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Monday 5 December 2016

How does a vegan diet affect your performance as an athlete?

More and more athletes are adopting a vegan diet and seeing improvements in their performance and overall health as a result, writes Fiona McBennett

vegan
vegan
Pole fitness athletes: Terri Walsh and Michael Donohoe
Pole fitness athletes: Terri Walsh and Michael Donohoe
David and Stephen Flynn of The Happy Pear

There has been much debate in recent times surrounding diets that eliminate certain food groups. Whether it's gluten-free, sugar-free or grain-free, one thing is clear - what we eat has never been more scrutinised.

With the high-protein 'paleo' diet proving to be a popular choice at the moment, it would appear that our love of meat is at an all-time high.

However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, plant-based living - a diet that eliminates all animal products including meat, fish, dairy and eggs, as well as products containing those foods - has also been gaining momentum, and celebrities such as Beyoncé have been praising the power of plants for achieving optimal health and vitality.

It's not just LA that is experiencing a shift: mainstream supermarkets in Ireland are now dedicating shelf space to plant-based products such as almond milk and tofu, and vegan-friendly restaurants are cropping up across the country.

For many, the words 'vegan' and 'athlete' do not go together, yet there are a growing number of high-performing athletes who say that being 'plant-powered' has enabled them to achieve peak physical fitness.

David and Stephen Flynn of the Happy Pear health-food store and café in Greystones, Co Wicklow, have been flying the flag in Ireland for plant-based eating for over 10 years.

Their vegetarian cookbook was the number-one selling cookbook of 2014 here, and these days, they are busier than ever.

The pair have competed in marathons and triathlons and are fans of early morning runs, swimming in the sea and yoga. They say that their vegan diet has greatly improved their physical health and fitness.

"We have both been following a vegan diet for the past 15 years and feel a lot better for it," says David. "We are leaner and we don't feel as heavy or bloated because a plant-based diet is easy to digest.

"When it comes to exercise, we definitely feel stronger now. We recover a lot faster and we don't injure as much either. We have also seen a big difference in endurance without much training - I feel I could run a marathon tomorrow without any training," he says.

Terri Walsh and her boyfriend Michael Donohoe, owners of Fierce Fitness Dance Studio in Maynooth, have been following a vegan diet since January of this year, after many years as vegetarians.

The couple are pole fitness athletes and each hold national and international titles in the sport. They say that their choice to go vegan was influenced by their love of animals.

"We didn't want to be part of any more abuse to animals on any level and we felt it would be far more beneficial for our health," says Michael, also a qualified nutritionist and personal trainer.

"A lot of our meals would have been vegan anyway, but we wanted to take the official step - fully removing dairy, eggs and watching out for those ingredients within certain foods."

When not teaching classes, the pair are often training for competitions or public performances and Terri says that strength and endurance are of vital importance to them.

"We train pretty consistently, but when there is a competition coming up, we have to train even harder still, as we need to make sure that we perform all the tricks in order and in time to the music. You have to make sure that your energy and stamina are at the level they need to be at."

The couple say that many people are surprised that their vegan diet sustains them for such a demanding sport.

"I do get asked a lot about how we get our protein. People are often shocked when they see us train and then find out that we are vegan," says Michael.

"We are full of energy and we train two to three hours a day, four days a week on top of teaching our classes. We sleep well at night and are rarely sick," he adds. "We don't count calories and instead we make sure to eat a wide selection of whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds."

Although Terri had been a vegetarian since the age of 12, she says that becoming a vegan improved her diet and introduced her to foods she would never have eaten before.

"I used to love things like mayonnaise and cheese but now I am eating food that is a lot more nutritious, such as hearty bean stews with quinoa, and kale and beetroot juices. Becoming a vegan accidentally led me down a healthier path and helped me to feel a lot better."

The couple serve as an inspiration for many of their students who regularly ask them for diet and health advice. Terri says that they are happy to dispel some of the stereotypes surrounding veganism.

"We never preach to anyone about our diet, but some of the girls do ask us what we eat. It's really nice to be able to change people's perspectives. There is no reason why anyone can't survive powerfully on plant-based food."

Marathon runner and Iron Man athlete, Neil Rooney, from Dublin, has been following a predominantly plant-based diet for the past two years. After experiencing a string of gastrointestinal problems while training for the Paris Marathon in 2013, he decided to overhaul his diet.

"I initially gave up dairy, which made me feel better almost straight away. I was so impressed with how I felt that I started experimenting with meat-free Mondays and gradually began reducing my intake of animal products. Then, in the lead up to the 2013 Dublin Marathon, I decided to try out a three-week plant-based diet. I felt amazing on it and the marathon went really well."

Neil says that plant-based food is the perfect fuel for his busy life as an osteopath, a dad and an athlete. While his family are not vegan, he cooks plant-based meals for them a few times a week.

"My wife is usually happy to eat whatever I cook, so I will often make pasta and vegetable dishes for my family. When they are having a dish like lasagne, I like to make something like beans, rice and avocado for myself. Most are quick, easy to make and cheap."

Stamina and injury prevention are crucial to Neil, who runs three to four times a week. He believes that ditching animal products has allowed him to perform better than ever.

"I had suffered from some joint pain and lower back pain in the past but last year, I ran just over 3,500 km and I didn't have any injuries. One of the other main benefits that I have experienced is an increase in energy - instead of my body wasting energy digesting meat, I have the energy to go for a run whenever I want."

With experience of being both a meat-eating and plant-based athlete, Neil feels that his current diet works best for him. "I worked as a personal trainer for 15 years and I drank all the protein shakes, took all the supplements and ate all the meat, but I feel 100pc better now being plant-based."

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