Nutrition: Do cycling and vegetarianism mix?

How a meat-free diet could even improve performance

Whether you’re a vegetarian or you just want to cut back on your meat intake, knowing how to get the right balance of nutrients from a meat-free diet can keep you at peak cycling performance.

Nigel Mitchell, head nutritionist for British Cycling, says that going meat-free should cause no detriment to your cycling as long as you make sensible food choices. “The only time I’ve ever worked with vegetarian athletes who've struggled to gain adequate food for fuelling their sport is when they've made bad decisions about what to eat," he says.

Mitchell says that getting enough iron and protein without eating meat is easy: “If you cut meat from your diet the best source of protein is still animal based, so dairy products and eggs, which are also high in iron. Include enough of these into your meals and you won’t suffer from protein deficiency.”

However, you can also get high quantities of quality protein from several plant based vegetarian foods too. “Soya protein and Quorn are particularly good,” says Mitchell. “Quorn contains mycoprotein, which is very high quality and is also a good source of dietary fibre.” Mycoprotein is also free from cholesterol, unlike meat proteins, and too much cholesterol can cause clogging of the arteries, putting you at risk of a heart attack.

“Quinoa, which is a sort of seed-grain, is another great option for any diet,” he says. “It’s regarded by many as a superfood, because it’s high in protein with a low GI and a good combination of essential fats.” This means the energy it provides will be released slowly over the course of your ride, sustaining you for longer.

“One potential drawback of cutting meat from your diet is that it'll have less creatine, an organic acid that occurs naturally in meat but not plants, and helps to transport energy to your cells,” says Mitchell. “However this is also produced inside the body so although levels might not be as high, not eating it shouldn’t have a detrimental effect.” And creatine supplements are available that can boost your levels if you’re worried they’re too low.

Christine Vardaros, professional cyclist with Baboco Cycling Team, has been vegetarian for the past 20 years and vegan for 10. She feels that a meat-free diet has in many ways helped her cycling performance. “Considering there’s complete protein in all plant foods,” she says, “I get more than enough protein from my meat-free diet to build and repair muscles.”

She also says that getting meat-free fuelling mid-ride isn’t a problem: “While my team-mates have sandwiches of meat and cheese offered up to them mid-race, my team make me special ones with jam.” In fact, Vardaros feels that vegetarianism has actually given her an advantage over her carnivorous team-mates. “On a meat-free diet I’m rarely sick, which gives me more days for training over my competitors," she says. "I also recover more quickly from hard rides and races, and feel more energetic on my bike rides.”

Vardaros puts this down to the fact that digestion of high protein animal flesh can be taxing on the body. “Complex animal proteins fight for the body’s energy and resources needed for recovery and optimal immune system,” she says, adding that because of its perceived benefits, “vegetarianism is catching on quickly in the pro peloton. Now it’s commonplace to see soya milk on the breakfast tables, even among the ProTour teams.”

So what meat-free fuelling tips does she have before a big event? “On race day, I eat mainly carbohydrates,” says Vardaros. “A big bowl of pasta or rice with a splash of olive oil and salt is a typical pre-race meal for the pros. Some of them add grated cheese for flavour, while I eat mine plain.”

Veggie winners

These pro cyclists have all been veggie at some point in their career: Sean Yates, Shane Sutton, Levi Leipheimer, Robert Millar, Maarten Tjallingii, Dave Zabriskie and Mark Cavendish.

Veggie superfoods

  • Peanut butter
  • Tofu
  • Chickpeas
  • Seeds – for example, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, linseeds
  • Houmous
  • Yoghurt
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Walnut oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Dried fruit – raisins, apricots, dates
  • Eggs
  • Broccoli
  • Lentils
  • Avocado
  • Sweet potato
  • Quinoa
  • Quorn

Recipe for success

Registered dietitian Renee McGregor, who is a veggie herself, suggests a tasty meat-free recipe for fuelling before a big event. “This is one of my favourite pre-race meals,” says Renee. “It’s pasta with roasted vegetables and toasted sunflower seeds – providing plenty of complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals including iron.”

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 1 aubergine
  • 1 large courgette
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 250g mushrooms
  • 200g cherry tomatoes
  • 50g sunflower seeds
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g pasta
  • 2 tsp stir-in pasta paste (tomato and black olive is one of Renee’s favourites)
  • Sprinkle of cheese

Instructions:

  • Cut up all the vegetables into big chunks and place into a roasting tin, leaving out the cherry tomatoes. Add the olive oil and roast in a pre-heated oven at 200°C for about 45 minutes.
  • About halfway through the cooking time of the vegetables, add the sunflower seeds and cherry tomatoes to the tin.
  • Put the pasta in a pan of boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain and mix with the stir-in sauce.
  • Put pasta on plates and top with roasted vegetables and cheese.

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