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★FitStars: Triathlete Brendan Brazier

Posted Nov 10 2010 3:00am

Brendan Brazier I find professional triathletes to be pretty darn inspiring. After all, they master not one, not two, but THREE different activities and then push their bodies to the extreme, race after race. I remember reminding myself when running my marathon last year that there were people who ran 26.2 miles after hours and hours of biking and swimming in Ironman competitions. It helped with perspective and understanding what the human body is capable of, believe me.

Well, Brendan Brazier is one of those people who inspires me. Not only is he a former professional athlete, he is also the founder of Vega , a plant-based line of foods and supplements that we’re pretty fond of (they won one of our first Fitties !). And he’s one of only a few professional athletes in the world whose diet is 100 percent plant-based. He’s also a two-time Canadian 50K Ultra Marathon Champion and the author of Thrive Fitness: The Vegan-Based Training Program for Maximum Strength, Health, and Fitness .

We got the chance to ask Brendan a few questions about training, staying motivated and his books and products, not to mention some advice on getting in shape for a race. Read on, Fit Bottomed Girls! Read on!

  • FBG: Why did you write Thrive Fitness ?
  • BB: While on tour and through my books Thrive and Thrive Fitness, I’m able to spread the word about plant-based nutrition and the impact that this choice can have on the environment. Sharing this information is one of the biggest ways I can do my part to help sustain the health of our environment.
  • FBG: Why did you start Vega ?
  • BB: I had been making a blended drink for myself since I was about 15, so I partnered with Charles Chang of Sequel Naturals in 2004 and brought out a replica of that, which became Vega Complete Whole Food Optimizer . From there we created energy bars and Vega Sport —pre-and post-workout drink powders that you can mix with water. We just launched Shake & Go Smoothie , a convenient and tasty health drink mix that appeals to a more mainstream audience while still delivering the nutrition of Vega.
  • FBG: You are one of only a few professional athletes who have a 100-percent plant-based diet. Tell us how your diet is different than other athletes and why.
  • BB: I became vegan in 1990, when I was 15. My goal right from the start was not specifically to become vegan—it was to perform as well as I possibly could in sports. I wanted to make a career out of running, cycling and swimming, and race Ironman triathlons professionally. To make sure I had the most effective training program possible, I looked at how some of the top professional Ironman triathletes in the world trained. To see what separated the best from the typical, I also looked at training programs of average-performing amateur triathletes.

    What I found surprised me. The average athlete’s programs differed very little from the elite. If training discrepancies were minimal, what then caused some athletes to become great while others remained average? As I discovered, training wasn’t the only factor. As I learned, the difference between average and breakthrough performances hinged on the rate at which the body could recover from physical training. On reflection, this stood to reason. It makes perfect sense since training is really nothing more than breaking down muscle tissue; the one who can restore theirs the quickest will have an advantage. The quick-recovering athletes will be able to schedule workouts closer together, therefore enabling them to train more than their competition. Over the course of a few months, the extra workouts will translate into a significant performance gain. Having solidified this in my mind, recovery became my focus. As I learned, food choices can account for up to 80 percent of the total recovery process.

    Having this new-found appreciation for diet, I decided to take mine more seriously. Never having an interest in nutrition before, I now had a reason to learn about it. If cleaning my diet was an integral part of becoming a professional athlete, as I speculated it might be, I wanted to learn more. This is why I adopted a plant-based diet. At first it didn’t work well, but as I learned the subtleties of it, my recovery rate dramatically improved and so did my performance. My diet differs from a lot of other athletes because I do not eat animal products. I keep starches to a minimum, and I try to eat mostly raw foods.

  • FBG: What does a typical day of eating and training look like for you?
  • BB: Since my Pro Ironman career wound down after seven years of full-time racing, each day for me now is actually fuller (and in some cases more challenging) than it was when I trained all day. One of the luxuries of training seven to nine hours a day is this: when you’re done for the day, you’re done. There’s nothing that you can do to improve your performance at that point other than rest. As you rest, you grow stronger. And that feeling is one of genuine relaxation, like no other. Not before or since have I ever experienced such a true feeling of rest. Now the work never ends. There’s always more to be done. And, as I soon discovered, in the “real world,” when you lie around, you don’t grow stronger; you’re missing opportunities.

    In sharp contrast to my regimented and rooted training regimen that spanned 14 years, life today is spent mostly on the road. A typical day on the road begins at 6:30 a.m. I eat a Vega Whole Food Energy Bar , and I’m out and running by 7 a.m. What’s planned for the day will determine how long I’ll run for. I find that if I run much over 75 minutes in the morning, I’ll be slightly less “sharp” come 4 p.m. This being the case, if I have talks to give, book signings to do or meetings to contribute something sensible to, I’ll typically keep the run to under 75 minutes. If the afternoon hasn’t been booked with thought-intensive activities, I’ll sneak in a longer run, usually between one-and-a-half and two hours.

    But I’ve also noticed that if I run for an hour or less, I feel worse later in the day. So clearly there’s a window of time that’s the ideal length of run for me to get the most value from the day. After running I’ll have a quick breakfast that almost always consists of Vega and fruit. Since both digest easily and are packed with nutrition, I find I can be out the door quickly without being bogged down. For this reason, I tend to graze on fruit and vegetables throughout the day, as opposed to eating larger meals. You might say I just eat one meal a day, but it lasts from morning to night. I’ve found this strategy to be helpful since I don’t get exceptionally hungry and never feel overly full. It works well for the always-moving type of life.

