Downing the Veggies
Russell Downing talks about his conversion to a plant-based diet.
Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Andy Jones
Cutting meat dairy and fish from your diet, well it might wash for a Yorkshireman in Hebden Bridge but it’s not very Rotherham. Russell Downing is the embodiment of the no nonsense area he was born in and still lives, but he’s switched to a plant-based diet that’s more Finsbury Park than Kimberworth Park (only South Yorkshire locals will get that) Here’s why.
“I got ill after the Ras in Ireland. It was the end of a build-up of things; moving house and knocking it about and doing lots of building work, working to set up the Holdsworth team from scratch, which wasn’t easy, and I was still training full-time because we wanted to do some big races. It all came to a head in the Ras, when we had lots of rain and quite a few of us got sick. I think it was the spray off the roads, with all the crap from the fields in it.
Kenny de Ketele was ill for ages, and I ended up with shingles. It was really bad, I was totally wiped out for a while. Even when I was up and about I felt rough, then I was at Eroica Britannia and got talking to one of the organisers, Gian Bohan. He told me about his new vegan restaurant, The Shed, www.eatshed.com he’d opened in Sheffield. He was saying how good a vegan diet is and how it might help me recover. My wife Lisa is very health conscious and was borderline vegan anyway, so we thought we’d give it a go.
“We started; no dairy, no meat and no fish, just lots of veg, rice, different types of grains with protein in them, as well as protein from all sorts of beans. I just let Lisa put it on the plate, and it tasted great. The first two weeks were a bit savage, but then I got used to it and straightaway I felt a lot better.
“I seem to get by on eating less. I don’t feel too full after a meal. I feel light, I’ve lost weight, people have noticed too, but the power is still there. I went from feeling really bad when I was ill to having loads more energy than I had before, so I’ve kept it up.
“We eat fish now. Lisa and I went to France for a short break, and it’s hard to be vegan in hotels so we ate fish, and we’ve included fish in our diet now. We aren’t vegan, we’re following a plant-based diet as a health choice. I’ve even hooked up with a new sports nutrition company, Rawvelo that does energy bars and gels but only with natural products.”
Downing is by no means the first cyclist to reap benefits for switching to what is essentially a cleaner diet made up of natural foods, with processed stuff almost entirely eliminated. Natural, unrefined products burn cleanly leaving less waste because we are hard-wired by our ancestry to process natural foods, where that is not always the case for processed foods. Natural foods also ensure a more regular energy supply.
This is summed up in Rawvelo’s philosophy statement on its website www.rawvelo.com ; “It just seemed obvious that eating high-quality nutritious foods whenever possible was the best thing to do to stay as healthy as possible.
“We struggled to find sports nutrition products that met our needs for when we were training or racing. What was available was loaded with chemicals and refined sugars, cheap ingredients that claimed to ‘deliver’ energy fast with seemingly no thought given to how damaging this could be to your long-term health. They also just didn’t taste great and were often hard to eat or digest, leaving us feeling sick and bloated.
“So, we resorted to doing things the ‘old fashioned’ way, the way that cyclists of a bygone era had done, eating dried fruits, nuts, bananas – simple real food. We soon found that by consuming the right balance of natural wholefoods we were still able to perform just as well as when using chemically enhanced products but felt healthier in general and recovered much faster.”
Most cyclists can clean up their diet because although there is a lot of science in the various gels, drinks and energy bars made by big manufacturers, there are also plenty of chemicals in them. They are convenient, but even if you don’t want to abandon them it’s maybe a good idea to save such products for racing or for when you are short of time to prepare more natural food.
Eating lighter and with more thought about what you are eating, and what’s in your food, like Russell Downing does now, is beneficial for health, but just as he has found it invariably comes with some weight loss. And that’s a marginal gain always worth having.