The Great Britain Cycling Team nutritionists have worked with a number of vegetarian and vegan cyclists and see no reason why such a diet should be detrimental to success on the bike. Like all diets though, a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet is all about making good decisions.
Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be high in fibre rich foods, which can fill you up quickly without delivering much caloric energy. This is great if you are trying to shed a kilo or two but, if you are in a heavy training block, it could leave you seriously under-fuelled. Keep a food and exercise diary and make sure you are not under-eating. If you are doing long rides, you may have to resort to more refined and calorie dense options such as, white rice, pasta and potatoes.
For vegetarians, the best sources of complete high quality proteins are eggs and dairy. For vegans, it is slightly trickier, as legumes, grains, nuts and seeds don’t always individually contain a complete balance of essential amino acids. Without these amino acids your body will not be able to synthesise the proteins to repair your muscles after hard training. Fortunately, by eating a wide variety of plant-based protein sources, you can cover all of your amino acid bases. Rice and beans is a classic combination that will deliver a full balance of essential amino acids. There are also a number of plant-based protein sources, such as quinoa, buckwheat and soya, which are complete proteins.
A male cyclist will typically require 1.2-1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight each day, with female riders requiring 15% less. This isn’t a huge amount, but plant based protein sources are far less protein dense. For example, two turkey breasts will deliver 43 g of protein, just under half the required amount for an 80 kg male rider, but to get the same from almonds, you would have to eat over eight handfuls. This means that vegetarians and vegans may want to consider supplementation.
With foliate vegetables such as spinach and broccoli containing plenty of iron, there is no need for vegetarian and vegan cyclists to be iron deficient. The iron from plant based sources can be harder for your body to absorb, but the process can be aided with organic acids. Vinegar in salad dressings or a glass of orange juice with your meal, are both simple solutions.
B12 is an important vitamin for recovering from training, nerve function and for the creation of oxygen carrying red blood cells. Vegetarians who eat dairy products have no worries but vegans should consider supplementation. Fortunately, many foods, such as breakfast cereals or soya milk, are fortified with B12 and it is also present in most quality multi-vitamins.
Found in beef, pork and fish, creatine is important for sudden and explosive movements. For vegetarian and vegan riders, it can definitely be a help during strength and hypertrophic phases of training and we have been using it with the Team Pursuit riders for the last ten years. Studies have shown that vegetarian athletes can have lower levels of creatine in their muscles so, if you are a track rider or a sprinter, you may want to consider supplementing it into your diet. It can cause a bloated feeling though, so we use a relatively low dose of 5 g/day. You may need to be careful however, as many supplemental creatine products are derived from shellfish.
Essential Fatty Acids
One of the supplements recommended to all riders is a quality fish oil, for the Omega 3 essential fatty acids they contain. As well as a number of health benefits, they also have impacts specific to training and performance. Most noticeable is an anti-inflammatory effect, which has obvious post-workout benefits. Vegetarians and vegans obviously can’t take this type of supplement, but their low Omega 3 levels are also compounded by the fact that their diets are often typically lacking in it. It is not as simple as just looking for foods which are high in Omega 3 though, as it is the ratio with Omega 6 which is important. You should therefore strive to increase your Omega 3 intake while lowering that of Omega 6.
To lower Omega 6 intake avoid preparing foods with corn, sunflower, vegetable and sesame oils and instead opt for olive, avocado and peanut. To increase Omega 3 intake, opt for flax, chia and hemp seeds. Milled flax seed in particular is really good. You can also find Omega 3 supplements specifically designed for vegetarians and vegans which are often algae based.
Vegetarian and vegan diets are not immune to modern processed foods and, as with meat eaters, you should always seek out whole unprocessed options whenever possible. Many “substitute foods”, I have seen vegan cheesecakes, are just packed with sugars and bad fats. You occasionally deserve a treat, but try not to make it a regular thing.
Vegetarian Cycling Day
Breakfast: Vegetarians can have the same breakfast that is recommend for all riders before a big day in the saddle. Porridge sweetened with a bit of honey and an omelette for some stomach filling protein.
On the bike: No real issues here with as most energy bars and gels can be eaten by vegetarians. You could also try this rice cakes recipe.
Recovery: A banana blended in milk is an effective and cheap recovery option. Add some ground flax seeds for their anti-inflammatory effect.
Vegan Cycling Day
Breakfast: Quinoa porridge made with coconut milk, chop a banana in for some sweetness and sprinkle with some nuts and seeds.
On the bike: Dried fruit and nuts, bananas and dark high coco content chocolate are good choices. Boiled new potatoes are good and peanut butter sandwiches are another tasty choice, you can even go American and add some vegan suitable jam.
Recovery: Go for a smoothie using B12 fortified soya milk, banana, frozen berries and some ground flax seed.