Alright guys and gals, exciting post today. On Tuesday I talked to Brendan Brazier, vegan professional Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life. If you’ve read my blog at all during the past month or two, then you know how much I love this book and the recipes that Brendan has been kind enough to let me share with you.
We talked for about 25 minutes, and Brendan gave me so much good information that I decided not to edit out any of it! To make it easy for you to skip around to what you’re most interested in, I’ve boldfaced the key words in each question. Be inspired and enjoy!
No Meat Athlete: Hey Brendan! I first want to tell you just how much I loved reading Thrive. I thought it was a completely inspiring book and I’m not even a vegan. I love that it’s not about adding up a bunch of numbers; it’s about eating normal foods. I’ve told my readers a lot about it, but would you explain in your own words what Thrive is about?
Brendan Brazier: I guess the best way to describe it, and I think the reason that it ended up doing fairly well—originally I thought it would just be popular with athletes, especially vegetarian athletes, but not really much beyond that—was that I talked about stress a lot. And of course, anyone and everyone can relate to stress; we all have some form of it. I really focused on reducing stress through better nutrition. And when stress goes up, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, whether it’s traditional stress like working too much with not enough downtime, or breathing polluted air, or worrying about things you have no control over, or eating low quality food that requires a lot of energy to digest and assimilate but gives you very little energy in return.
So I really focused on reducing stress through better nutrition, which of course, then brought down all the symptoms of stress, like low quality sleep, fatigue, sugar and starch cravings, things like that which are pretty common to most North Americans. I guess if I had to describe it really concisely, it’s about reducing stress and therefore all of its symptoms through better nutrition.
NMA: Going off that just a little bit, one of the interesting things for me was the idea of energy from nourishment versus energy from stimulation; I think that’s something that a lot of people confuse. It seems like a such a crucial issue, that and the idea about digestion and how much energy it takes up, but those issues aren’t addressed by almost any other popular books. Any idea why that would be ignored by so many people?
BB: Well, I’m not totally sure; I was definitely having problems with that myself back when I starting out. I read in a lot of conventional sports nutrition books that calories are what it’s all about. If you’re hungry and you feel you need more, you need to take in more calories; if you burn a certain number of calories you’ve gotta take in that number to maintain your weight. And because a calorie is a measure of food energy, you would assume that the more calories you ate, the more energy you would have, but that’s not the case. Otherwise, people who ate tons of fast food that’s really high in calories would have more energy than everyone else, and of course they don’t. So there was obviously a problem there.
So yeah, I just looked into why that might be, and I was really surprised when I found how much energy digestion and assimilation actually took. If you’re eating a lot of those processed foods, foods that don’t have the enzymes and aren’t easy to digest, then it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of energy. And of course if you’re spending energy, you no longer have it, so it’s just a really simple concept: gaining energy through conservation, as opposed to consumption, so just conserving the energy you have by making better food choices that give you more nutrients while taking less energy to actually get them.
So yeah, seems like a pretty simple, straightforward concept, but I think that people just went off on the calorie tangent and just stuck to it. But I think also, short-term gain, obviously stimulation, when you drink coffee or eat sugary foods it’s going to give you energy right away. Whereas nourishment doesn’t give you energy right away. It nourishes your body, which helps nourish the adrenal glands, which helps bring down cortisol level (the stress hormone), and then you sleep better. You get into a deeper phase of sleep called “delta”; you wake up, you feel fresh, you feel rested. But it takes a few weeks to kick in, so it’s not a quick fix. But the great thing is it’s treating the cause of problem, not just the symptoms, whereas stimulation treats the symptom, not the cause. But stimulation is instant, and of course we’re an “instant” society, so that’s a big reason that stimulation is so popular.
NMA: When I found out the diet in the book was vegan, I was thinking I’d just read it and take what I could from it, since I’m not a vegan. But as I was reading it, I just kept forgetting that it was vegan; that was something I really liked about it. I felt like I was reading a book on how to gain energy, not a book on how to avoid animal foods while gaining energy. What I want to know, though, is why did you become vegan? Was that for purely nutritional reasons, or is it partly ethical?
