How a vegan diet helped this athlete make huge improvements to performance

Lisa Gawthorne wasn’t always the sporty type and in fact admits to hating school sports including tennis, hockey and netball but when she discovered running at college, she found her performance went from strength to strength.

She shares some advice here on how she feels the vegan diet has played a huge part in her athletic achievements.

Vegan athlete Lisa Gawthorne
Image Credit: Lisa Gawthorne

Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows how vocal I am about veganism. I’ve been veggie since age six and will have been vegan for eighteen years in 2021 and I am a massive animal lover which remains my primary reason for choosing the vegan way of life.

The great thing that I absolutely love about being vegan is the many different benefits you get to enjoy – it’s great for the animals, the environment, the planet and your health.

The latter has a massive part to play in the lives of those who love sport and fitness and I honestly believe the vegan diet has paved the way for a lot of my performance gains over the years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been injured every now and then – you would be hard pushed to find a runner who hasn’t, but I bounce back fairly rapidly and quicker than most after injury which again I put down to the plant-based aspect of the diet.

In the last five years, I have won various local 5K and 10K races, I have got my 5K PB down to 18.39 and 10K down to 38.40.

I have run for the county of Merseyside in Cross Country, I have completed four European and three World Championship Duathlon Championship races for my age group on Team GB.

I am ranked 8th in the world and 6th In Europe for my age group in Sprint Duathlon. I have won two England vests in my age group, one for road running and one for cross country.

I have recently also just returned from Madeira where I competed in the British Masters Athletics Championships and came home the age group champion of Europe bringing a gold medal back for GB as well as two further silver team medals in the 10k and also in the Cross-Country Relays.

I strongly believe in addition to commitment to training programs, performance gains can be had on a vegan diet for anyone in any sport and I think this is anchored into four main areas:

1. Energy

Veggies and fruits are bursting with phytonutrients and lots of essential vitamins, which can assist with maintenance of energy levels. This goes way beyond bananas too!

There are so many fantastic sources of sustainable energy sources which don’t give the blood sugar spike but make for perfect pre-workout fuel.

Great examples of which are oats, barley, spelt, whole wheat bread, brown rice, chickpeas and sweet potato.

I always make sure I top up on porridge three hours before a race and have some sustainable carbs about three hours before a workout in the gym.

Over the years I have had quite a few comments both in work and in sports about how energetic I am. I have been caffeine-free now for thirteen years and they are so surprised to hear that I am not jacked on coffee, I am just jacked on beans!

2. Digestion

Animal proteins take a fair amount of time to travel through the digestive system and this can pay havoc with training sessions and in some cases races.

Often termed the second brain, the gut is an essential part of our everyday living. 70% of our immunity comes from the gut, so the stronger it is, the healthier you will feel inside and out.

Plant proteins are much kinder on the digestive system, they don’t take as long to be digested and as they are often higher in fibre and essential vitamins so your digestive system will love you for it.

I can’t even remember what meat tastes like but I know that my digestion was a lot better when I ditched dairy and changed from being vegetarian to being vegan. Dairy used to give me horrendous bloating and stomach discomfort and I don’t get that with non-dairy milks – my favourites are soy and almond milks.

3. Sleep

This is such an important and yet often overlooked area. Sleep is of great importance for anyone doing anything fitness-wise. It gives the body chance to rest, relax and repair.

Broken sleep can sometimes be linked to digestive issues and discomfort which if you are eating animal proteins can be more regular than you know.

By eliminating those food sources and ingesting only plant-based proteins, you are giving yourself a higher chance of a richer, less interrupted night’s sleep and also increasing your chances of waking feeling more refreshed and less sluggish.

Even when you sleep, your digestive system works, so it’s important you give it as much help as possible if you want to see your best results in the gym, on the track, in the pool or on the bike.

I tend to aim for eight hours sleep each night and I feel that is perfect for my lifestyle and energy expenditure. Life is busy and it’s not always possible to get eight hours in but trying to get as close to it will put you in a strong position along with giving your digestive system that kinder, helping hand.

Lisa Gawthorne on the cover of Time magazine
Image Credit: Lisa Gawthorne

4. Recovery

The phytonutrients in vegan foods are rich in anti-inflammatory properties which definitely help boost recovery times, both after races and in between hard training sessions.

With the injuries I have picked up over the years, one thing has always run through them – an immensely quick recovery period. Everyone notices it – my fellow athletes, coaches, and my physio have all commented on it.

The vegan diet is definitely my superpower when it comes to recovery. That and good hydration are essential to speed up recovery.

If you don’t like water (I struggle with it), you can always drop an electrolyte tablet in your water to boost your body’s essential minerals and there are lots of sports companies that now offer vegan versions.

Those four key areas are so important on their own but then joined together as a whole they really can give you some noticeable performance gains that will surprise yourself, your fellow gym buddies, competitors, coaches and personal trainers.

You only have to check out the long list of super inspiring athletes on Great Vegan Athletes to see that it’s happening for all of those people – and this includes runners, tennis players, weight lifters bodybuilders, and a whole variety of other amazing sports stars.

If Netflix is more your thing it’s worth checking out The Gamechangers for some further inspiration too.

Vegan athlete Lisa Gawthorne
Image Credit: Lisa Gawthorne

Good luck to everyone trying Veganuary – I can promise you this, and not just from a sports point of view – you will never look back.

It simply is the best thing you can do for the planet, for climate change, for the animals and for your own health. Enjoy it people and let me know how you are doing on Instagram, I am all about spreading vegan performance gains stories!

As well as being a vegan athlete who runs for Vegan Runners, Lisa is also co-owner and Joint MD at Bravura Foods the UK’s award-winning vegan food business, and is a vegan nutritionist and author of vegan health and fitness book Gone in 60 Minutes.

Follow Lisa’s journey further on Instagram and Twitter.

Follow the link for more vegan athletes.

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