Vegetarian athletes

Most sports have vegetarian athletes who perform at a high level

Why people become vegetarians or choose vegetarian weight loss diets is a question that is often asked.

There is a perception that vegetarian athletes won’t get the required protein necessary to give them optimal strength.


There are several reasons why people might decide to choose a vegetarian diet.

They might do it because they don’t feel right about consuming other animals, as a means of losing weight, to feel better, or simply out of curiosity.

Perhaps athletes adopt a vegetarian diet for the same reason that I did for many years when I was training for the Ironman Triathlon season after season.

They became vegetarian athletes to see if they would perform better in their sport of choice.

It was actually the Dr. Robert Haas Eat To Win Diet that started me down the vegetarian path.


Although Dr. Haas states that very lean beef in small portions once or twice a week is okay, once you are on his diet you pretty much don’t bother consuming meat.

pasta choices for Vegetarian athletes

I guess I should qualify that. I ate tuna and salmon, but there was no beef or pork in my diet in the years that I performed the best at the marathon and Ironman Triathlon level.

In other words, I have no doubt that it helped my endurance and over-all athletic performance and recovery to stay as close to a total vegetarian diet as possible.

A vegetarian Thanksgiving or Christmas was always a challenge, and those were the few times I allowed myself to consume some white turkey meat.

It was more out of tradition and respect for the person who took the time to cook the turkey in the first place. Right after the holiday dinner it was right back to 98% vegetarian diet with the odd can of tuna or salmon tossed into the mix.


Very few people realize just how many famous and world class athletes were on vegetarian diets at the height of their success. For many like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King it extended their amazing careers many, many years.

It was when Martina Navratilova was on the Dr. Robert Haas “Eat To Win” diet that she was beating women tennis pros half her age and was at the top of her game.

Edwin Moses was the world’s premier 400-meter hurdle champion and he was not beat for 8 years in his event and he attributed much of his success to his vegetarian diet.

Other incredible vegetarian athletes include Carl Lewis who won 9 gold medals and Leroy Burrell who took turns claiming the title of “fastest man in the world.”

In the ranks of major league sports there is no shortage of athlete vegetarians who were at the top of their game. Hank Aaron, Jim Katt and Major league manager Tony Larussa were all vegetarians.

As were NFLer’s Joe Namath, Lawrence Phillips and Marv Levey. Numerous Pro Skateboarder’s, endurance athletes, swimmers, and weight-lifters do not include meat in their diets.

As far as triathlon goes, you have to go no further than the greatest triathlete of all. Dave Scott is an example of a vegetarian athlete who performed at the highest of levels year after year.

Of course Scott won Ironman Hawaii 6 times. I was in Kona in 1984 to take part in the Ironman rumors swirled around about how Dave Scott was spotted in local restaurants eating huge servings of pasta and salad.

Dave held a degree in exercise physiology. It was one of the reasons he did so well back in the 1980’s on the triathlon scene.

It would be decades before the average triathlete began to understand the true value of consuming the right balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Eventually they would discover that a proper balance provided optimum performance and recovery from both racing and training.

There is an enduring myth that still abounds that vegetarian athletes simply cannot function at the highest level without animal protein in their daily diet.

The response to that from Dave Scott in his own words is that it is a “ridiculous fallacy” that athletes need meat in order to be successful.

eggs are a good choice for Vegetarian athletes

Brown Eggs

It has been proven over again by the athletes I just mentioned that the necessity of animal protein in the diet is not essential in order to perform at your absolute best.

However, there is a big “but” that goes along with that.

“But” you must take extra precautions to be sure you are getting sufficient plant protein if you are thinking of becoming a vegetarian athlete.


There are many accounts of people who have jumped head first into the lifestyle of a vegetarian athlete. This is especially true when athletes have a passion for their sport of choice and will do whatever it takes to find that “competitive edge”. (performance enhancing drugs aside)

Many will experience very good results in the early weeks and race times may even become quite a bit faster. For instance a 10k runner might become 90 seconds faster. For those who run to compete, this is a “huge” improvement.

