If one could devise the perfect equation for achieving optimal athleticism, it would probably look something like this: Training + Adequate Rest + Proper Nutrition = Improved Performance As dedicated athletes, we often secure the first component, yet allow the other two factors to take a backseat in terms of importance.
Yet dedication to nutrition, especially protein consumption, can make a significant contribution not only to one’s performance but to one’s overall physique as well. If one is an omnivore, meaning one who is comfortable consuming all manner of animal products, protein intake is rarely an issue. For vegetarians, however, ensuring adequate protein in one’s diet becomes more of a concern. Vegetarians generally group themselves into four distinct categories:
- Lacto-Ovo: those who do not eat meat, but will consume dairy products as well as eggs.
- Lacto: individuals whose diets include dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and kefir, but no eggs or meat of any kind.
- Ovo: those who will consume eggs but not meat or any dairy products.
- Vegan: individuals who do not consume any foods derived from animal sources. As is evidenced by these descriptions, most vegetarians allow themselves some form of animal-based protein. While the choices may be limited, a well-planned nutritional program could be devised to accommodate all manner of heavy training, especially that which is required of a successful bodybuilder.
The vegan bodybuilder, however, has special requirements, both in the kitchen as well as in the gym. Due to the absence of animal-based protein sources, the vegan lifestyle does not support the recovery that is necessary after one engages in strength-training at a high volume and frequency.
Acknowledging this limitation does not mean that building a strong and impressive physique is not within reach, however. Rather, the vegan bodybuilder needs to aim for shorter but more intense workouts. It does not take much to stimulate muscle growth; low -volume workouts with heavy weight and consistent overload will be adequate enough to see results!
For core lifts, such as bench press, deadlifts and squats, keeping the repetition range between 4 and 6 will ensure a safe volume. All other exercises can be performed with 6-10 repetitions. It is also important to keep each workout under 45 minutes in duration. Longer workouts tend to elevate the body’s protein needs, which are already challenging enough for a strict vegan. Understanding the rules of engagement inside the gym is only part of the equation. Post-workout nutrition becomes increasingly complex for those adhering to a vegan lifestyle.
There are several processes at play within the body as one trains with weights: ~ ATP levels decrease ~Muscle glycogen is partially depleted ~ Insulin levels decrease ~Protein degradation is increased ~Immune system is suppressed ~Blood flow to muscles is increased The goals, therefore, of post-workout nutrition, should ideally be as follows: ~Replenish glycogen stores ~Initiate tissue repair ~Reduce muscle damage ~Boost immune system ~Keep the body in an anabolic state
While omnivores can easily accomplish these goals by consuming a shake comprised of whey protein and simple carbohydrates, this is not an option for vegans. One must look to other protein sources to ensure that these goals can be met. Among the best vegan protein sources are hemp, pea, and rice protein in powder form, which can then be mixed with water. In addition to providing the necessary amino acids for tissue repair, hemp has several other attractive benefits, making it an ideal choice. It is quite high in Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that can help speed recovery. It also possesses anti-inflammatory properties that can aid in soft tissue repair.
Medium-firm tofu is also a good option as a post-workout protein source. It is easily digestible, and contains magnesium and calcium, both important minerals necessary for smooth muscle contraction.
The body requires restoration of these minerals post-workout as they are both excreted in sweat. As one can see, careful planning and attention to detail is necessary in order to maximize testosterone and insulin production post-workout, and to help maximize recovery.
Acknowledging that the post-workout meal is indeed one of the most important periods of consumption for a bodybuilder, the vegan faces nutritional challenges throughout the rest of the day as well. In the absence of animal-based foods, one nutrient that may be getting shortchanged is iron. Since iron is responsible for the development of healthy red bold cells, it is imperative that vegans find creative ways to introduce sufficient levels of iron into their menus.
Plant-based sources of iron are qualitatively different and more difficult for the body to absorb than iron from meat sources. Minor adjustments can be made to increase dietary iron absorption, such as consuming foods that are high in Vitamin C along with the vegan sources of iron.
Similarly, calcium supplements compete with iron for absorption, and as such should be taken at a separate time. Another challenge for vegan bodybuilders is finding ways to get enough protein required to build muscle without consuming an excess of calories.
Because the protein density of grains and legumes is relatively low in comparison to meat products, vegans may find themselves having to engage in more cardio vascular activities in comparison to their omnivorous counterparts in order to offset any potential fat gains.
One particularly intriguing difference between vegan and omnivorous bodybuilders with regard to performance in strength and explosive sports is that of intramuscular creatine concentrations. Creatine, in the form of creatine phosphate, is a source of energy during high-intensity exercise. Depletion of creatine phosphate is a major cause of fatigue during repeated bouts of explosive exercise, such as weightlifting.
Vegans generally possess less intramuscular creatine than their meat-eating partners, since creatine is found solely in animal meat sources. Some vegan athletes choose to add creatine supplementation to their regimen in order to protect against this imbalance.
Many individuals who adhere to a strict vegan lifestyle consume a larger proportion of legumes, nuts, lentils and beans than omnivores. These food sources provide minerals, vitamins, and additional fiber not found in meat. When these foods are complemented by adequate protein sources, there seems to be no reason why a strict vegan would have to compromise any strength gains in the gym. Optimal health and performance is indeed possible through smart, plant-based nutrition.
1. Levenhagen, D.K., Carr, C., Carlson, M.G.,et al., “Post-exercise protein intake enhances whole-body and leg protein accretion in humans.” Medicine and Science in Sports and exercise, 34: 828-837, 2002.
4.© 2002-2011 Helium, Inc.
5.. Nieman DC (1999). “Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70, 570S-575S
6. Maughan RJ (1995)” Creatine supplementation and exercise performance.” International Journal of Sports Nutrition 5, S39-S61
About the Author
Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com.
She welcomes your feedback and your comments!