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Plant-Powered Performance

It's well understood that meats and other animal-based products tend to be higher in protein and that vegans and vegetarians need to be more conscious of their protein intake. But what is not well understood is how plant-based athletes can modify their diet to get the same level of performance as their meat-eating counterparts.


Vegan and vegetarian athletes are, understandably, more informed about what exactly they are eating, they need to ensure they don't miss out on any essential nutrients. Nutrition can be complicated, especially if you're in this small subset of people where high-quality information is difficult to find. I did the hard work and researched it for you so I can give you the simplest explanations and the best recommendations.



Why is protein problematic for plant-based athletes?


The reason why animal proteins are effective at healing human bodies is because of how similar these proteins are to the ones already in our bodies.


Proteins are the basic building blocks of our muscles. When we damage these muscles during difficult workouts, they need to be repaired with proteins. Animal proteins, especially meats, are so similar in makeup to what our muscles are made of, it is very simple and easy for our bodies to use them for this repair process.


Plant proteins are not similar to our muscles. They are often missing important parts that our bodies need for this healing process. This is why vegetarians and vegans need to be strategic with what and how much they eat, it can be easy to completely miss out on these parts.


This also means that plant-based athletes need to consume more protein as each gram of protein from a plant does not carry the same effect as a gram of animal protein. We recommend eating roughly 10% more in total protein content each day if you are a vegan or vegetarian athlete.


This means the typical recommendation of 1.2-1.8 grams per kg of bodyweight will now become 1.3-1.9 grams per kg of bodyweight. This results in a daily protein intake of 78-114 grams/ day for a ~130lb rider and 94-138 grams/ day for a ~160lb rider.


What is a protein?


Proteins are made up of amino acids. Our bodies are capable of making many of these amino acids all by themselves, we don't need to eat them in our regular diet. However, there are 9 essential amino acids that our bodies can't make, these need to be eaten or else we will become deficient in them.


You don't have to know each of them individually, but these essential amino acids are:

  • histidine

  • isoleucine

  • leucine

  • lysine

  • methionine

  • phenylalanine

  • threonine

  • tryptophan

  • valine


Of these 9 essential amino acids, there are 5 that are most important for vegans and vegetarians: lysine, methionine, isoleucine, threonine, and tryptophan. When you are trying to optimize your diet for athletic performance while being a plant-based athlete, these are the 5 amino acids you should look to add specifically. These are the amino acids that are least abundant in plant-based foods so you will need to be diligent with adding them.


Again, you don't need to know these amino acids specifically, I will explain how you can get each of them directly.



What should you eat?


Most plant-based proteins consist of all but one or two of the essential amino acids. There are a few plant-based proteins that contain all 9 essential amino acids in significant amounts so additional supplementation isn't needed.


Complete Plant Proteins


These are the types of proteins you will want to eat most often as they don't require substitutions or supplementation to make up for any missing nutrients. These are foods like:

  • quinoa

  • chia seeds

  • buckwheat

  • hemp seed

  • soy


Incomplete Plant Proteins


The vast majority of plant proteins are missing some amino acids, here are some of the most common protein types and what amino acids they are missing.


Legumes - lacking Methionine

Legumes are the fruits or seeds of plants found in the Leguminosae family. These include foods such as:

  • beans

  • peas

  • peanuts

  • lentils

  • alfalfa


Whole Grains - lacking Lysine and Threonine

Whole grains refer to grains that include the bran, endosperm, and germ. They are often classified into two groups cereals and pseudocereals. Cereals are classic grains such as:

  • wheat

  • barley

  • rice

  • corn

Many pseudocereals are known for containing all essential amino acids, but they are foods like:

  • quinoa

  • chia

  • amaranth

  • buckwheat


Nuts and Seeds - Lacking in Lysine

Nuts and seeds are the female reproductive unit of the plant meaning they are usually densely packed with nutrients other than protein. These include:

  • Peanuts

  • almonds

  • cashews

  • sunflower seeds

  • flax seeds

  • sesame seeds


Complimentary Proteins


Two protein types are low in lysine but only one is low in methionine. This means you can combine one of each of these protein types because one makes up for what the other is lacking. These are called complimentary proteins because, on their own, they are incomplete, but when consumed together they provide all essential amino acids.


If you do not get all of your daily protein through the handful of complete plant proteins, you will need to consume the remaining through these complementary proteins. This can be done by simply adding some legumes to a meal already containing whole grains or seeds/ nuts, or the other way around.



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