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Athlete Diet: Vegetarian or Paleo?

Athlete diet


Not so long ago, most athletes looked at a plant-based diet as an unfortunate affliction. Tell another athlete you didn’t eat meat (voluntarily!), and you’d get a look that was at once puzzled and sympathetic, as if you’d just said you put Yoo-Hoo in your gas tank.

Now, athletes at the pinnacle of their sports, from ultramarathoner Scott Jurek to mixed martial arts fighter Mac Danzig, have settled on vegan diets to resounding success–and with limited amounts of tree hugging and granola crunching!

Why the dramatic shift in attitude? Professional athletes tell me that the crucial benefit of a plant-based diet is in the recovery. After a tough workout, they simply need less time to rest than when they used to eat meat. This means they can get back out there sooner to do it all again–and at the elite level, more workouts means more success.

But what about the rest of us, the weekend warriors who may have no reason to work out any more than we already do? For us, recovering faster with plant fuel still has benefits. For one, being more prepared for your next workout means fewer injuries.

A vegetarian diet also means cleaner arteries, reduced risk of heart disease, and a healthier, happier body. Our bodies are built to digest vegetables. The caveman is a myth. For all of human history, most of our calories came from plants.

But how can you possibly get enough protein from plants, right?

Getting enough protein as a vegan athlete isn’t such a big deal, honest. Yes, you lose a lot of calories when you cut out meat, dairy, and eggs, and you’ve got to replace most of them if you want to get and stay stronger and faster. But there’s nothing special about the protein that comes from animals, and you can get all you need–which isn’t nearly as much as we’ve been led to believe—from plants.

As a vegetarian (and even a vegan), I’ve found that these restrictions have made me more conscious of what I put into my body each day. Whereas I used to excuse the occasional hamburger or ice cream sundae as perks in an otherwise healthy diet, being vegan literally takes those indulgences off the table.

Elite athletes may be interested in faster recovery and more workouts, but even we mere mortals can benefit from a vegetarian diet—whether that means a faster marathon time or just less time logged at McDonald’s.

Matt Frazier is a vegan marathoner and ultramarathoner who shares his experiences and advice at his website


I first encountered the Paleo lifestyle in 2008, when I wanted to transition into lightweight rowing.  This means that two hours before I race, I step on a scale and must weight under 130 pounds. My race lasts seven minutes plus, and my heart rate averages 180 beats per minute. I race a heat, a semi and a final and sometimes even a fourth heat if I don’t advance by placing in top positions.

Just to keep up, I need recovery and consistency.  I need acute focus and agility to maneuver long skinny oars and balance the boat, all while attempting repeated perfect  strokes, even in extreme temperatures, wind, and rain. The Paleolithic diet was my answer to the intense demands of my transition to lightweight rowing.

Paleo principles are about getting sunshine and eating real food (lean animal protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats from coconut, avocado, olive oil, and moderate amounts of nuts and seeds). Along with dairy and processed fats and sugars, I stay away from beans and legumes, which contain saponins that act as toxins in the body. In addition, grains contain lectins and anti-nutrients that result in gut irritations in much of the population.

Within the first three months of Paleo-eating I noticed how alive I felt. That may sound overly Zen, but as an athlete, you are mostly walking around depleted—tired from the training load. With Paleo, I recover faster, need less sleep, and have more energy and excitement for workouts. My nerves are sharper and I absorb technical changes more quickly. I started rowing late in the game, as a  twenty-six-year-old rower competing against eighteen-year-olds. I need all the extra energy I can get.

I also find that I can really taste my food. And with every dollar I spend at farmers’ markets and on grass-fed meat, I am sending a message that corporate feedlots and GMOs are not okay. I go straight for the dark, leafy greens  for calcium and antioxidants. Root vegetables and tubers give me the energy to train, and the protein from wild-caught, naturally-fed meat contains the amino acids my muscles need to recover. Best of all, I don’t feel like I’m going hungry.

Calorie for calorie, I’m getting the biggest bang per mouthful, and you can too. Beans and rice might keep you alive, but you won’t thrive. I’m moving towards thriving, and that is why I train, race, and eat Paleo.

Ursula Grobler has spent three years on the U.S. Rowing National Team and is the current lightweight world record holder on the Concept 2 Ergometer.  

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