Does being a vegan/vegetarian affect performance?

Can athletes forgo the omnivore life and adopt a greener diet? We sat down with Ahmad Syahray Hatta, an ultramarthoner who made the choice to be vegetarian a year ago (and is becoming vegan), to find out more.

Ray before (left) and after (right) being vegetarian. The diet change has caused weight loss, but Ray feels more energetic during workouts.

Ever since we learnt that livestock has a huge carbon footprint on the environment, being vegetarian/vegan is all the hype now. While some might find it difficult to let go of that juicy beef burger, others are making a commitment towards a better future. One such person is Ahmad Syahray Hatta, or Ray as he prefers to be called.

Having conquered multiple races like the Malaysia Mountain Trail Festival, Borneo Ultra-Trail® Marathon and Cameron Ultra-Trail since 2017, Ray made a decision to go vegetarian last year. This year, he ran the Classics de Kiara 2019 as a vegetarian for the first time and he achieved an outstanding 6th position. Amazed by his achievement, BMT had a few questions for him:

1. What made you decide to be a vegetarian?

I was inspired by ultrarunners like Scott Jurek and Rich Roll. Scott is a 45-year old living legend who has claimed victories of almost all of ultrarunning's elite trail and road events. Rich on the other hand, is a 50-year old who finished the EPIC5 CHALLENGE- an odyssey that entailed completing 5 ironman-distance triathlons on 5 islands of Hawaii in under a week. Both follow a strict plant-based diet, so I became inspired and curious, and decided to try. Ultimately, I became a student and follower of the diet.

Scott Jurek (left) and Rich Roll (right) are living legends in the world of ultra, who follow a strictly plant-based diet.

2. What does your diet consist of?

The base of my diet is mainly filled with whole grains such as oats and brown rice. I also eat a lot of beans or bean-based products like chickpeas, tempeh and tofu. These help make me full. To have a more balanced diet, I have a portion of leafy greens and fruits, supplemented by seeds and nuts like almonds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.

3. Does being a vegetarian affect performance?

Yes, greatly. I feel more energetic and lighter because of the diet. The diet causes a major weight loss, so I actually require less energy to move. Due to the omission of meat, I also experience reduced acidosis and this helps with a quicker recovery rate, so I can do more workouts (but you have to eat the right foods for this). Part of the weight loss is also due to a loss of body fat, which improves metabolism rates. A vegetarian diet causes you to lose sub fascial fat—the fat layers underneath the skin—and intramuscular fat as well. I'm not sure why that is, but studies suggest it is due to the microbes that come with the fiber.

4. Are there any myths you'd like to clarify about being vegetarian?

Two myths—protein and salad. The optimal amount of protein is 1-2 grams per kilo body weight. So if you weigh 65kg, you technically need 65-130 grams of protein per day. That is easily achievable by being a vegetarian, you don't need meat for that. Being a vegetarian also does not mean eating salads and drinking vege-smoothies in all three meals. Like I said, the major food source is actually whole grains, so it is not as restrictive and bland as one might think.

Ray says that a plant-based diet is not only leafy greens, but also whole grains, nuts and seeds.

5. What are the pros and cons about being vegetarian?

In terms of performance, there is weight loss and speedier recovery. In terms of how it affects my daily life, being vegetarian has proven to be beneficial because it is easier to prepare meals, plus they are almost zero waste and costs less sometimes. There is also a lower risk of non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer.

However, you need to be vigilant about what you eat and actually plan your meals. You also need to supplement vitamin B and iron, so some additional cost might go there. But if you enjoy planning your meals and grocery shopping, the vegetarian diet is actually pretty good. Oh, another downside might be that you need to replace clothes since you might lose weight. For the ladies, I guess that's a good thing? (haha)

6. What's the next step for you?

I'm actually going vegan—that means no eggs and dairy. It might seem difficult, but a diet is actually a lifestyle change for the better. Humans are hesitant towards change, but when you make the change a habit, we get accustomed to that and soon you'll find it difficult to revert to your old habits. Fitness-wise, I'll be attempting the Gopeng Ultra 2019 this weekend and I can't wait to see how I'll perform! Do root for me!

#benchmarktheory #getfitright #nolimits #vegan #vegetarian #ultramarathon

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