Can Vegans do CrossFit? How to Thrive as a Plant-Based CrossFitter

Athletes Doing Box Jumps At Gym

This post was written by Jeremy Cronon.

I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the number of times someone has sent me a meme to the tune of:

9-22809-if-you-are-a-vegan-who-does-crossfit-what-do-you-tell-people-first

Hilarious, right? For the purpose of this article, I must talk about both.

I officially became a walking stereotype when I paired my veganism with CrossFit in the fall of 2013. Despite a strong fitness background, I started from scratch, taking the week-long Foundations class for newbies and using beginner’s tools like a PVC pipe to ease in and learn proper form for many of my workouts.

Over the next two years, I became stronger, more flexible, healthier, and more coordinated than I had imagined possible. I also discovered that I had an alarming appetite for sweet potatoes.

That journey taught me that, despite what everyone seems to think, plant-based athletes can not only survive in a CrossFit gym, but thrive as part of the community.

Don’t Let Them Scare You Away

For the uninitiated, venturing into a CrossFit gym may conjure intimidation, angst, and even a little fear.

You might be envisioning a cave-like, spartan warehouse populated with savage, overbuilt brutes, grunting and gnawing on slabs of meat as they lift draconian objects cast in cold, unforgiving steel and iron.

Hardly a positive learning environment for your average plant-based athlete, or anyone for that matter.

Though hyperbolic, that vision speaks to some of the reasons why someone might dread experimenting with CrossFit. Trust me, you aren’t the first person to ask yourself:

  • Will my plant-based diet be adequate?
  • Will they laugh at me and call me “herbivore”?
  • Will they force me to do things I don’t feel ready for?
  • What if I get hurt?
  • Will they say that eating meat would solve all my problems?
  • Am I too weak to even try CrossFit?
  • Am I too skinny or too overweight?

Don’t let your imagination get the better of you. CrossFitters are all human, just like you. They all started where you are now, strangers both to CrossFit and its community.

When I began my CrossFit career, I started with a week-long introductory course. There were only three people in the class, including the coach. That week focused on the fundamental movements, training strategies, nutrition advice, and gave us ample time to ask all our questions. When I broached the subject of plant-based nutrition, my coach barely skipped a beat, instantly tailoring her information to fit my needs. She even lent me her copy of Brendan Brazier’s Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life.

I don’t generally broadcast my veganism, but it didn’t take long for the word to get out. After all, I was the only plant-based practitioner at the gym. There was an initial surge of questions, predominantly about my protein intake, and there was some thinly veiled skepticism about my dietary choices. They had every right to be curious, even cynical; it’s not like there were many vegan athletes in eastern North Carolina.

Undeterred by the questions, I kept at it, showing up everyday without fail. By the time I traded in my PVC pipe for a barbell, the people surrounding me weren’t strangers anymore. They were some of my best friends. Even though we ate differently, we still respected one another.

I never did escape the lighthearted vegan jokes and I doubt I ever will, but I knew that their initial skepticism had been replaced by appreciation.

That was enough for me.

CrossFit, an Introduction

At a fundamental level, CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. But for someone new to CrossFit, that doesn’t tell you much. Here is what you can expect:

First of all, going to CrossFit is taking a “class,” not a workout session on your own. This means there will be a coach working with a group of athletes, generally for one hour. That coach will begin by leading the class through a warm-up meant to target the muscle groups that will be used later on in the class.

This is generally when you start sweating.

After that, you dive into the skills portion of the day. Whether the focus of the day is a powerlifting movement like the back squat, an olympic lifting movement like the power snatch, or a gymnastics movement like the pull-up, this segment creates structured time to improve your capacity with that skill.

By this point, you’re really sweating.

Last, but not least, comes the Workout of the Day (often shortened to “WOD”). These can come in all shapes and sizes, flavors and colors, but will generally fill the last three to thirty minutes of class with a high intensity pandemonium. Every athlete can modify the WOD to fit their ability, but you’re all focused on the exact same workout.

And … you’re soaked.

That, in a nutshell, is what you are likely to experience at a CrossFit class. Every day will be different, but the variety should be contained within that familiar framework.

4 Steps to Thriving Within the CrossFit Community

Being successful with CrossFit is about much more than just having strength. It’s about understanding (and pushing) your limits, building community, and constantly learning.

As a plant-based athlete, there are a few strategies I follow to thrive not only within the sport, but also the community.

1. Check Your Ego

Whether you’re attempting your first 5K or kicking off your CrossFit membership, ego represents your greatest risk factor. We can blame our coaches, programming, or lifestyle choices, but we’re often personally responsible for pushing ourselves over the edge into injury.

