He can run 1,000 miles barefoot and pull a Mini for 26 miles. Extreme athlete Ross Edgley talks to Vegan Life about giving Veganuary a go
Pulling a Mini for 26.2 miles, running 1,000 miles barefoot, and climbing a rope until he’d scaled the equivalent height of Mount Everest are just some of the endurance challenges self-confessed ‘strange sportsman’ Ross Edgley has undertaken over the last year – raising lots of money for charities along the way.
He has over a decade’s experience in the sporting world, representing his country in water polo, as well as studying the academics of sport, graduating from the respected Loughborough University School of Sport and Exercise Science, gaining first class honours for his dissertation on strength and stamina adaptations to various training protocols. He has now applied this practical and academic experience to become a strength and conditioning coach (based at the English Institute of Sport). It’s fair to say Ross is at the top of his game when it comes to sports and sports nutrition.
Now, supported by charity Veganuary, the athletic enthusiast will be powering his adventures purely with plants as he gives veganism a shot this month.
“I think a plant-based diet is athletic by its very nature,” he tells Vegan Life. “2010 research published by the American College of Sports Medicine stated that ‘diets high in unrefined plant foods are associated with beneficial effects on overall health, lifespan, immune function and cardiovascular health’. It also said ‘whether a vegetarian or vegan diet is beneficial for athletic performance has not yet been defined’. It’s my hope my newly invented sport (the tree-athlon) helps define these potential benefits.”
Ah yes, the tree-athlon. If you’re scratching your head wondering what this is, you’re not alone. It’s the totally unique challenge Ross invented to test his sporting and nutritional theories. It involves doing an Olympic length triathlon – while carrying a 100lb tree.
Now getting into the science of it, how can he break down the challenge to test how well a plant-based diet can support athletic performance?
Ross says: “It’s important to note the success (or failure) of the tree-athlon will be determined long before I attach the tree to myself and head into the water. This is because all endurance sports require an understanding of bioenergetics. This is the study of the transformation of energy (calories from food) in living organisms and whilst an impressive VO2 maximum (lung capacity) and a brilliant lactic threshold (the point at which your muscles ‘burn’ and ‘fatigue’) will help, it counts for very little when you’re not meeting your calorie requirements and/or eating a poor fuel (calorie) source that’s low in nutrients. A vegan diet can help with both of these things.
“Generally speaking our food is becoming more calorie-dense and less nutrient-dense. Our meals are now fast and our metabolisms are slow and as a result The New England Journal of Medicine has identified a new kind of obesity that’s coupled with malnutrition. It sounds like a contradiction, but people are eating more yet not getting the vital minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals and enzymes they need to fight of disease.
“Taking teachings from the vegan diet’s philosophy can help.”
Ross says this is because – generally speaking – vegan diets are often higher in phytochemicals, fibre, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, folic acid and minerals that are all too often overlooked. They’re also often lower in saturated fat, cholesterol and calories.
Ross says: “This is why most vegan athletes I know never count calories. No, they count nutrients and embrace a way of life that scientists at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center have long said could be of benefit when tackling weight issues: ‘Attacking the obesity epidemic will involve giving up many old ideas that have not been productive; ‘A calorie is a calorie’ might be a good place to start’.
“You could argue adopting a more nutrient-dense diet could improve our immune system and prevent us from overtraining too. This is based on research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that wanted to determine the impact different carbohydrate choices had on a person’s immune system and more specifically their cytokine concentration. Cytokines are basically responsible for carrying signals between the cells of the immune system. They’re believed to be critical to preventing the body becoming sick and over trained from too much exercise. Now whilst the intricacies of the human immune system are incredibly complex (and need more than one interview to explain) it has been found that ‘a high intake of vegetables may reduce inflammatory processes’ and improve the immune system as indicated by their positive effect on cytokines.
“To put it all more simply, a vegan diet could help you train harder and longer and not get ill – an athletic, muscular physique is a bi-product.”
So how does he plan to fuel himself through the tree-athlon?
“How many calories does a tree-athlon burn?” Ross says. “This is going to be difficult to predict, but let me talk you through the theory. An Olympic-distance triathlon consists of a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike ride and finally a 10km run (for dessert). If you complete that in the average 3 hours and 9 minutes you might burn between 1,960 calories (for smaller triathletes) and 3,000 calories (for larger triathletes). But then there’s me and my tree. When you add a 100lb log (45kg) to my 210lb (95kg), 5ft-9 frame it means I will be standing on the start line weighing 310lb (140kg). Not so bad when the log floats, but the run and bike will be lot less fun.
“All things considered, when it comes to my calories I think I’ll be classed as one of the XXXL triathletes. This is because studies show whether you’re running, walking or crawling, once you add weight of any kind your energy (calorie) demands become elevated. This is based on research from the Chaim Sheba Medical Center who found the additional weight impacts your, “locomotion biomechanics” — basically your technique — which leads to a, ‘significant increase in energy (calorie) cost over time’. All things considered, my final caloric expenditure could be anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000. Considering I’ve committed to a vegan diet that’s a lot of vegan snacks that are high in carbohydrates and fats, like chia seeds fused with granola and nut butters.”
Looking to the future, Ross sees exciting things happening “2017 is set to be crazy,” he says. “Last year has basically made a lot of the sports science community stand up and take note. A lot of people were asking how it was possible, so going into 2017 we have some amazing experts and facilities who will hook me up to machines and test me, analysing how you fuse strength, stamina and work capacity. I also hope we objectively uncover and break a lot of myths around vegan diets too.”
Clea Grady, Veganuary’s marketing manager, says: “We’re very excited that Ross is taking part. There are many fantastic vegan athletes busting the ‘all vegans are weak’ myth, but it’s a misconception that has firmly taken hold so anything we can do to further blow it apart has got to be a good thing. And I’m pretty confident that Ross is the man to do just that. Anyone who decides that an Olympic-distance triathlon is improved by carrying a tree (Ross completed the world’s first ‘Tree-Athlon’ in November) can hardly be regarded as weak. The other cool thing about Ross is how closely he monitors nutrition and its effects. In fact, discovering the impact of plant foods on athletic performance is his main motivation for trying vegan. We’ll be tracking and reporting his progress via social media and a dedicated blog series on Veganuary.com. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in plant-based health and fitness.”
EXTREME SPORTING ACHIEVEMENTS
This year Ross completed a series of events to test his theories with the help of world record holders, Olympians and celebrated military personnel. He broadcast these challenges to people on social media to reach more than 4 million people (per event). Each adventure was designed to change the way we think about the human body.
- World’s strongest marathon: ran 26.2 miles pulling a 1.4 tonne car to understand the idea of ‘powerfully sustained endurance’
- World’s longest rope climb: climbed a 20m rope (repeatedly) until he climbed the height of everest (8,848m) to understand ‘powerfully sustained biomechanics’
- 1,000 mile (Barefoot) marine month: covered 1,000 miles in a month, barefoot, carrying a 50kg Marine backpack. All to explore barefoot biomechanics and forgotten foot physiology.
- 24 hours of non-stop olympic sport: trained in 10 Olympic sports, non-stop, for 24 hours to explore bioenergetics and endurance nutrition. Working with Britain’s Olympians this ranged from boxing, gymnastics, a rugby match, a marathon on foot (and then by bike), swimming, Olympic lifting and more.
- To finish the year Ross travelled to the Caribbean to complete the World’s First Tree-Athlon. An Olympic-Distance triathlon, carrying a 100-lbs tree. (This event was to raise awareness for pioneering eco-friendly technology being used on the island of Nevis).