Grant Sheldon is a 24-year-old professional triathlete from Hamilton, Scotland. Taking up the sport around 10 years ago, he has since podiumed at European and World Cups, as well as ranking 4thin Edmonton at the World Triathlon Series; the top level of triathlon racing.
Towards the end of 2015, Grant decided to make a change which he hoped would positively affect his performances in these races: he became vegan.
The process of becoming fully vegan took him around one year. “I started reading to find out if food could enhance athletic performance and gradually discovered that ditching animal products might work,” he said. “I started off with cow’s milk- something I used to drink a lot of.”
Then, in September of 2015, Grant was involved in a bad cycling accident while training. Suffering a broken jaw, he was forced to dramatically adapt his eating habits, consuming only liquids for six weeks. “The down time resulted in me making the switch completely,” he said.
Since this change, the triathlete said: “performance-wise, I’ve had some of my best results in races. I am also able to train a lot with high intensities, but recover quicker than I used to.”
Although his original reason to pursue veganism was performance driven, Grant now sees further benefits in his decision: “The meaning of being vegan for me has changed a lot over the years,” he explained. “Something I did initially for an athletic pursuit, changed to health and then I started to really care about the animals I was harming and the planet. It is by far the most compassionate way to live and strive for at this time.”
“Protein is found everywhere”
Grant is convinced that he is getting all the key nutrients he requires for optimum performance in his sport. “I have done a lot of work with my nutritionists who basically monitored what I was eating over a few weeks at different points in the year.
“My report came back that I was far exceeding the required amount of every micronutrient they looked at. It is a very nutrient dense diet.”
The main question vegan athletes are asked is generally “where do you get your protein from?” Grant says, “protein is found everywhere!”
“Sure, it is easy to get protein from animals, but this is not the healthiest way. Even the least protein dense plants have around 5% of calories from protein. If you lived off this your protein needs would be met. When doing a lot of strenuous activity, sure, you want a little more. But that is not difficult to find.”
While Grant has found a vegan diet beneficial in his profession, he believes many other athletes could have the same success. “I think a lot of athletes are scared to try it,” he said. “I think it can definitely help any athlete. Not just us skinny endurance athletes, but some of the biggest and strongest athletes are also striving being vegan.”
Recently, many more professional sportspeople have adopted the diet, including American tennis star Venus Williams, who described being vegan as “fuelling your body in the best possible way.” English footballer, Jermain Defoe and the World’s first vegan body builder- Barny Du Plessis have also spoken out about changing their eating habits.
As an athlete, Grant is often inspired by the achievements of others. He said, “I look up to a few Ultra runners; particularly Scott Jurek, who is vegan and has done some crazy things.
“I am also fascinated by the guys in ‘World’s Strongest Man’. Watching what the human body can do inspires me.”
But being a vegan athlete appears far from easy, as Grant admits many have been sceptical. “A lot of people doubted my decision at the start, out of ignorance I reckon, which made it more difficult. Someone from the Scottish governing body remarked at the time, ‘as long as you aren’t going to be a tree hugger’.
“A few people also thought it was going to cause injuries,” he continued. “I was part of a study on calcium levels to try and solve the number of stress fractures in triathlon. My food diary showed no dairy products and the leader of the study told me I better start drinking cow’s milk. I have had no stress fractures since going vegan and my results came back that my calcium intake was consistently above my use of it.”
Faced with numerous questions, Grant has also inspired others to follow the same path. “I was part of a Q&A a couple of months ago, and the subject came up,” he recalled. “Afterwards I was surprised by the number of people who came up to me wanting to know more.”
As a professional athlete, Grant finds himself travelling across the globe frequently to partake in different races. With each country’s cuisine differing immensely, he has had to find new ways to continue his diet while travelling.
“Finding food abroad is something I found really difficult when starting out,” he said. “It is still not easy, especially in places where meat is a heavy part of their diet. The most difficult place must have been Japan- everything has fish in it! Even the veggie sushi, which is usually vegan, is made with fish oil in the rice.
“Now I plan ahead and find restaurants I can eat at and always bring a blender and a rice cooker away with me, so I can cook for myself pre-race,” he explained.
Regarding his body, Grant notices that he has become a lot leaner, while still maintaining the muscle required to compete.
“I also don’t fluctuate with my weight as much as I used to,” he said. “When I was on my off season, I used to gain a good few kilos. Now I stay the same all year round!
“The biggest change is still the inflammation though, which is huge from a recovery point of view. I used to walk off planes with big swollen ankles. Now I can run off a plane with no issues.”
With veganism on the rise, more research is being done to analyse the impact of this diet. Grant is keen for others to experience the same positives, in both sport and general health, that he has encountered so far.
“There is a lot of research coming out and some that has been out for years about eating animals and the health effects,” he said. “Nutritionfacts.org is a good website that takes all the research and gives it to us in a way which is easy to understand.”