BB: It started off as purely nutrition, purely performance. When I was 15, I decided I wanted to try and become a professional triathlete and live that lifestyle. I tried a whole bunch of different diets, because I knew that if I could recover faster from training, I could schedule workouts closer together and train more and improve quicker. So my goal was really just to be a great athlete; I didn’t really care what I ate at the time to make that happen. I tried high-carb diets, low-carb diets, high-protein, low-protein, all different types of things and nothing really worked great. And then I tried a completely plant-based diet as just basically the next one on the list and at first it actually didn’t work well either. I was hungry a lot of the time and was tired and not recovering well.
My track coach asked me what I was doing different and I told him I was trying this different way of eating. He was very good; he’s had great success, but because of that he’s somewhat closed-minded, so he wasn’t really into trying to boost performance through better nutrition. So he kind of just brushed it aside. But I think when I look back on that, that probably spurred me on even more, to see if it could actually make a difference.
And then I just figured out what I was lacking in my diet: complete protein, Vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids. Then I found plant-based sources, blended them together and had a blender drink every day after my workout and it made a big difference. And eventually that turned into Vega years later, but that’s how it started—just trying to find what I was lacking.
So it sent me off on the whole plant-based thing, without really trying to be, but just finding that it really did improve my performance. And that’s really—as I’m sure you’ve found–the way I wrote the book, from that perspective. It’s not about trying to be vegan, but just trying to feel and perform as well as possible. And for me it just happens to be a plant-based diet. And for a lot of others too—I think when they transition properly and know how to do it properly, in my opinion, it’s the best nutrition program for energy, for mental clarity, for physical performance, mental performance, everything really. And less sleep—you simply don’t need to sleep as much, which of course leads to greater productivity; you’ve got more waking time. Things like that are valuable to anyone, really.
NMA: Yeah, I’ve noticed that too; I’ve needed a lot less sleep since I became vegetarian six months ago. But with the vegan thing, since it sounds like it started out entirely for performance, would you say there are no circumstances at all where having animal products, even meat, would be beneficial to an endurance athlete?
BB: I really don’t think there are, you know, people can get everything they need from plant sources. And really, you know, the animal gets its nutrition from plants. The plant passes on its nutrition to the animal, and it gets passed on again, but everything comes from the soil originally. The plant is really just the medium for the nutrition that’s in the soil. And a lot of these factory-farm cows now have next to no nutrition in them, because they eat food that’s grown on over-farmed fields because the demand for it is just so high, there’s nothing in it anymore. If you just eat the high-quality plant that’s grown in good soil, you’re going to get all you need.
And also too, when I did become vegan, I started being asked by environmental groups and some animal rights groups if I would give talks at their conferences, and I have. So I’ve learned a lot of the other benefits of being vegan too; of course there’s a huge environmental benefit too. Simply making better food choices, eating food that requires less energy to produce, is going to have the biggest impact on reducing anyone’s carbon footprint, more so than driving or anything else they do.
NMA: You mention in Thrive that you think soy is fine, as long as it’s not overly processed. But then I didn’t see it in many recipes; do you just prefer not to eat it much?
BB: Yeah, I actually used to eat a lot of tofu. And I never felt bad eating it, but I did feel better when I cut it out, or down significantly. I do have soy maybe a couple times a month out somewhere; I don’t avoid it but I don’t seek it out, for sure. But yeah, tempeh or edamame once in a while I think is good, the less processed soy. I wouldn’t have soy protein isolate; I used to until I realized it was really acid-forming. Because it’s an isolate, it’s no longer a whole food.
