that protein == meat (or dairy, or egg whites).

This is far from the full picture.

Muscles are made of protein

Muscles are made up of water, protein, fat, and glycogen*. Muscle cells are made up of protein filaments, which slide past each other to create muscle contractions. Those protein filaments are synthesised from amino acids, which you get from your diet.

* The water in your muscles is necessary for the muscle cells to take up glucose as fuel; fat is stored in the muscle cells – the amount stored depends on how much fat is in your bloodstream; and glycogen is converted from glucose in your bloodstream, and stored in the muscle tissue as an energy source.

There’s more to the story than protein, though. Even though protein is essential for maintaining and building muscles, the main fuel that feeds our muscles is carbohydrates. The science is complex, but the take-home message is simple: power your muscles with enough calories (preferably from healthy sources), and then get enough protein to build up those muscle fibres after your workout.

First, carbs

Carbohydrates and fats are the preferred sources of fuel to power our muscles. During aerobic exercise (like jogging, swimming, or cycling), our muscles get pretty good at metabolising fats for energy, as well as glycogen in our muscle tissue and liver. Our bodies will usually already have stored fat and glycogen, so our main focus for fuel should be foods high in healthy carbohydrates, which will be quickly converted to glucose, and then stored as glycogen.

During high-intensity, anaerobic exercise (like weightlifting or sprinting), the body doesn’t metabolise fats quickly enough, so our muscles use stored glycogen and blood glucose as the main source of fuel.

If you don’t have enough glucose or fatty acids available to fuel your muscles, the body will start to use protein in the muscle tissue as an energy source, leading to reduced muscle mass and reduced endurance. Indeed, research has shown that low-carbohydrate diets can negatively impact athletic performance.

Whether you’re an endurance runner or a powerlifter, the first crucial step to fueling your muscles is to get enough calories from healthy carbohydrates: think whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Then, protein

Once your muscles have undergone the stress of a workout, the muscle fibres need to undergo some repairs and maintenance. Since those fibres are synthesised from amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), this is the time to get your protein in.

Recommendations for protein intake vary, but the current recommendation for active vegans is 0.9 g/kg/day (i.e. if you weigh 70 kg, that’s 63 grams of protein). Endurance athletes need more, about 1.3-1.5 g/kg/day, and strength athletes need even more, about 1.3-1.9 g/kg/day (the figures for vegans are about 10% higher than for non-vegans).1Davis, B., Melina, V (2014). ‘The Vegan Athlete’ in Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition. United States: Book Publishing Co., pp 409-410.

What might a day’s menu look like for a vegan endurance athlete who needs 100 grams of protein?

TOTAL: 106 grams protein, which is about 1.5g per kg for a 70 kg runner. Perfect.

Strength athletes with higher protein targets will want to consider additions to their daily meals and snacks, to boost their calorie and protein intakes: bigger portions, and higher-protein foods such as beans, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Supplementary foods like shakes with added plant protein can make it easier to meet calorie and protein requirements – think soy milk, cacao, dates, and pea or hemp protein powder.

No pain, no gain

No matter how carefully you plan your diet, food alone won’t grow your muscles. Muscles get bigger and stronger through repeated exertion, where you put more load on your muscles every time (i.e. “progressive overload”). Between workouts, the muscle fibres need time to rest, repair and grow – with the right foods to help the protein synthesis take place.

The vegan advantage

By focusing on plants as the main source of fuel for your workouts, you’re also getting a whole bunch of added benefits. The anti-inflammatory nature of plant-based foods (along with all the fibre, vitamins and minerals) means that your recovery will be shorter, your inflammation lower, and your energy levels higher. More and more elite athletes around the world are discovering the performance benefits of a plant-based diet – and the research supports this, too.

“Being vegan doesn’t make you a stronger, better athlete. But it allows you to make yourself a stronger, better athlete.” ―  Brendan Brazier

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