Image Courtesy of Rob Campbell

Packing on Lean Muscle with Plant-Based Nutrition

Having been a competitive endurance athlete since the age of 15, I found that—once I overcame the initial pitfalls—a plant-based whole food diet offered several advantages. Among them: I didn’t get sick as often, I was able to train harder, and I stayed light while becoming stronger. Clearly these are significant advantages when pursuing peak athletic performance. However, remaining light while having the ability to build muscular strength—and therefore functionality—was certainly one of the greatest attributes this novel way of eating bestowed upon me.

As endurance athletes, we don’t aspire to build muscular size (bulk), but rather to simply develop what muscle we do have to be strong, and thereby function efficiently. Building strength while not packing on bulk will raise strength-to-weight ratio. That’s good. And as a direct result, endurance will take a leap forward.

But what about strength athletes such as bodybuilders—can they benefit from a similar plant-based diet? Yes, in fact they can. While endurance athletes aim to develop efficient muscles without increasing their size, bodybuilders are quite the opposite. In competition—since bodybuilders are judged by appearance alone—they train accordingly. Bulk, symmetry, and definition are the three visual points a bodybuilder will be assessed on. Since the way in which their muscles actually perform—their functionality—is not factored into scoring, time and effort will not be spent honing that aspect.

However, what builds efficient muscles in endurance athletes is the same thing that builds visually impressive muscles in bodybuilders: hard work.

Image Courtesy of Rob Campbell

Does More Protein Mean More Muscle?

Immediately following an intense workout, those serious about packing on lean muscles will down a high-protein shake. They know that to repair muscle tissue after breaking it down in the gym requires the rebuilding properties that protein is touted for. But what most don’t pay attention to is the protein source. In the minds of many, quantity is the priority; the more protein, the better. But does more really equate to better results? Let’s take a look.

The way to add extra protein to the diet, while not increasing fat or carbohydrate content, is to mechanically or chemically remove the fat and carbohydrate component. What remains is called protein isolate. The protein has been isolated from the other macronutrients of the food and as such, its ratio has increased. Some manufactured isolates register protein content in excess of 90 percent. But once isolated, it is no longer a whole food and therefore harder for the body to digest, assimilate, and utilize. Plus protein isolates are inherently acid-forming. And with the onset of an acidic body, functionality declines.

It is true that when a traditional acid-forming post-workout smoothie that contains protein isolate is swapped out for a plant-based whole food option, muscular size loss is likely. Understandably, this will lead to concern for those athletes whose goal it is to pack on muscle mass. But, what is actually transpiring is a good thing. What they are loosing in size is simply inflammation.

Image Courtesy of Melissa Schwartz

Eat Plants, Work Hard, Build Muscle

Immediately following a weight training workout, the muscles will be broken down and thus inflamed. And as we know, acid-forming food creates inflammation. Therefore the consumption of a traditional post-workout smoothie that contains protein isolates will exacerbate the level and rate of inflammation. With inflammation comes size. But, with inflammation also come a reduction in functionality. As the muscles become less functional, their ability to lift weight declines. That’s a problem. Lifting heavy weight is what builds muscles strong—and big. Of course if the body falls into a less functional state, it simply won’t have the ability to work as intensely. And without the capacity to train hard, muscles cannot continue to grow. In addition to inflamed muscles not having the capacity to lift as much weight, more time will also need to be allocated between training sessions to allow inflammation to dissipate. That’s bad. Since intensity and frequency are the two prime components to a successful muscle-building program, inflammation can well become the greatest single inhibitor of progress.

Post-Workout Plant-based Nutrition: Helping You Help Yourself

In place of isolates and acid-forming animal foods, there are a host of plant-based options that will ensure that inflammation be kept to a minimum. Post-workout, excellent plant-based protein sources include: hemp, pea, and rice protein. And while protein is a crucial component for muscle repair and building, so too are essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), vitamins, minerals, enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants and a host of other nutritional components that can be found in a variety of plant-based whole foods. This being the case, post-workout smoothies will deliver greater results if they contain these components, not merely protein. Additionally, chlorella—a form of freshwater algae—is an excellent addition to the post-workout smoothie. Due to its exceptionally high chlorophyll content, it’s among the most alkaline-forming foods available. Plus, its protein percentage is almost 70 percent, naturally.

So while plant-based nutrition won’t necessarily make you a better athlete, it will allow you to train harder, thereby making yourself a better athlete. And as all great athletes know, their success hinges on their ability to pursue it. With improved functionality and less rest required between workouts, success will be yours for the taking.


Brendan is a former professional Ironman triathlete, a two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion, the creator of an award-winning line of whole food nutritional products called VEGA, and the bestselling author of Thrive. He is also the developer of the acclaimed ZoN Thrive Fitness program and the formulator of the new award-winning, 7-product natural VEGA Sport system. His latest book, Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health, delves deep into the environmental aspects of food production, and offers practical solutions to help us each reduce our strain on the environment.