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Updated 04 July 2016

Running the Comrades Marathon on a vegan diet

Donovan Will, who is training to run the Comrades Marathon, speaks to Health24 about his plant based diet and fears of getting injured ahead of the big race.

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Donovan Will, who used to be overweight, feels healthier – both physically and mentally - after he made a life-changing decision to stop eating any animal products.

The 31-year-old is proof that it is possible to live an active lifestyle and compete in sports fuelled only by a plant based diet.

He successfully completed the Ironman 70.3 in January 2016 and is now training for the Comrades Marathon.

Vegans are vegetarians, but veganism is also a lifestyle choice since they seek to not use any animal products as far as possible.

Will explained that he discovered veganism after seeing a friend’s photo of an anti-bacon festival protest.

Read: Can a vegan be really healthy?

"I started writing an email to her explaining that veganism is a personal choice, and that protesting other people’s right to eat bacon was at least silly, if not unethical. I looked online for well written arguments against veganism, but the more I researched, the more I evidence I found supporting veganism."
 
After weeks of trying to find a hole in the argument for veganism, Will realised that he simply couldn’t.

"The evidence was very clear that eating animal products promotes disease in the body, and that a well-balanced vegan diet can be significantly healthier, animal agriculture is the most environmentally damaging industry in the world, and that if we have no need to slaughter animals, then doing so simply because we like the way they taste is unethical. After this it became clear - I knew I wanted to stop eating any animal products."

This change, Will pointed out, has left him feeling physically and mentally healthier.

He said the physical health benefits are very easy to understand. "Healthy, plant-based food is simply more nutritious than animal products, and there are so many damaging substances in animal products that when you cut them out your body is just healthier."  

The mental side, explained Will, is a bit more complex. "[G]enerally speaking I think our mental health improves when we are more integrated with the world, and this happens more when we see things for what they are".

He went on to indicate that according to psychologist Melanie Joy, it takes a lot of mental acrobatics to be able to say you love animals but still eat them.

"When we free ourselves from these subconscious contradictions we open space for more creative and positive uses of our brain."  

Commenting on how he gets the stamina to compete in sports fuelled only by a plant based diet only, Will said: "I’ve come to the realisation that our bodies are designed to burn carbohydrates for energy, so cutting the animal products in my diet (which are low in carbohydrates) and eating healthy, unrefined carbs, naturally increased my energy levels."

Read: Protein vs Carbs - the big debate

He admitted that when it comes to training for the Comrades Marathon that he doesn't have a strict fitness regimen.

"I’m not the most disciplined athlete, so I try to make sure I enjoy my work out. I’m currently trying to get a couple of one-hour runs in before work each week, and then do longer runs on the weekend. I also try get in a couple of swim sessions in each week and an occasional cycle."

Will believes that sports injury is one of the biggest reasons people fail at a race like the Comrades Marathon. "It is definitely a concern; but it’s one that can be managed," he quickly added.

"I think the main thing I do is simply to listen to my body and not push too hard if I’m not feeling good; I’m really not afraid to rest when it’s needed."

He said he also started doing a bit of light yoga weekly just to keep flexible.

Will, who is Brand Manager of Fry’s Family Foods, added that his diet is even less disciplined than his training, saying that he generally tries to avoid added sugars and oils, and obviously any animal products.

"As breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I usually opt for oats or a smoothie, with the occasional fry-up or a chickpea omelette.

"At work, we love sharing our favourite Fry’s recipes, which can include anything form a breakfast fry-up to a Mexican fiesta. Dinner mostly includes a Fry’s meal with wholefoods sides such as potato, rice or veggies."

He said he includes a variety a fresh fruits and vegetables to his eating plan and focus on food that has loads of nutrients for a relatively low calorie level.

"I eat a lot of dates when I’m training because they’re extremely high in potassium. I occasionally take a multivitamin and B12 if I feel I haven’t been eating healthily, and on very big training days I’ll add some L-Glutamine to my water."  

He also tries to eat foods that reduce inflammation. "This is easy on a plant-based diet, but I specifically include a few anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric where possible."

Will said the widespread interest in his diet has led him to Instagramming his relationship with food to show society that eating plant-based can be easy, fun and delicious.

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