There’s no denying that CrossFit fosters a competitive environment. At some gyms, it is palpable. At others, it is an afterthought. And it’s that competitive nature that, unfortunately, has led to CrossFit’s storied relationship with injury.

Competition does not, however, inherently generate dangerous situations. I truly believe that removing ego from the athletic equation would reduce the risk of injury across the sporting spectrum. Sadly, we can only expect so much from our species. You, on the other hand, can make a concerted effort to manage its impact on your life.

And CrossFit can help.

CrossFit is known for its “high intensity” workouts. That phrase, however, has infinite interpretations for all of us. CrossFit solves this problem by providing options for athletes to scale workouts that they cannot effectively complete as originally programmed.

Which means, no matter if you’re brand new to CrossFit and these exercises or a diehard CrossFitter, every athlete in the gym will be exhausted by the same type of workout, even if their skill levels and strengths vary significantly.

So how do you know when and how to scale? Your coaches, an active a part of every class, are there as a resource whenever you need them. Every workout is an opportunity to attack your weaknesses and to grow as an athlete, whether or not you modify the workout doesn’t change that.

Quick Tips for Staying Injury Free

  1. Start slow. Most CrossFit gyms offer introductory classes for new athletes to learn the movements in a smaller class size. Take it. Building a strong foundation will pay huge dividends later on.
  2. Don’t add weight or try a movement just because everyone else is. Modify each exercise to fit your ability, even if that means using a PVC pipe. It may not be glamorous, but the PVC pipe is easily one of the most important pieces of equipment at the gym. Spend as much time working with the pipe as you can.
2. Allow Yourself to Learn

From olympic lifting to bodyweight gymnastics, from powerlifting to metabolic conditioning, CrossFit employs diverse movements that each present both challenge and opportunity for growth.

Achieving efficiency and stability in each movement is undoubtedly a lifetime pursuit, something that Games’ (the CrossFit competitions you see on TV) athletes and beginners face together.

CrossFit tackles this complexity by providing qualified coaches who instruct, encourage, and monitor your development. They are there to support you through the final seconds of a workout and to intervene when they see you putting yourself at risk. Those coaches will be your lifelines when you have movement-related questions, need help setting your monthly fitness targets, or want some advice on maximizing your recovery. The more your coaches know about what you want to get out of CrossFit, the better they can help you achieve those goals.

Communicate with them. Listen to them. Utilize these coaches as your main resource.

But, as much as CrossFit is about your own fitness, camaraderie is part of what keeps people coming back.

The athletes working alongside you each and every day will often be your loudest cheerleaders, representatives of a supportive, nurturing community. Moreover, they can often provide insight and instruction gleaned from their own experiences with CrossFit. Cultivating relationships that allow you to learn from your peers only strengthens the community that proves so fundamental to CrossFit.

But even with coaches tweaking your body position and fellow athletes pushing you through an exercise, ultimate responsibility still falls on you.

You must listen to and learn from your body. The diversity of movements that CrossFit employs can tax muscles that you may not have known you had, and uncover physical and mental weaknesses, and nutritional deficiencies. Pay attention to what your body is telling you, adjust, and learn from it.

Quick Tips for Learning with Each Workout

  1. Keep a journal. Having a record of your lifts and workout scores will help you track your progress and highlight strengths and weaknesses. Not enough CrossFitters log their workouts; you should.
  2. Don’t be afraid of complex movements with intimidating names (or acronyms) like the Sumo Deadlift High Pull (SDHP) or Handstand Push-up (HSPU). Instead, work with your coaches to identify progressions and scaling opportunities that will help you achieve your goals.
3. Embrace Your Common Purpose

It’s no secret that many CrossFit athletes adhere to the paleolithic or Zone diets, where meat is often a primary focus. So many, in fact, that Paleo and CrossFit often feel like twins conjoined at the Neanderthalic hip.

But even though it can sometimes feel especially primal and carnivorous, plant-based athletes need not feel neglected in the CrossFit universe. In the end, no matter your diet, following any dietary program demonstrates a willingness to make intentional decisions about the way that you eat.

You may eat different foods, but you are working towards a similar goal. In fact, once we got past the labels, some of my vegan recipes became crowd favorites among my paleo peers and I adopted a few paleo recipes that happened to be vegan into my arsenal.

Fitness communities and dietary programs of all flavors and persuasions often share a foundational goal: to strengthen and nurture your body. Whether you are a paleo cyclocross enthusiast or a raw vegan powerlifter, a gluten-free triathlete or a carnivorous kick boxer, those principles hold true.

That is the bedrock of the CrossFit community.