But I think soy is great in that it’s a really good transitional food, helping people transition off the standard American diet to a plant-based diet, because there are tofu hot dogs, tofu hamburgers, soy ice cream, all kinds of things like that. Of course, soy milk. Those options are way better than the animal versions, so it’s a great transition food. Those types of foods are quite processed, so I think transitioning to a more whole food diet after you’ve transitioned away from animal products is a great use for those types of foods, but just not basing your diet on it.
The reason I don’t have recipes for soy in my book is that there are so many great tofu recipes and soy recipes that I just didn’t feel that I’d be contributing much by putting more out. I wanted to do something a little different, a little unique, because I know my book doesn’t exist in a vacuum and I’m sure people have good tofu recipes already because those are easy to come by. I wanted to add something a little different and not too redundant.
NMA: Speaking of the recipes, how did you develop them? They just seem so different from what you find in normal cookbooks. And of course, that’s partly because they have different goals. But did you develop them on your own, just by trial and error? Did you work with chefs or anything?
BB: No, the recipes are just ones that I’ve developed on my own over the years, that I’ve been making for myself for years and years. I actually don’t make quite as many of them as I used to because I’m on the road so much so I’m not around the kitchen. But the salads I still make on a regular basis, and I really like the pizzas a lot so I make those whenever I get a chance. But yeah, I just found what worked really well; it was just a really good high-quality, high-nutrition plan for an athlete. Or even a non-athlete—of course, if you’re not an athlete you don’t need to eat as much, but it really doesn’t change much. I think a healthy diet is a healthy diet; it’s just the quantity that would change based on your activity level.
NMA: I’ve tried your Vega Smoothie Infusion, and I really liked it. And I appreciated that your book wasn’t just a vehicle for promoting your products. But if I want to add it to any of the smoothies in the book (which are all really good, by the way), would I just replace the hemp protein with Smoothie Infusion?
BB: Yeah, you could replace the hemp protein and the ground flax as well. You could cut both of those out, just basically a 1:1 ratio. You’re getting the sprouted flax in the Smoothie Infusion, you’re getting the hemp protein, pea protein, rice protein in there as well, and some greens too. So basically substituting out the flax and the hemp on a 1:1 ratio will do it.
NMA: Great. Because I’m a marathoner, I especially enjoyed the parts of the book about eating before, during, and after exercise. It was a really eye-opening thing for me, because I eat so few processed foods normally, but then once I was exercising I’d start eating these commercial gels and Gatorades, and my diet principles went out the window while I was training. So I really like that you give all these natural methods for getting the fuel you need. So what’s a typical race-day diet for Brendan Brazier?
BB: Well, for a marathon, about two hours before, I would have a Vega bar. Sometimes I’ll put a bit of coconut oil on it, because it’s a medium chain triglyceride, which is a good type of energy. And then about 30 minutes before, I would have some Vega Sport, which is a sport drink that I developed. It’s actually really new; it just came out in Canada recently and will be out in the states in September. I’ll be sure to send you some once it’s out in the states. It’s like a really healthy version of Gatorade basically. It’s got organic sprouted-grain brown rice and pom nectar as a carbohydrate source, so it’s pretty much in line with what I make in the book.
And then during the run, if it’s a standard marathon or a really long training run or bike ride, I’ll make the energy gels that are in the book (the lemon-lime ones usually) and then have some coconut water with lemon and lime juice mixed in. So yeah, just keep sipping on that every 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how warm it is out and how much I’m sweating. And then after, I would have a big smoothie that has the protein, the essential fats, the fiber, the greens…basically Vega, blended in with fruits to help recover and reduce inflammation right away.
NMA: Ok, time for my selfish question. I’m trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon this year, which I’ve never done before. I’ve picked a fast course, I don’t have any injuries or anything, and I’ve lost some weight since I went vegetarian, so I’ve gotten a lot faster because of that and the energy gains. Any suggestions for taking about 10 more minutes off my time?
BB: What time do you need to run it in, 3:10?
