Vegan athlete: Sonya Looney

It's time for another vegan athlete! This time one who is performing some incredible feats on two wheels – World Champion Sonya Looney.

NB! Sonya doesn't call herself vegan but plant-based. It's a subtle distinction and Athlegan welcomes anyone who stops supporting animal cruelty, whatever their reasons.

Sonya Looney celebrating on top of hill

Why did you decide to stop eating animals?

Watching Forks Over Knives, doing my own research, and consulting people in the medical community made it an easy decision.

However, you have to be ready to hear to the facts and ready to make changes. There are people who love the idea of eating a healthier diet but a lot of people don't make the change.

The primary reasons I eat a plant based diet are to prolong my life and be as healthy as I can. It's empowering to know that we can prevent cancer, heart disease, and a list of other diseases with diet and lifestyle alone.

The perks of having more strength, faster recovery time, and increased blood flow is just a perk!

What's been your biggest struggles as a plant-based athlete?

I do love cooking but cooking can be a struggle sometimes. Between training and running my business, I tend to work 10+ hours a day and sometimes I don't feel like cooking.

In my town, there aren't many healthy options if you want a break and go out to eat. My husband has been helping out so that's been great too.

Other struggles are traveling to places without a lot of plant-based options. Strategies are asking restaurants to make a special dish for you, pre-eat (grocery stores are always a great resource), and planning ahead.

When I fly, I bring food for the entire day.

Did you notice any changes after going plant-based?

Sonya Looney going downhill in snow

I noticed massive changes! I've always been a very high energy person but I noticed my recovery on the bike was cut in half. All the niggling aches and pains I used to have disappeared.

I rarely get sick; like one time in 4 years! Plant-based diets are the highest in anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories.

My body became even more lean which makes you faster uphill! My anxiety about cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure was greatly minimized. It's amazing to be in control of your health with what you eat!

I also noticed that I was braver in my life and made some big changes to help me achieve my goals. Since then, I've done more than I ever imagined in my career not only as an athlete but with the business side as well!

I haven't had any struggles with nutrition, iron, or vitamins like many non-vegans think.

I race and ride my mountain bike for 8 hours at a time and/or for 7 days in a row. It's the hardest and most grueling discipline of mountain biking, and my diet has made me stronger than ever!

What's your typical diet like?

My morning staple is steel cut oats with hemp hearts, chia, ground flax, maple syrup, and blueberries. It's the perfect way to start the day!

I usually have sprouted wheat bread with almond butter and sweetener as a snack. I also eat 2-3 pieces of fruit during the day.

My typical green smoothie is mango, loads of spinach, broccoli, amla powder (the best antioxidant), soy milk, and water. I sometimes add spirulina or maca to my smoothies.

I cook all my own meals and they usually are a bean and veggie concoction, often with a healthy no added oil sauce I'll made (like curries, bowls, burritos, etc).

I am fortune to live in an area whose primary industry is farming so I get a lot of local fruits and veggies. I also have my own garden!

Tell us about your training

I've been a pro mountain biker since 2006.

I started running at the end of high school as my outlet for stress and anxiety. It changed my life and gave me confidence in myself I never had before.

I ran my first marathon at 18 and another at 19. During this time, I started going to spin class at the gym and some guys at my work invited me to go mountain biking. 3 weeks later I did my first race and was hooked.

I've raced in more than 20 countries, won the World Championship (24 hour racing) in 2015, and have done more in my life than I ever thought I could.

It's amazing what you can accomplish when you simply give it a try and start moving in a direction that serves your passion and purpose!

Sonya Looney training indoors

I primarily race 7 day stage races around the world and 100 mile mountain bike races. I also started racing Enduro as well (which is a discipline where you still have to ride your bike uphill and for 4-5 hours but it's very technical and only the downhills are timed).

I changed my diet in the middle of my season in 2013. I made a lot of life changes that year – I change my diet, got married, quit my job and started my own business, quit the mountain bike team I was on and decided to go at it as a solo athlete, and moved to Canada.

It didn't feel difficult to make any of these changes and I feel that a lot of my better choices and confidence stemmed from my diet change.

What are your goals and/or competitions you're going after this year?

My main goals this year is a 7 day race in Colombia called La Leyenda El Dorado, a 7 day race in Pennyslvania called the Transsylvania Epic, and the Trans BC Enduro Stage Race.

I race a lot throughout the year but these races are my main goals at the moment!

What race has been the best so far?

My favorite races are the ones that have been touted as the hardest mountain bike races in Nepal. I was the first woman to ever finish a 10 day race across the Annapurna in Nepal (in the Himalayas).

That was a life changing event for me because it was so far outside my comfort zone. (Video below.)

I love public speaking and telling stories! I have been giving motivational speeches for the few years and I love it!

Sonya Looney observing a valley

What would you say to someone considering becoming a plant-based athlete?

Number onedon't worry about protein. If you're worried about it, use a plant-based protein powder in your smoothies and use nut milks with higher protein content.

In 4 years I've never had low iron. The key is eating a whole foods diet; eliminate processed and junk foods. Make sure you're getting a lot of dark leafy greens​, legumes, whole grains (carbs are good), fruits, and try not to use excessive amounts of processed oils (like canola, olive oil etc).

You can use beer, water, wine, miso paste, broth, etc for sauteeing.

Number two – give it a try! Commit to it for a month and see how you feel.

Three – make sure you arm yourself with great cookbooks. Vegan food is amazing and flavorful!

Four – if it's too hard to change your diet cold turkey, do it over a period of time. Slowly eliminate foods, or allow yourself your old diet 4 meals a week and slowly phase it out.

Once you start eating plant-based you will lose the taste for meat and dairy.

Lastly – sometimes it's hard to accept the new identity as plant-based or vegan because people will always ask you about it or maybe you had pre-conceived notions of what the labels meant.

Enjoy who you are and the healthiest possible version of yourself!

You can follow Sonya on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or her own website for some amazing nature and biking photos, as well as loads of training inspiration.

Over to you

Would you want to appear here on Athlegan.com and tell us your story? I'd love to hear it!

Send me an email ([email protected]) and let's chat.