By Heather Moore
It takes the average hiker between five and seven months to travel the length of the Appalachian Trail (actually, the average hiker never even finishes it). Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek recently completed the 2,189-mile journey from Georgia to Maine in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes. Beef jerky didn’t pass his lips once. Jurek thinks of food as fuel and only fills his tank with plant-based nutrition. And he’s not the only competitive athlete to champion a vegan lifestyle. Many popular athletes—from baseball and football players to boxers and bodybuilders—are taking advantage of performance-enhancing animal-free foods.
Plant-based foods provide athletes with the nutrients they need without the artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol they don’t. Vegans tend to have a lower body mass index than nonvegans, and studies show that plant-based foods can help reduce blood pressure, improve blood flow and boost athletic performance. An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that a plant-based diet is “compatible with successful athletic endeavor.”
Vegan foods have propelled sports figures quite far. Jurek won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run seven years in a row, setting a course record, and he’s represented the United States’ winning teams in overseas races.
His accomplishments are impressive—and so are those of other vegan competitors. Ultrarunner Patrick Sweeney recently raced from Los Angeles to Boston in 114 days—that’s more than a marathon each day. Ironmen Jason Lester and Rich Roll, who in 2009 was named one of the 25 “fittest guys in the world” by Men’s Fitness, completed five Ironman Triathlons—each on a different Hawaiian Island—in one week. Not to be left in the dust, vegan runner Fiona Oakes ran marathons on all seven continents and the North Pole, where she set a course record by 44 minutes.
These vegans are following in the footsteps of some true sports greats. Carl Lewis, Sports Illustrated’s “Olympian of the Century,” says that his best year of track competition was the first year that he ate a vegan diet, and Fauja Singh, who, at age 101, finished a 6.25-mile race in 1 hour, 32 minutes and 28 seconds, credits his stamina and longevity to plant-based meals.
Ultramarathoner Dom Repta, who has run 100 miles in just under 20 hours, jokes that “vegan power” has turned him into a cyborg who suffers no injuries. While that may not be entirely true, vegan foods can protect against heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other debilitating diseases. That’s why former triathlete Brendan Brazier, the author of the Thrive book series and creator of the award-winning line of plant-based Vega nutritional products, says that whole plant-based foods are “proactive health insurance.” And since vegan athletes power up with healthy protein sources such as beans, lentils, tofu, pumpkin seeds and almonds, they have all the energy they need to be at their best.
Many other athletes thrive on vegan foods as well, including MLB pitcher Pat Neshek, NFL players Griff Whalen and Brandon Flowers, hockey great Georges Laraque, basketball stars John Salley and Salim Stoudamire, free-climber Steph Davis and Ultimate Fighting champ Mac Danzig.
In fact, some of the strongest athletes in the world are fueled by fruit, vegetables and other plant-based foods, including Patrik Baboumian, who broke the world record for the most weight ever carried by a human being, and all the bodybuilders on the PlantBuilt Vegan Muscle Team.
So, if you want to succeed in sports—and save animals to boot—pick a healthy vegan role model and follow his or her example. And even if sitting in the cheering section is more your style, you can still look and feel your best by eating vegan foods.