The truth about veganism and cycling

Can a diet free from meat and all other animal products help to improve your performance? It's not as simple as a recent Netflix documentary suggested.

In the opening sequence of The Game Changers documentary, presenter James Wilks – a former mixed martial arts champion – explains that his interest in veganism started when he got injured and began genning up 
on recovery.

He claims to have spent 1,000 hours researching recovery-boosting nutrition. One thousand hours? Assuming he studied 9am to 5pm without lunch breaks, that’s a full six months of solid reading. Anyway, amid these mountains of paperwork, he stumbled upon an article purporting to prove that Roman gladiators (“the original professional fighters”) ate a mostly plant-based diet.

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Wilks’s mind is blown. Over the rest of the film, he advances the case, in no uncertain terms, that eating only plant-based foods is better for recovery, health and – crucially – sporting performance. It was no surprise, then, The Game Changers garnered enormous attention, even among ordinarily hard-headed cyclists.

Full disclosure to kick off: I eat a mostly plant-based diet; I’m not a strict vegan, but I avoid meat and dairy products most of the time (largely for ethical reasons). If my position were prone to bias, it would be skewed in favour of The Game Changers – its message that veganism boosts sporting performance is good news for me. My job here, though, is to be unswervingly objective in answering this question: will going vegan make you a fitter, faster cyclist?

Adam Hansen cut animal products out of his diet three years ago

Quite early in the film, we meet Dotsie Bausch, the seven-time US national champion and Olympic silver medallist. This is the segment for the cyclists. Bausch tells us that she was in her mid-30s and “ready to retire” when she switched to a vegan diet, from which point she unexpectedly “just kept getting better” – pointing out that she went from struggling to leg-sled 300lb to pushing 585lb in sets of 60 reps.

She relives the pinnacle of her career: silver in the team pursuit at the London Games, where she stood on the podium aged 39.5 years – “I’m still the oldest person in my event to even go to the Olympic Games.”

The film implies the American’s late-career improvements were the result of her switch to a vegan diet. However, it doesn’t take much research to discover Bausch took up cycling relatively late, aged 26, as part of her recovery from an eating disorder. In light of which, the fact she was still improving at 35 was perhaps not so much proof of ‘plant power’ as the natural development of a huge talent that for many years had lain dormant and/or been hampered by improper fuelling. Of course, this is to take nothing away from her remarkable achievements.

I contacted Bausch by email and asked what made her so confident her improvements were the result of diet over and above other factors.

“Truly, this was the one thing that I changed,” she replied. “My coach and my training stayed consistent – it was the diet change that gave me this advantage. And, let’s be honest, I wasn’t getting any younger… when my body should have been resisting and slowing me down, I was actually getting fitter, stronger and more resilient.”

Bausch is a passionate advocate of veganism, and as a “plant-powered athlete” has become a professional influencer on the topic (dotsiebauschusa.com). Her anecdotal evidence is compelling – but is it supported by hard science?

Read the full article in this week’s Cycling Weekly magazine that includes nutritious recipes from a top cycling chef that can be made with store cupboard items, an honest look at supplements and which ones you need and how the pros used to eat. You can take out a subscription to Cycling Weekly or it’s available in supermarkets and newsagents.