What a Plant-Based Competitive Athlete Eats

I became largely plant-based in 2003, a few years after I started my amateur racing hobby. I’ve been an athlete my entire life, starting with soccer when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I was a varsity football player and co-captain of my high school wrestling team. I was never that talented so when I graduated and went on to college, competitive sports largely stopped. I became a gym rat and then discovered rock climbing, bouldering and mountaineering in my mid to late 20s. I competed in bouldering competitions for a bit (I finished 5th at one big tournament in Maryland) but, once again, I was not very talented.

Bouldering at The Gunks

I started road racing around 2001, while still climbing at a high level before becoming plant-based. I soon realized that I couldn’t be competitive in both sports at the same time. They both took up a huge amount of time. I reluctantly gave up climbing to focus on my newest passion, racing bikes. 22 years later, it still dominates my life.

plant-based cyclist racing
Racing the P123 at Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

When I decided to become plant-based on New Year’s Eve, 2003, most thought I wouldn’t stick with it. 20 years later, and I’m not only plant-based but 95% vegan. Upon hearing my new lifestyle choice, my teammates and cycling buddies all asked, “but where are you going to get your protein?” or stated, “your performance is going to suffer if you’re plant-based.” It didn’t. I excelled on this new diet. I won a few NY state road race championships, numerous podiums, and a couple of KOM titles. I worked my way up to Category 2 which is the upper-level of amateur racing (only cat 1 is higher). Not bad since I was 39 and half when I got the points to upgrade. Most due this in their 20s but I was 28 when I started.

One of the biggest things I noticed early on was how my weight stayed very stable even in the off-season, when most bike racers in colder climates, including myself, put on some poundage due to eating more and riding less. Feeling full but not increasing calories is very easy on a plant-based diet.

So, what do I eat in a typical day as a plant-based athlete?

Breakfast (plant-based)

plant-based breakfast of rice cakes almond butter honey and cinnamon on a plate

Ask anyone who has known me the last 10-15 years and they will vouch for me when I say this has been my breakfast for at least a decade. I call them “crumpets” but I know that this is inaccurate. I started making these many years ago when I was trying to remove some gluten from my diet. I fell in love with them right away.

I use Lundberg Farms organic brown rice or wild rice cakes. I make my own almond butter using organic roasted almonds I buy in bulk but you can use any good jarred almond butter. Raw organic honey and organic cinnamon. You have to experiment with the proportions to suit your tastes but I put the honey down first since raw honey is usually not liquid (if it’s liquid than put the almond butter down first). Then a good 1-2 tablespoons of almond butter topped with cinnamon. Now, it’s important to note that if any one of these ingredients are missing, they do not taste very good. A few times I forgot my cinnamon when traveling to races. It just wasn’t the same.

This breakfast is calorie-dense, yes, but as an athlete, I need a good amount of calories to prepare for my training or racing. You can always make just 1 crumpet instead of 2. Plant-based but packed with healthy fats and fiber to keep you full until lunch, even if you’re riding for hours. The raw honey has enzymes, amino acids and the superfoods propolis, pollen and royal jelly. It adds a touch of sweetness. Cinnamon is truly a superfood. Packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, it also aids in digestion. These pair great with your morning coffee or tea.

Lunch (plant-based)

My lunch is usually eaten on the bike in the form of JoJe Bars (by far the best energy bar on the planet), gels or other portable foods. If I happen to be home for lunch I’ll have something small like a salad or even just pretzels and hummus.

Post-Ride Meal (plant-based)

Consuming a carbohydrate-rich meal within about 30 minutes of ending your training ride is so beneficial to replacing your muscle glycogen. This 30 minute window is when your body is hyper-receptive to the uptake of glycogen so you’ll take in much more than if you wait until later. You’ll be able to train harder day after day than if you skipped this meal.

This is where Zenberry comes in. I know I’m biased but one of the reasons I helped create this company was to help athletes perform better. Zenberry is low in carbs and calories but this is what makes is so versatile. Instead of just having a calorie bomb as a recovery shake, I can customize my Zenberry smoothie based on how long and/or hard I rode that day. I also get to control the types of carbs I add.

Plant-based Zenberry Smoothie in a glass topped with whipped cream

My go-to recovery smoothie is 2 cups nut milk of your choice, 3-4 tablespoons of Zenberry, frozen banana, frozen blueberries, chia seeds or freshly ground flax seeds. This recipe will give me that perfect ratio of carbs to protein to aid in recovery plus give me a bunch of anti-inflammatory nutrients, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and enzymes. Whether you’re plant-based or not, avoiding animal products (especially dairy) for your recovery drink is advised. Save the animal protein for an hour or so later. Exercise-induced inflammation is hindering your recovery so let’s not add to the inflammation with animal protein right away.

Dinner (plant-based)

Black Bean, brown rice tacos

Dinner is always a very important meal for me. It helps to continue the recovery process so I can train again tomorrow. I find cooking and eating plant-based to be so much more exciting than when I ate meat. The flavors and textures are just so much more varied, overall. I eat beans almost every night. Beans/legumes are one of the healthiest foods you can eat and are shown to greatly reduce heart disease. “Beans, beans are good for your heart…” has more truth to it than we thought as kids, right? Black beans are my favorite but I love red beans, pinto, chickpeas, lentils, adzuki beans etc. I buy organic canned beans because I’m just too busy to go through the soaking process, which, for some reason, has never worked for me. Another option is tofu (always extra or super-firm) and tempeh for some added protein.

Pasta, red beans, cilantro nutritional yeast

Typically, I’ll pair a can of beans with a vegetable like kale, collard greens or broccoli and add it to pasta, make tacos or a burrito. When spiced well (cumin, garlic, smoked paprika or curry) the taste leaves nothing to be desired. I saute with olive oil, grape seed oil or avocado oil, never overcook the veggies, add half a lemon-worth of juice especially with cruciferous vegetables, really adds some acid and cuts the earthy flavors. Pro tip: I keep red cabbage in the fridge and chop some up to top my tacos and burritos. Cabbage keeps really well and is packed with antioxidants and anti-cancer compounds. It adds some crunch, too.

20 years of plant-based diet didn’t affect my muscle mass

As you can see from the photo above, I got plenty of protein the last 20 years being plant-based. If you eat a healthy, wholefood plant-based diet, even as an athlete, you’ll get plenty of protein. Full disclosure, I do eat the occasional piece of fish and tiny amounts of cheese here and there, but the majority of my protein comes from plants. I have not noticed any issues with putting on muscle, which I tend to do in the off-season when I’m in the gym a lot more. These fears are largely unwarranted.

Thank you for reading.