NMA: Yeah I need a 3:10, and I’ve done 3:20 before. I feel like I’m faster now, but any ideas just to push it over the edge?
BB: Well, picking the right marathon to qualify at, for sure, can make a big difference. As I’m sure you know, there’s lots of variety in marathon courses; some are pretty slow and some are pretty fast, and some even have a drop, which is still legal to qualify for Boston. I believe Sacramento is one of those faster marathons.
But also, I find doing the speedwork, even stuff that seems way too short for marathon training, makes a big difference. Because it’s about efficiency; just get your body used to running at a faster pace and then when you run your marathon pace it feels really quite easy. So I always find that when I want to run better, just doing some of those track workouts…they don’t have to be anything crazy, but like 6 x 1 mile, I like doing. Just do each mile at about 20 seconds faster than your marathon goal pace, and have a minute and a half to two minutes rest in between. I find that’s really helpful, and even some strides, where you stride for about 80 meters pretty quick. Just do about six of those before and six of those after. Yeah, just get your muscles used to moving quicker and going that efficiency. And of course strength work too, some good gym work with squats and things like that will help you improve.
NMA: And do you do the gym stuff during the racing season as well, or is that only during the off-season for you?
BB: I used to do it during as well, but lately I haven’t been doing it as much, just because I’ve been cycling more. I really like feeling fresh on the track, and I find that sometimes when I do weights I don’t feel as fresh. You get a good sense of how strong you are, and I know that for me, I have a better chance of running a good marathon if I’m well-rested, even if I’m a little bit weaker. You know, so I would rather just feel fresh and feel good than push it too much and feel burned out or have heavy legs.
NMA: Have you run Boston yourself?
BB: No, I never have. It’s something that I may do one day; it’s just never really worked with my schedule. So you’re planning to do it next year, for April?
NMA: Well, assuming I qualify, yeah. That’s my goal. And after that I’d really like to get into triathlons.
BB: Which marathon are you going to try and qualify at?
NMA: The one I’ve chosen is the Wineglass Marathon, in New York. My wife has always wanted to run that one, and I looked at a list of popular qualifying marathons and it was in the top 10 in terms of percentage of finishers who qualify for Boston. It’s not a huge drop; it’s like 250 feet or so, but it just seems to be a popular qualifier, for whatever reason.
BB: Is that in upstate New York?
NMA: Yes, it is.
BB: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of that one. When is that, in October?
NMA: Yeah, October 4th. Ok, this has reminded me of one last question. Do you have any advice for runners looking to make the transition to triathlons? Because I know for me, the swimming is kind of the stumbling block.
BB: Yeah, swimming was definitely my weakness too; I didn’t have a swimming background. Find a good group you can get in with, and focus on technique. With swimming, you can be really fit, but if you’re technique’s not good, you’re not going to swim well. So make sure that someone can give you good stroke advice, right away, before you start pounding out the workouts, so that you don’t ingrain the wrong movements into your brain and get stuck with that. So definitely get someone who knows what he or she is doing to watch you swim, and just give you tips on stroke.
Sometimes it’s really hard to know what you’re actually doing; even videotaping is good so you can watch it after and see exactly what it is you’re doing, like if your legs are moving around too much and slowing you down. So I would suggest that for sure, just making sure your stroke is good and getting help with that. And then getting in with a good group that is doing workouts that suit what you need and not training so hard in the pool that you completely drain yourself. I know some triathletes make that mistake; they spend way too much time training in the pool just because you can push yourself so hard. But really, it can take away from the other training, which is probably going to give you greater return in terms of getting to the finish line quicker.
So, dividing your time up wisely is important, for sure, because it’s tough to fit everything in.
NMA: Alright, well then, that’s all that I have. Thank you so much for your time; I really appreciate it.
BB: Yeah, no problem; I’m glad you like that book and I’m glad that it’s working for you. That’s good to hear.
Nice guy and great information, huh? If you’re interested in more information, check out my Thrive review (with sample recipes!).