Cardiovascular fitness for vegans, and some great vegan athletes

Given that there is already a significant body of evidence that following a plant-based diet can improve heart health, we might expect that it can also enhance cardiovascular fitness. Not much research has been carried out as yet into this aspect, but there is some evidence that a plant-based diet can improve cardiovascular fitness measures. Aside from this, there is a growing and impressive list of elite athletes and sportspeople, including World and Olympic champions, whose performances have improved since converting to a fully plant-based diet. Many of them have become strong advocates of veganism.

One research study [1] tested women in the age group 18-35, half of whom followed a vegan diet and half of whom were meat eaters. This study assessed the women’s fitness in terms of their VO2max, which is a standard measure for cardiovascular fitness and indicates peak or maximal performance level. It found that the vegans consistently out-performed the meat eaters, both in terms of their VO2max and their ability to exercise for long periods at submaximal (70% of maximal) exertion levels. Other studies [2, 3] have found that following a vegan diet doesn’t have any disadvantages with regard to exercise capacity.

cardiovascular fitness

World-class vegan athletes and sportspeople include:

Carl Lewis – Athlete who has won nine Olympic gold medals. He has said that switching to a vegan diet enabled him to improve all of his personal best performances.

David Verburg – Runner who holds Olympic and World Championship gold medals for the 4 x 400 metres relay. He credits his vegan diet for improving his energy levels.

Scott Jurek – Ultrarunner who has won several of the world’s toughest ultramarathons.

Meagan Duhamel – Figure skater who has won Olympic gold and silver medals, as well as two World Figure Skating Championships.

Chris Smalling – Footballer who has 31 England caps and previously played for Manchester United. He now plays for Roma and credits his vegan diet for reducing his fatigue levels after games, and reducing his recovery times.

Alex Morgan – Footballer who is captain of San Diego Wave FC and has played more than 200 times for the US national women’s team. She has won two World Cup winners’ medals, an Olympic gold medal, and has also co-captained the national team.

Kane Richardson – Cricketer who has played many times for the Australian national side.

Chris Paul – Highly rated professional basketball player who has won two Olympic gold medals.

Tia Bianco – Professional surfer who has won the World Surfing Championship.

Tennis players Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams both follow diets that are mainly vegan, and are advocates of plant-based foods. Djokovic has won more grand slam titles than any other male player, whilst Williams is just one title short of the all-time record for grand slam titles for women players. Williams began following a vegan diet to support her sister Venus Williams (winner of seven tennis grand slam titles) who had been advised to eat a raw plant-based diet after being diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an immune system disorder. All three of these players have said that following a plant-based diet has improved their performances and general health.

There are many other examples of world-leading athletes and sportspeople who are vegan. A good selection can be found here:

[1] Is a vegan diet detrimental to endurance and muscle strength? by G. Boutros et al., European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 74, 1550 – 1555 (2020)

[2] Exercise capacity of vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian and omnivorous recreational runners by J. Nebl et al., Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 16: 23 (2019)

[3] Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation? By D. Nieman, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70, 570S – 575S (1999)

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