Picture an athlete's diet and you'd be forgiven for imagining towering edifices of eggs, whey shakes, and meat. Maybe even steaks from the arse of a zebra.
You can't get python-esqe arms and a washboard stomach from munching leaves, can you? Athletes need protein and tonnes of it. Those muscles need feeding. That's why carnivores continue to kick ass while the vegans stand on the sidelines sipping lentil soup from polystyrene cups that a meat-eater could crush just by looking at. Right?
The vegans-are-lily-livered-pansies narrative is old and tired, says PETA, which is trying to re-wire our meat-addled brains with its "Do More Than Survive. Thrive. Choose Vegan" campaign. (Rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn't it?) This video of world champion free runner Tim Shieff tearing around London proves you don't have to eat meat to be a record-beater.
Shieff decided to become a vegan after he watched Gary Yourofsky's "The Greatest Speech You'll Ever Hear." "Most of all I connected with it on an ethical level—my happiness and health doesn't have to depend on the death and enslavement of animals, so why should it? Especially once I tried it and actually experienced how it benefited my physical endeavours, too."
The most surprising element of Shieff's diet isn't the lack of protein. Rather, it's how he replaces it. He believes that the common protein-train-protein-train pattern of the typical athlete is part of the "propaganda and bad science" people are fed about nutrition through mainstream media.
In an optimal week, Sheiff—a guy who once had a protein sponsor (a fact that now makes him cringe)—hardly eats any protein at all. Any he does get is plant-centric. That means half to a whole watermelon for breakfast, followed by snacking on dates and ten-banana (really) smoothies until four in the afternoon. Then, later, dinner is a huge meal of sweet potatoes, rice, steamed or boiled vegetables and/or a stir-fry with coconut oil.
Sounds pretty strict and miserable, sure. But it's also 100 percent natural. There are no powders or pill supplements to be found in this man's kitchen cabinets. "Every calorie is made up of three things," Sheiff explains. "Carbohydrates, fats and proteins. All fruits and vegetables contain these in some ratio. For example, even watermelon is eight percent protein, green vegetables contain 10 to 40 percent and I get even more from foods like spinach and broccoli."
It's also not just about the diet itself. Sheiff says the mindful living that's synonymous with veganism has made him re-address many aspects of his life, particularly what he thought he knew about rest and recovery. "When I became vegan I discovered that recovery is affected by more factors than just protein intake," he says. "It's about hydration, stretching, sleep, happiness, and carbs."
OK, so the happiness-as-a-physical-exertion-recovery-tool bit might sound a bit Gwyneth Paltrow for some, but perhaps there's something to Sheiff's belief in how athletes solely concentrating on protein is a mistake. We all know any athletes needs their carbs—they burn through calories quicker than a horse on amphetamines. But, although vegan athletes give up meat as a protein source, Sheiff says they also give up the saturated fats and cholesterol that go with it, leaving "more room for the muscle-fuelling carbs."
The war on fat is over, though, isn't it? What we previously believed about the detrimental effects of saturated fat on things like cholesterol have been proven to be, well, a load of old cobblers, or, to use Shieff's own words, bad science. Still, Shieff—who became vegan in 2011—believes that athletes are "moving away" from the "old-school notion" that they need to consume massive amounts of meat to be fit and hardy.
"[Lots of them] are switching to plant protein instead," he says. "It seems to be a lot easier to digest and I think we're going to see a lot more of these 'no-meat athletes' dominating in their field soon."
Gone are the days, then, when an arm wrestle with a vegan would be a shue-in. Undefeated arm-wrestling world champion Alexey Voyevoda (fact: also a bobsled gold medallist) from Russia saw to that. He's 100 percent vegan. And he's not the only one.
Hank Aaron, a 25-time All Star and member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a vegan. Those savage champions of the tennis court, the Williams sisters, have a largely plant-based diet. Since hanging up his gloves, Mike Tyson says he gets his energy from "extreme" veganism. Oz cricketer Peter Siddle and NBA star Robert Parish both shun dairy, and ten-time Olympic medallist Carl Lewis, the US track and field star, cites his 1991 success to a change to a vegan diet.
Veganism demands discipline. MMA fighter Mac Danzig, former Everton and Swansea footballer Neil Robinson, surfer Esther Hahn, and even snooker player Peter Ebdon are all, or were at some stage, vegan athletes. The chances are if The Daily Planet ran a Q&A with Superman tomorrow, he'd probably admit to enjoying almond milk smoothies of a morning with his bulletproof coffee. Made with coconut oil instead of butter, of course.
The perception of veganism has had a radical rise from obscurity and misunderstanding. At the end of last century, the vegan was, if not vilified, certainly an endless figure of fun. The ethical middle class eater, all green-leanings, dreadlocks, patchouli, and hemp: a stereotype all too easily perpetuated by every other peripheral character in Richard Curtis movies.
Quicker than you can crush a soya bean, though, over the last few years the image of veganism has changed. It wasn't just bearded Father Yod-types anymore. Not only were chefs and restaurants the world over—thanks to Rene Redzepi and the noma effect—making vegetables star of the show and not just a stage-hand, people like Beyonce and Jay-Z were "doing" plant-heavy diets and it all sort of became a bit… sexy. Veganism is no longer a political statement—it's something young, cool creatives (cringe) discuss while heading out to knock back a few glasses of drinking vinegar.
Back to athletics, though. Can being vegan really give you an advantage over your fellow, less-plant-obsessed athletes? Probably nothing discernible in terms of physicality. Maybe the mental discipline needed for the strict vegan diet people like Shieff follows offers greater clarity, though—a new-found ability to focus on a greater goal. "I'm twice the athlete now that I was before I discovered and connected with this lifestyle," he says. "It's about beating yourself so that you can do better for others."
I'm not about to argue with a man who can leap between actual fucking buildings like some other-worldly hybrid of a plucky alley cat and Morpheus from The Matrix. Are you?