Having been a competitive endurance athlete since the age of 15, I found that once I overcame the initial pitfalls, a plant-based, whole food diet offered several advantages: I didn’t get sick as often, I was able to train harder, and I stayed light, yet became stronger.
As endurance athletes, we don’t aspire to build muscular size (bulk), but rather to develop what muscle we do have to be strong, and thereby function efficiently. Building strength while not packing on bulk will raise strength-to-weight ratio. As a direct result, endurance will take a leap forward.
But what about strength athletes such as bodybuilders, and even those who simply aspire to build and maintain healthy muscles mass? Can they benefit from a similar plant-based diet? They can. While endurance athletes aim to develop efficient muscles without increasing their size, bodybuilders are quite the opposite. Bulk, symmetry, and definition are the three visual points a judge uses to assess a bodybuilder. Either way, what builds efficient muscles in endurance athletes is the same thing that builds visually impressive muscles in bodybuilders: hard work.
Does More Protein Mean More Muscle?
Immediately following an intense workout, those serious about packing on lean muscles will down a high-protein shake. They know that to repair muscle tissue after breaking it down requires the rebuilding properties of protein. But what most ignore is the protein source. In the minds of many, quantity is the priority—the more protein, the better. But does more really equate to better results?
The way to add extra protein to the diet while holding fat or carbohydrate content steady is to mechanically or chemically remove the fat and carbohydrate component. What remains is called “protein isolate.” The protein has been isolated from the other macronutrients of the food and as such, its ratio has increased.
Some manufactured isolates register protein content in excess of 90 percent. But once isolated, it is no longer a whole food and therefore harder for the body to digest, assimilate, and utilize. Plus, protein isolates are inherently acid-forming. And with the onset of an acidic body, functionality declines.
When a traditional acid-forming post-workout smoothie containing protein isolate is swapped out for a plant-based whole food option, the loss of muscular size is likely. Understandably, this will lead to concern for those athletes whose goal it is to pack on muscle mass. But what’s actually transpiring is a good thing. What they are losing in size is simply inflammation.
Eat Plants, Work Hard, Build Muscle
Immediately following a weight training workout, the muscles are broken down and thus inflamed. As we know, acid-forming food creates inflammation. Therefore, the consumption of a traditional post-workout smoothie that contains protein isolates will exacerbate the level and rate of inflammation. With inflammation comes size. But with inflammation also come a reduction in functionality.
As the muscles become less functional, their ability to lift weight declines. That’s a problem. Lifting heavy weight is what builds muscles strong, and big. Of course, if the body delves into a less functional state, it simply won’t have the ability to work as intensely. And without the capacity to train hard, muscles cannot continue to grow. In addition, more time is required between training sessions to allow inflammation to dissipate. Since intensity and frequency are the two prime components to a successful muscle-building program, inflammation can well become the greatest single inhibitor of progress.
Post Workout Plant-Based Nutrition: Helping You Help Yourself
In place of isolates and acid-forming animal foods, there are host of plant-based options that will ensure inflammation is kept to a minimum. Post workout, excellent plant-based protein sources include hemp, pea, and rice protein. And while protein is a crucial component for muscle repair and building, so too are essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), vitamins, minerals, enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants and a host of other nutritional components that can be found in a variety of plant-based whole foods.
This being the case, the post workout smoothies will deliver greater results if it contains these components, not merely protein. Additionally, chlorella—a form of freshwater algae—is an excellent addition to the post-workout smoothie. Due to its exceptionally high chlorophyll content, it’s among the most alkaline-forming foods available. Plus, its protein percentage is almost 70 percent, naturally.
So while plant-based nutrition won’t necessarily make you a better athlete, it will allow you to train harder, thereby making yourself a better athlete. As all great athletes know, success hinges on the ability to pursue it. With improved functionality and less rest required between workouts, success will be yours for the taking.
I think the lessons of this article are that (1) you can be athletic eating the majority of your protein from plant based sources and (2) there are options out there to vary your amino acid intake.
But, ultimately, the solution is based on your blood tests. Can you function on a pure, vegetarian diet? Do you need some animal food? This is determined by your genetic expression and how your blood tests read.
I think the take away is to experiment. Try plant based proteins only, try other options and continue to monitor your progress — and never stop being inquisitive and willing to try new things.
Your Question of the Day: Where do you get your protein?