There is a thought process in the sports and athletics world that goes something like this: eat grilled chicken breasts, shrimp, take whey protein, “eat clean” and have more energy. But what if that was all wrong? What if the key to being in better shape and having more energy throughout the day was to cut all animal-derived products from your diet? That’s the mentality of Vlad Ixel, an Australian ultramarathon trail runner and North Face athlete. Ixel went cold turkey, or cold tofu for that matter, and dove deep into the world of running and veganism. The results he’s seen are inspiring and nothing short of extraordinary. We caught up with Ixel in between races and trans-continental flights to pick his brain about what veganism has done for him and his running.
Q: When did you switch over to a vegan diet? As an athlete, was it difficult at first to get the energy that you need?
Vlad Ixel (VI): I became vegan four and half years ago during Christmas. I planned on giving it a try for two weeks, but after two weeks I had more energy, was sleeping better and was recovering faster from training sessions and runs. I never looked back and have been vegan since. The first 3 days were a little hard. I wasn’t sure what I should eat, but that didn’t stop me as I had more energy — due to the fact that suddenly I was sleeping better. One thing I never get anymore is that post-lunchtime tiredness — which I always struggled with before.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is an athlete and considering going vegan?
VI: Just give it a try – give it two to four weeks and see how you are feeling. I also think that if you can get a friend or a family member to join you for a two- to four-week period, it will help a lot and you can motivate each over.
Q: What is your go-to pre-race meal?
VI: For the past 130 races I had my usual bread with peanut butter and banana. I have been experimenting with fewer carbs and more fats, so I might try to cut the amount of bread and increase the peanut butter — and might add some avocado. This is something I have been trying in my everyday life and will be experimenting with around races as well.
Q: What food do you bring along for long runs?
VI: During training runs, I try not to bring anything with me – most runs under 30k I run without any food or water. For 30k+ runs I take some water and maybe a few gels with me. I’m not a big fan of gels, but you get a good value of calories per gram of weight and they are easy to eat on the go. I do a lot of runs without breakfast to get my body less dependent on food and teach my body to burn fats rather than carbs so it becomes more efficient. This was a long process that I started a few years back and would recommend to all long distance runners, but it has to be done very slowly over six months — slowly building progression. I started with one long run a week where I had no calories before the run and would not have any calories till 10k. Then slowly, over six to nine months, I increased the distance without calories to around 40k.
Q: Has going vegan made you a better runner? How so?
VI: I think being vegan helps me recover faster, which means I can train more and have better-quality training — which leads to improvement in my running. Becoming vegan has made losing weight a lot easier, and in a sport where the weight-to-power ratio is king, every kilogram lighter you are is one less kilogram you have to carry with you during a race.
I think that a vegan diet will really help with recovery for most runners who have started running later in life, after the age of twenty. Runners who have run their whole life, and especially during the ages of fourteen to twenty where our bodies develop to adult bodies, might not feel too much of a difference as their bodies have developed like runners — and recovery is quite developed. For the rest of us who picked up running in the later ages, I think a vegan diet can really make a massive difference in recovery times, which ultimately improves your running.
Q: What’s your training routine like?
VI: The biggest component of my training is running – this usually ranges from 120–150 kilometers a week – mixed between trail running and road running. On top of that, I also spend a few hours per week doing low-impact training — cross trainer and bike — to give my body a rest from the pounding that running brings. Most weeks I also spend a few hours in the gym working on strength and stability — as well as yoga and recovery work that I do in the second part of the day.
A typical training day looks something like this:
Morning: 15k run – specific training (hill work, speed work, tempo, etc)
Early afternoon: easy 10k run
Late afternoon: gym
Evening: yoga and recovery work
Q: What are some of your biggest accomplishments as a runner?
A: For the past five years, since I quit smoking and started running, I was able to run between 5,000 and 7,000 kilometers every year. I raced in over 130 races in the past three years, which I won fifty of and podiumed in almost 100 — all while staying injury free. When I started running, I spent hours and hours researching everything that was connected to running – diet, training, strength work, recovery work, sleep, running shoes and running form. In every aspect I looked for the best practices: With diet, it was a vegan diet. With shoes, it was a less supportive shoe — it was the combination of foot strength and barefoot running. My goal was to improve on every aspect of those fields so I could stay injury-free. For me to stay injury-free for five years now is the biggest accomplishment. Other than that, representing Australia and finishing twenty-fifth in the IAU World Trail Running Championships last year, four years after I quit smoking and started running, is my biggest accomplishment.