Now more than ever plant-based diets have increased in popularity with more athletes (runners especially) opting for a vegan diet. It’s an interesting shift, one that health coaches Zuzana Fajkusova and Nikki Lefler have witnessed over then 20 years they have been vegans. Inspired by the growing demand for better nutrition information for vegan athletes, Fajkusova and Lefler the duo behind Active Vegetarian, combined their knowledge and favourite recipes in their latest book The Plant Powered Athlete: Satisfying Vegan Meals to Fuel Your Active Lifestyle (Page Street, June 2020). We spoke with the Vancouver-based coaches to dispel myths about following a vegan diet along with easy ways to include more plant-based meals into your everyday meals.
iRun: How did you both decide to change to a plant-based lifestyle?
Zuzanna: I started experimenting with plant-based lifestyle when I was 16. At that time, I was into fitness and I started noticing changes to my health in a good way, but I wasn’t feeling energetic because my nutrition wasn’t supporting my activity level. In the 90s there wasn’t a lot of information about being athletic and a vegetarian so I really started to dig into the research, experimenting with my own training and with my nutrition.
Nikki: In 2006, I started eating vegan, and since my early 20s I’ve been active and into fitness. I also started educating myself on the plant-based lifestyle and everything fell into place. From how we were treating ourselves and the planet, a vegan diet really fell in line with how I was feeling and it just made sense ethically.
iRun: What can people expect from the book?
Zuzana: We took the approach of nutrient density and eating food that is whole, unprocessed and from nature. Anyone who is athletic knows, one of the ways in which we grow as an athlete and become stronger is through recovery. Our progress in sport is directly dependent on how quickly we can recover and nutrition has a huge role in our recovery process. Eating whole, nutrient dense foods allows us to recover more quickly.
iRun: What do you say to people who believe plant-based recipes are more time consuming?
Zuzana: One of the things we have to understand is that we have to adjust to different ingredients.When you first transition to plant based you will have to spend more time in the kitchen. The initial list may be a bit longer, but once you equip your kitchen with the basics these recipes are quick and easy to prepare. When you are connecting with your food, the energy you put into it will help give you more energy.
iRun: What is the biggest misconception about a plant-based diet?
Nikki: We can all tend to fixate on the same meal every day but we need to be able to space it out and change it up. For example if one week you’re doing overnight oats, the next week switch it up with some fruit or maybe you build Buddha bowls for dinner and are having salad with some grains and having the salad dressings be different. One day your dressing may have some nutritional yeast in it and the next it may have some seaweed. Connecting with what your body is asking for and honouring that is just as important as the nutrients you are getting.
iRun: What do you say to people who find the idea of committing to a vegan lifestyle overwhelming?
Nikki: The best approach is not to label yourself. The more you include nutrient-dense, plant-based foods it helps you as an athlete and it helps the environment. All around, you will notice your tastebuds start to change and that process creates more options for you nutrient-wise and it just becomes easier.
Zuzanah: Start with small steps. Even starting slowly by having one plant based meal in your diet every day it will help You will start to notice as your body is detoxifying, you will notice you aren’t craving ice cream for example, you will find that the foods you crave will change. You really have to experience it.
iRun: What are your go to foods before and after a workout?
Zuzanah: For me before a run I can’t eat a lot. I always hydrate with watermelon or cucumber. W also have a lot of recipes that are portable to take with you to maintain your energy as your training. For post-run, a whole grain pasta made from whole grains, lentils, chickpeas or black beans will help you refuel.
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