Marginal Gains in the NBA: Veganism – A new lease of life for athletes?
At least 542,000 vegans live in the UK. This is a remarkable 360% increase in those adopting a vegan diet in 2017 compared to that of ten years ago. Now, athletes are starting to join the trend and they are seeing direct benefits as a result.
Kyrie Irving, now at the Boston Celtics, has had an incredible opening 27 games to the NBA season, averaging 23.7 points, 4.8 assists and 3 rebounds per game. He has led the Boston Celtics to the top of the NBA Eastern Conference standings with a record of 23 victories and only 6 losses so far.
The NBA refers to ‘clutch’ situations. These are the last five minutes of the game where both teams are within five points of one another. Playing 27 games, Irving has scored 77 points this season in clutch situations, second in the NBA clutch-time standings. Last year, in 72 games Irving scored 110 clutch points and the year before he scored 58 clutch points in 53 games. Here, we see a clear improvement. Irving is exploding in the final minutes of basketball matches. When his opponents may be growing tired, Irving has a new lease of life.
Over the summer, Irving became vegan. He chose to stop eating animal products and this is his first season playing basketball as a vegan. He attributes this season’s achievements to his new vegan diet:
“been on more of a plant-based diet, getting away from the animals and all that… My energy is up; my body feels amazing”.
The Boston Celtics coach, Brad Stevens, has also stated:
“the nutrition side [for Irving] has been huge”.
Damien Lillard follows Irving as third in the NBA’s clutch statistics. Lillard plays for the Portland Trail Blazers and has scored 61 clutch points this season. Lillard also went vegan over summer, losing 10lbs in the process. Incredibly, Lillard has made 21 free throws from 21 free throw attempts, achieving a 100% free throw rate in clutch situations suggesting improved concentration levels under pressure.
It is worth noting that Irving and Lillard are not simply playing well in the closing stages of a basketball game. Both players have a higher overall field goal percentage in clutch situations than in regular game time. This means they are shooting more successfully in the closing stages of the match than they are in any other period.
Veganism is growing in sport, especially the NBA. A number of other NBA players have recently followed suit in becoming vegan, including Enes Kanter, Javale McGee and Wilson.
The trend is not exclusive to basketball though. Across all sports, an increasing number of athletes are becoming vegan. Last season, England footballer Jermain Defoe scored 15 goals for Sunderland and was recalled by Gareth Southgate to win his first international cap in three and a half years, scoring his 20th international goal of his career during this stint. He also became vegan around the same time.
Defoe acknowledged the impact his diet has had on his form in the Premier League and at the international level:
“in terms of fitness and fatigue towards the end of games, I still feel good”.
At 35-years-old, Defoe now competes for AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League and hopes to secure a seat on the plane to Russia for the FIFA World Cup next summer.
However, with the weight loss attributed to veganism, perhaps it is not appropriate for athletes competing in more physically demanding sports, such as rugby or American Football, where explosive strength and power are crucial to the game. Indeed, some athletes have found it difficult competing on the same level and at the same intensity once becoming vegan.
However, Leeds Rhinos and Irish rugby league star Anthony Mullally has embraced veganism. Mullally competes at 252Ibs and 6 feet 5 inches and became vegan last summer but has found no such drawbacks:
“after going vegan I felt loads better in terms of energy and recovery from training sessions. I found I didn’t even need to drink coffee in the morning before training because I had so much energy. I’m probably as strong as I’ve ever been so there’s definitely been no decline in strength or physical performance”
A new lease of life for the Leeds Rhino star and one which may be embraced by an increasing number of athletes in the years to come.