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Vegan Athletes: How Changing their Diet Changed their Game

Some people turn to vegan diets for the health benefits, some do it to save the planet, and some do it to save animals. But for athlete and personal trainer Sabina Skala, it all started with a bet. 

“I used to train this guy, he is an ethical vegan.” She would get frustrated as he always got tired easily. She believed that he had the potential to do better. But her client blamed his lack of energy on his vegan diet.

“He told me ‘You wouldn’t last a week [on a vegan diet].’ I said ‘make it a month’ and that’s how it started. I just felt really good and I stuck with that.”

After taking the bet, Sabina took a few cookery courses that month and her skills vastly improved. After a remark on how that seemed like way too much effort for a bet, she laughed and said, “If I bet something I better win.”

Sabina’s cookbook : X-Rated Vegans is out now.  You can check it out on her website. She particularly recommended the Vegan Passionfruit and Mango cheesecake

It’s this competitive drive that makes a fundamental part of an athlete. As a young girl in Poland, she did kayaking for years before moving to become a personal trainer. According to her website, she has trained various MMA athletes, top male models, military personnel, and rugby players. Currently, she also competes in marathons and long-distance endurance races.

“I’ve done a couple of MDS (Marathon Des Sables), which I really liked surprisingly. I’m training for Dragon’s Back again, which comes every two years.” The Dragon’s back is a 315km race across the mountainous terrains of Wales. It is regarded as the toughest 5-day race in the world, with over half of the contestants usually throwing in the towel before they finish. Sabina only managed to last three days, but she seemed determined to try again in 2021. 

Sabina is one of the many athletes today who are turning towards plant-based alternatives to maximise their performance. Some notable names include Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton and UFC fighter Nate Diaz. These professionals are challenging the carnivorous hegemony as the only reasonable source of protein. 

“That has already proven to be a very old idea that’s been passed on from generations,” said Ondrej Matej, an expert nutritionist, personal trainer and self defence instructor. “When we didn’t have access to foods that are high in protein over the winter, animals would be a protein rich source”.

When he was sixteen, Ondrej saw a documentary about the cruel treatment of animals and decided to quit eating meat. He tried various diets, vegetarian, vegan and even raw foods only for about nine months. He enjoyed the raw food diet, but felt that it was difficult to sustain in the UK. “I just felt that it would be much easier if I lived in a warmer climate.” He said. 

One aspect where Ondrej felt that vegans were at a disadvantage was in access to certain vitamins. He stressed the importance of vitamin supplements and felt that athletes couldn’t be at the level they needed to be without them. Especially in fields like bodybuilding, where it was necessary to gain mass, Ondrej was skeptical. 

The front page of Ondrej’s website, https://omnutritionist.co.uk/

“Bodybuilding has been always based on supplements.”He said, “You could spend seven days in the gym and be there for 5-6 hours, but without these supplements, you would not look like that. (…) In an ideal world, if athletes had all the knowledge and all the supplements, making sure they covered their amino acid, vitamins, and phytonutrients, they would do really well.”

“I think it’s not just for vegans.” Said Dominik Jaro. He’s a chef working at Tibits near Oxford Circus. Sitting at Mother’s Work: a vegan cafe at Hackney Wick, he sips his matcha drink and says, “I’m not a scientist. But I think vitamin supplements are something omnivores should take as well.” 

Dominik Jaro at Mother Works, A vegan cafe at Hackney Wick

Dominik is a vegetarian. He made his own milk kefir drink using cows straight from a farm he trusts. He said he wouldn’t drink any other milk. He believed that vitamin B12 was something that used to be found naturally in the water. Nowadays animals are given B12 supplements, and that is how most meat eater’s B12 comes from. This claim was popularised by the Netflix documentary “The Game Changers”.

Sabina scoffed at that notion. “I have been vegan for about 7-8 years. I get my blood test done every year. I do not take vitamin B12 supplements nor do I particularly research vegan foods that have B12 in it. Never, ever, in the past seven years, was I ever deficient in B12.” 

She eats when she’s hungry and tries to cook vegetables of different colours. This is to ensure she gets food that contains nutrients in different variations. “I do take vitamin C supplements”, she said, as she pulled a bag of lemons from her cupboard. “Being vegan doesn’t necessarily mean you’re deficient in nutrients. You need to take regular blood tests and only then you can truly understand what you lack.”

The route Dominic cycles to and fro every day. He works at Tibits, a vegetarian restaurant in Soho. The average distance he travels every day in one journey is about 11km. He makes this journey twice.

The first month when she tried veganism, Sabina could see instant results. As both a trainer and an amateur athlete, she often worked long hours. The change in her diet helped her a lot. “I just felt lighter. It doesn’t exactly mean I lost weight. It’s because my digestive system wasn’t overloaded.”

Despite their differences in certain philosophies, Sabina and Ondrej both agreed on one thing: more and more people are coming to them to train and learn about reaching peak physical fitness while being vegan. According to Sabina, documentaries like “The Game Changers” have a huge contribution to that. The documentary, produced by James Cameron, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, focuses on elite forces trainer James Wilks’s quest for the truth about athletes’ reliance on meat. 

To Ondrej, this wasn’t necessarily the best thing a beginner vegan could do.

“The biggest mistake they make is watching one or two documentaries and thinking they know everything. They then go out and buy a massive V on it, they think they are eating healthy.” He said.  “You have check the ingredients in everything that you are eating. There are a lot of junk food vegans(…) They are of course vegan, however they are depleting their body of nutrients they need to thrive.”

Sabina plans to spend a significant portion of 2020 running and training for marathons. “In January I’m doing a 43K in the mountains in Poland. Then my 100k continues down Jurassic Coast. In March, I’m going to Morocco to climb Mt. Toubkal. Then I possibly want to do one more big mountain, by the end of the year. So we’ll see.”

If the goal is healthy living, eating less meat can only take you so far. Sabina’s client, Andrew had very little energy and would get tired very quickly. Even Sabina doesn’t give her diet all the credit for her incredible athletic abilities. “My goal is always to get better. So I can’t relate myself getting better only to my diet.” She said, “It definitely helps, but it’s also due to sleep, the way I train, the lack of mental stress. It’s a whole package.” 

Ondrej echoed a similar sentiment, “It’s very important to not just change your diet, it’s a combination of three things. It’s your mindset, your fitness, and your nutrition.” He said, “Once you put these three things together, then you can really talk about a successful lifestyle where you’re thriving and are actually being happy and fulfilled. 

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