    When on the road, I typically give an evening talk three to four nights a week. I’ll speak for about an hour, mostly about plant-based nutrition. I speak about how to implement this way of eating and how it can be the best high-performance diet for athletes or anyone who seeks peak mental and physical ability. I base the talks on my books. I speak in health food stores, universities and hotel conference rooms, and I speak to a diverse bunch.

    But the common thread that binds attendees is a desire for enhanced performance by way of eating plant-based whole foods.When not traveling, my day starts off pretty much the same as it does when on the road: with a run. Since I divide my time between Los Angeles and Vancouver, I’ll step out on a variety of different routes. In Los Angeles, the hard-packed dirt hills of Griffith Park or Will Rodgers Park are my first two choices, but the cool breezes of the Santa Monica boardwalk are also desirable. When in Vancouver, I’ll run the loops that I first began running when I was 15. The ocean-surrounded forest paths of Stanley Park or hundreds of kilometers of gnarly trails that weave through Vancouver’s North Shore in Lynn Canyon Park and the Seymour Demonstration forest are among the best running anywhere.

    As of late, I have valued these runs most as a means to get mentally prepared and sift through the plans of the day. Additionally, they serve as a time for me to organize my upcoming projects and sort them in my head. If all goes well, these ideas will be turned into action and a new project will be born. The physical fitness gained has simply been a bonus. Upon returning from my run I turn on the computer. When not on the road, this is my time to write articles and work on other projects, such as my new book, which I just turned in to my publisher. This kind of work takes me through to early evening, and if I have time then, I’ll get out for a bike ride, or a swim and gym workout.

  • FBG: In the book, you talk a lot about wanting to get efficient sleep–not just hours and hours. Tell us more about this and how we can all be more efficient.
  • BB: A huge benefit of switching to a plant-based diet is better sleep. The line is no longer blurred between being asleep and being awake as it is for a lot of people who don’t sleep that well during the night and don’t feel fully awake during the day either. When you remove nutritional stress by eating the right way, your cortisol level comes down, meaning the body can get into delta sleep. This is the deep, rejuvenating sleep, when the body repairs tissues and cells. It can only do that when cortisol levels are low enough. When I wake up, I’m rested and I can go all day, and I’ll sleep as soon as I want to. I don’t have to sleep as much these days. It’s a huge benefit to have an extra hour or more in the day to play with. Because I’m no longer tired, and I don’t crave coffee and sugar I’ve freed up so much mental space.

    Cravings are mental clutter. They may not always be at the forefront of the mind, but they can be there in the background distracting you meaning that ideas don’t flow as easily. In this state, solutions to problems that may come to you from the subconscious whether you’re awake or asleep, don’t come. Remove that clutter and suddenly they do. It has really made a big difference to me in this area and to others I’ve spoken to also.

  • FBG: You obviously eat and train for full performance. How would you tell an average women to eat and work out?
  • BB: I think it’s important to transition to a healthier diet and lifestyle slowly. Some people will never eat a 100 percent Thrive Diet, but one snack a day makes a huge difference. The meal plan is there for people who want structure and want a meal plan, but you don’t have to follow it exactly to get good results. I think one of the best ways is thinking of it as including new foods as opposed to removing old ones.

    One thing I’ve found to be effective is breakfast—it’s not such an emotional meal for people. Often people just grab something quick on their way out. A lot of people have had no intention of completely changing their diet, but they feel so good and their energy is even after changing their breakfast. If you can have that good breakfast that tastes good, blended fruit—people like smoothies—then they’re interested to see what else can improve in their life. Their sleep quality gets a bit better, it interests and encourages them to do a bit more. They often take charge at that point just because they feel it.

  • FBG: If everyone could change one thing about their lifestyle for the better, what would you have them change?
  • BB: Have a nutrient plant-based smoothie every morning. Everything else will fall into place. By starting off on the right foot, you’ll experience less hunger, more energy, better sleep quality, less desire to eat late at night, reduced sugar and starch cravings.
  • FBG: If someone only has 20 minutes to work out, what do you recommend she does?
  • BB: Try stair running—nothing gets you fit in less time.
  • FBG: In your book, you talk a lot about a number of foods that most people haven’t heard of and aren’t found at your normal grocery store. What food do you wish was as common as milk or bread and why?
  • BB: Hemp is incredibly nutritious and versatile. It’s an easily digestible complete protein (that has a neutral pH) and includes Omega-3 and 6 essential fatty acids. It can be eaten on its own, put in smoothies, or baked into bread, and the seeds can be made into milk. Hemp is also an environmentally sustainable crop. It has been grown commercially in Canada since 1998, but American farmers are prohibited from growing hemp crops. As a result, all hemp-based products currently need to be imported in the U.S., so they’re not as plentiful or mainstream as they should be. I hope to see hemp farming legalized in the U.S. so that hemp products can become just as common as milk or bread.
  • FBG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
  • BB: Do what you enjoy!

Here that ladies? Start slowly, eat a healthy breakfast and you’re on your way to feeling grrreat! Stay tuned to tomorrow’s post when we’ll review one of Brendan’s books! —Jenn

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