Quick Tips for Connecting with the CrossFit Community

  1. Not everything has to be about CrossFit all the time. There are plenty of ways to test your fitness or grow friendships that can happen anywhere, whether at a backyard bonfire or through an intramural volleyball league.
  2. Consider signing up for a team competition. This may seem like a long way off, but team competitions (which can be scaled, just like workouts) are a great way to work together with your fellow athletes towards a common goal. Plus they’re a ton of fun.
4. Eat to Perform

Not all plant-based diets are created equal. Oreos, after all, are vegan.

When I graduated from college, I understood plant-based diets and vegan nutrition at a basic level. I had figured out how to stay lean, while prioritizing muscle growth. That diet, however, proved wholly inadequate once I started CrossFit.

CrossFit’s intense focus on pairing metabolic conditioning with heavy lifting propelled my metabolism to stratospheric heights. I was always hungry and noticed that certain workouts left me completely drained. I immediately bumped up my caloric intake, devouring massive portions of roasted vegetables with homemade seitan.

More importantly, though, I started to work with my coaches to tailor my intake for athletic performance. If I was going to overhaul my diet, I figured I should target any imbalances or deficiencies that might be affecting my performance in the gym or my body’s ability to recover.

I spent countless nights poring over resources about supplements vs. whole food approaches, the impact of branch chain amino acids on recovery, omega-3 absorption, and vegan sources of creatine, before discussing my findings with my coaches, all of whom had both personal or professional backgrounds in nutrition.

In the end, I figured out what worked for me. And so can you.

All it takes is a little time and a willingness to learn both from yourself and those around you.

When I think about the ways that CrossFit has changed my life, I think about the people who have become family, the body awareness I have gained, and the nutritional consciousness that now governs my day-to-day choices.

It has made me a healthier and happier person in every aspect of my life.

Quick Tips for Maximizing Your Plant-Based Diet

  1. Try new things. Don’t just toss in a few exotic recipes every now and then, test out entirely new ratios of macronutrients or a dedicated meal vs. grazing approach. See how your body reacts and adjust accordingly.
  2. Prep your meals beforehand. Having a stockpile of healthful meals in the fridge ensures that you always have the right food to eat, even if you don’t have time to cook that night.

Now the Hard Part … It’s Time to Show Up

When you walk into your first CrossFit class, you automatically have something in common with everyone in the room:

You showed up.

CrossFit claims you did so to improve your capacity for work. I don’t necessarily see it that way.

Instead, I see CrossFit as way to improve your capacity for life, whether that means climbing mountains, playing with your grandchildren, or landscaping your backyard. The simple act of showing up makes a statement that everyone in the room hears loud and clear. Despite the myriad other things going on in your life, you’ve made your fitness, and your health, a priority.

That merits not only respect, but admiration from the entire group.

By attending a class, you’re celebrating the commitment of those around you, which is why every CrossFit class ends the same way … with sweaty high fives for every single athlete in the room.

About the Author: Jeremy Cronon fell head over heels into the CrossFit universe back in 2014, completely disregarding the rumors that vegans and vegetarians weren’t cut out for that level of intensity. As an outdoor educator and semi-professional wanderer, CrossFit allows him to maintain his fitness while on the road. Follow his travels and share in his love of handstands via Instagram and his blog, Chasing Cairns.

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Comments

  1. Sandra, Italy says:

    Heyyyy, loved the article! 😊 I’ve been plantbased for three years, discovered CrossFit last year and couldn’t be happier with the results! Speaking of diet, I’m with Matt when he says that Paleo and Vegan have more things in common than things that differ.

    • Right on! I think the two pair perfectly and even have a sneaking suspicion that us plant-based athletes recover more quickly than our omnivorous brethren. All my evidence is anecdotal though. Keep it up Sandra.

  2. Awesome article! Crazy thing is that I used to not like sweet potatoes at all and now I crave them too : )

  3. This article is great and summarizes what I have gone through since I joined Crossfit in 2014. I have been vegetarian for 27 years. I eat mostly vegan but do eat cheese from time to time so it wouldn’t be appropriate to call myself vegan. I would like more info on macros, etc so that I am optimizing my food choices for my Cross fit lifestyle. If you ever expand on that, it would be great!

  4. Great article! When I first started CrossFit in 2013 I tried a Paleo vegan diet based on a guest article from this blog. It was my first time even hearing or experiencing the Paleo diet. I only did it for 2 weeks before I found out I was pregnant. I stopped because I felt to inexperienced to keep it going. I too was the only one in my box on a plant based diet. I am currently eating Paleo with meats but I would love to go back plant based. I still do CrossFit everyday and still no one in my box is on a plant based diet. So the thought of going back to just plants is intimidating.