When you are first doing vegetarian meal planning and seeing great results in athletic performance it can be very encouraging.

However, it’s very common for some people new to the world of vegetarian athletes to suffer an “energy crash” of sorts after a few months on their new diet.

Often this happens because they have not compensated for the protein source they lose once they give up animal protein. In some cases people are even “vegans” and give up dairy products and eggs etc. as well.

It’s very common that athletes new to the vegetarian diet will start eating copious amounts of breads, cereals, rice and salads. These are great foods, but where is the protein? Yes, there is protein in small amounts in these foods but not nearly enough to provide your daily allowance as an athlete.


As an athlete you will require quite a bit more protein in your diet than the average person who seldom gets off the couch.

It just stands to reason that you will have more muscles to repair from all that working out, training, and racing.

Vegetarian athletes

Stick with the pasta

However, we simply must provide it with the best possible fuel so it can do it’s work and make you stronger and faster.

As a result, their diets include just the perfect amounts of carbohydrates and protein to fuel their high performance engines. Poor fats and simple carbohydrates are nowhere to be found when the tour is in progress.

In all the research I’ve done over the years about the vegetarian diet it seems that the ideal amount of protein for an athlete is about .06-.07 grams for every pound they weigh.

So using myself as an example, in my prime as an endurance athlete I competed at 150 lbs. In that case I would have had to consume around 80-110 grams of protein per day.

I’m not a registered dietitian and this is just what worked for me. You can take it or leave it.

So this is where it becomes challenging to be a vegetarian athlete. Animal protein(and that includes eggs and cheese)is by far the easiest way to ensure you are getting enough protein in your diet because it is so concentrated.

For instance, a small 5-7 ounce serving of chicken or turkey has 42 grams of protein which is over one-third of your daily requirement as an athlete.

So what should you eat to ensure you are getting enough protein when you become a vegetarian athlete?

It is quite feasible to provide your body with the necessary protein on a daily basis by including nuts, beans, soy products and whole grains in your diet on a regular basis.

At every single meal the vegetarian athlete should become accustomed to thinking about exactly what they are consuming in the way of protein. Use your imagination.

So you’re having a whole wheat bagel? Spread some natural peanut butter on it. Making some vegetable soup. A single cup of lentils has about 20 grams of protein.

Don’t forget that all those breads and cereals you eat also add to your daily amount of protein but “do not” supply enough just on their own.

It’s important to vegetarian athletes to pay attention to vitamin deficiencies

One of the benefits of eating meat, fish and poultry is the amounts of essential vitamins and minerals they provide.

These will be lacking your vegetarian diet, so be sure to compensate for this. It’s always best to discuss this with your doctor and come up with a strategy. You should have a strategy to ensure you are getting all the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs to perform at it’s best.

vitamin supplements for Vegetarian athletes

Do you need vitamin supplements?

You will not be getting as much in the way of omega 3’s (normally from salmon and other fatty fish), vitamin B12, iron and perhaps zinc. Salmon will help provide the necessary Omega oil needed and tuna is an excellent source of protein.

Skim milk, eggs, yogurt and cottage cheese really help ensure a vegetarian diet is somewhat balanced. Women should be especially careful about the loss of iron as they are more susceptible to an iron deficiency.


If you ease into your vegetarianism your body will more easily grow accustomed to your change in diet.

If would be wise for 6 or 8 weeks to slowly reduce the amounts of meat you are eating. For example after a few weeks stop eating beef and pork, but keep eating chicken and fish at a few of your meals. After a few more weeks have passed just eat fish a few times a week.

As the weeks go by add more and more soy products and beans, and other plant protein to your daily meals.

This will give your body time to adjust and will enable you to perform at a high(and probably improved)level. Most vegetarian athletes soon discover this works well for them.


Visit Jamie Oliver website for excellent pasta recipes.

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About Ray

Ray hasn’t stopped since his first Ironman in Kona, 1984. He has since run 14 more Ironman races, authored 5 Triathlon books, and is now bringing together a passionate community of triathletes. Contact Ray at

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