    • I’ll bet you’ve learned a ton as you’ve transitioned along the spectrum of paleo diets though! Remember, your diet is *your* diet. If you are CrossFitting everyday, I’ll bet you are surrounded by friends who would support you, even if they weren’t plant-based themselves. They’ve already seen you commit to fitness… shifting your diet shouldn’t raise any red flags about who you are as a person. I say go for it. If you’re nervous, do it slowly. If getting back to Paleo-vegan is the goal, then maintain your paleo stance, but incrementally cut back on meat, then dairy, then eggs. Don’t let intimidation get in the way of the person you want to be 🙂

  5. Rebecca McDonough says:

    I hate to sound like a moron, but I’m not grokking the meme.

  6. Great article and perfect timing, as I am now getting back into eating more vegan (always have been vegetarian) AND needed to get back into crossfit-type training to prepare for obstacle runs (future goal). I hope you don’t let all your research and insight into your new venture go to waste. How about creating a guidebook/cookbook for crossfit vegans? In our ever growing health conscious society, and the realization that consumption of animal products is negativity affecting the planet and our health, it might be a great time to put something like that out there. Best of luck on your new endeavor!

    • I totally wish that guidebook existed, even if it ended up just being a curated compilation of pre-existing resources. I basically started with the concept of “Don’t just eat plants… Eat LOTS of plants,” so it definitely would have been helpful to have a resource on hand when I was starting out. I’m planning on getting my CrossFit Level 1 Certification this winter, so maybe I’ll take on your challenge then!

  7. This article was very interesting. I know little about CrossFit, but from what I had seen online, I thought it was inextricably linked with a) Paleo eating and b) evangelical Christianity. I had no idea it had nothing to do with those things!

    • Actually it does have some things in common with Evangelical Christianity. Few places are more cult-like than a Crossfit “box.” Why do you think the author referred to his new Crossfit gym buddies as some of his “best friends?” Best friends? After spending a week with them?

  8. Thank you for this article! I am a CrossFitter who has just returned to a vegetarian lifestyle and am working through and experimenting with my macros to optimize my nutrition. It’s been a tough journey but your article has given me more resolve to keep experimenting until I get it right for me! Thanks again!

    • Having the drive to optimize your diet for performance is pretty rare these days and I commend you for beginning the process. For me, CrossFit was a perfect testing ground because the intensity pushed my diet to the limit. I could feel when I hadn’t eaten enough or hadn’t given my body the proper fuel. Good luck on your journey Jackie!

  9. Mariela says:

    Great article… I have been doing Crossfit for over 3 years now, but I decided to change my diet and leave meat behind… I´m learning all over again.. I used to do Paleo since I started with Crossfit and now I want to learn how to keep building muscle, stay fit and have enough energy… could you recommend something else to read or a group I can get in? thanks…

  10. This article is me!! I just went vegetarian, and I feel like I can’t tell anybody (not at crossfit anyways). But, I have done some research and watching What the Health and feel like I need to do this. My health issues are a bit more complicated than I want to admit and a lot of it is unknown. Now, I’m trying something new and removing the processed meat from my diet. Anyways, I appreciate your willingness to discuss crossfit and diet because it’s important and such an issue at times.

  11. I joined up with a local Crossfit gym a few years back. Knowing their opinions on Paleo versus plant-based, I joined anyway, with the idea I would keep my plant-based lifestyle to myself. One day not long after signing up, another newbie and I were chatting when she asked me how my Paleo diet was going. I ended up sharing with her that I was vegan. Big mistake kinda. She reported me. I got kicked out of the gym via a phone call that “my kind wasn’t welcome there”.
    I say “kinda a mistake” because, really do I want to belong and give my money to a gym that was so close-minded. It was a blessing after all. It’s obvious from reading the article, things have evolved since I gave it a go, but the gym I went to still exist and from what I understand, still strictly adhere to Paleo or nothing. If I ever find my way back to a Cross-fit gym, I will find out their tolerance level for Plant-based lifestyles. Asking before joining up would be a good thing.

    • Carol Triminio says:

      That’s the craziest crossfit story I’ve heard. But like you said, you shouldn’t be part of a community that doesn’t accept you for having a plant-based lifestyle.
      I’ve been trying to go vegetarian/vegan for years. I try it for a few weeks but I fall back to my old ways. Following this blog and watching What the Health have really made me open my eyes to the dangers of consuming animal products. I know that combining that with crossfit will make me an easy target for questions regarding protein intake but I can’t let it scare me anymore.
      Thanks for your post.

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