Tag Archives: vegetarian athletes

The Flying Finns

Hannes Kolehmainen, Olympic gold medalist distance runner and vegetarian

Hannes Kolehmainen, Olympic gold medalist distance runner and vegetarian

Believe it or not, there was a time when east Africans did not dominate distance running. Nowadays, people often ask, “why are those east Africans so freaking fast?”, whenever they predictably win a marathon or other distance race. It wasn’t always like this. This may shock some, but people used to ask “why are those Finns so freaking fast?”.

In the first half of the 20th century, world records in distance running were regularly set or broken by Finnish runners, who were labeled “The Flying Finns” by the press. Yes, Finns, I kid you not. Finnish athletes like Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Taisto Maiki, and Lasse Viren, were all part of this somewhat forgotten phenomenon. The first Flying Finn, Olympic Gold medalist Hannes Kolehmainen was also a devoted vegetarian.

So how is it that the Finns came to dominate distance running? There are no easy answers. Finland is less than ideal for running long distances with its long, cold, dark winters. Or maybe this is part of the reason why. Running through snow requires a lot of stamina, not to mention running in the cold compared to running at a more mild temperature. Whenever Finnish runners would leave Finland to compete in the Olympics in more pleasant climates, it was easy beating athletes who trained in warmer temperatures. But that’s just my theory.

Of course, the east Africans who now dominate distance running don’t have to deal with snow or ice in their homelands, unless they climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but they do have to deal with heat. And if they come from the highlands, lower oxygen levels. The lungs and blood vessels of people who live at high altitudes show signs of having adapted to lower oxygen levels – the lungs usually grow larger and more capillaries tend to form. At lower altitudes, their powerful lungs would give them an advantage in athletics compared to people whose lungs are adapted to lower altitudes(it is possible that evolution plays a role in this too, assuming their ancestors lived in the hill country for thousands of years). As Slate confirms, many of the fastest Kenyan runners were born and raised in the hilly areas of Kenya.

Most of Finland isn’t that hilly(and the hilly areas are very sparsely populated), but the northern 1/3 of the country is within the arctic circle. Maybe the cold air causes similar adaptations as altitude? It is difficult to say. Cold dry air makes breathing a lot more difficult, and can cause inflammation or possibly damage in a lot of people. However, many people can get used to it. Are nordic type people better adapted to it?

Cultural reasons for Finnish domination of distance running don’t make much sense. Their Swedish neighbors have a similar enough culture(and their population has long been much larger than Finland’s), even if the Finns don’t speak an Indo-European language. Yet the Swedes weren’t as dominant as the Finns.

Why did the Flying Finn phenomenon come to an end? It’s difficult to say, but it’s not so much that the Finns got slower, it’s that everyone else, especially the east Africans, got a lot faster.

This makes me wonder if the current east African supremacy in distance running is permanent or maybe some other group will eventually take over. I’m also hoping the approaching winter will turn me into a Flying Finn kind of runner. Don’t forget that just like the first Flying Finn, I’m a vegetarian.

Veganism and running


I  have been a vegetarian for 14 years, and a vegan, on and off for about 6. I’ve been a vegan for about 6 months now. Before this for about 2 years I was an ovo-vegetarian, eating vegan most of the time except for eggs. Sometimes I would eat vegan for a month or two during this time period.

Besides this, I have always been an avid runner, even before I became vegetarian. By nature, I am a shy, very reclusive person, so I’ve had little interest in races, marathons or running clubs. This may change soon. I’ve been a joggler for only a few years, and I believe it has improved my running.

But has my vegan diet improved my running ability? As far as I can tell, no, except that I am slimmer as a result which means less weight to carry around. Many people I know kept claiming I would soon die from protein or iron deficiency. I never expected any miracles as a result of my diet. Most athletes are omnivores, and there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between athletic ability and vegetarianism in professional athletics.

Sure there are some great athletes who are vegetarian or vegan, like Fauja Singh, but to what extent is their success due to their vegetarianism? Some will claim it does give them an advantage, but how exactly? Does it help with recovery? I think in virtually all cases they would be just as successful if they weren’t vegetarian, and I have a pro-vegetarian bias.

Which brings me to this new article: Does being vegan affect your running performance?

He brings an interesting perspective and mentions Scott Jurek, vegan ultra-marathoner who holds the U.S 24 hour running record. Here is an article by Jurek about his amazing running accomplishments:

Ultramarathon running: How a vegan diet helped me run 100 miles.

So it turns out, an athlete, even one who trains up to eight hours a day, can do just fine with a plant-based diet. It also turns out that spending a little more time and money to eat healthy is incredibly cost effective; I think of a plant based diet as essentially the cheapest health insurance around. Being vegan wasn’t a matter of subtraction, but addition. I discovered foods I had never known existed and experienced flavors and textures I had never imagined. Have you ever tasted a juicy lentil mushroom burger, or a savory bowl of veggie chili? If not, you should.

While he does credit his vegan diet for his accomplishments, this isn’t very scientific. Regardless, even if a vegan diet doesn’t help you run faster, it’s far healthier than the way most Americans eat. And eating healthier can certainly improve your athletic ability, though you need not eat a vegan diet to become healthier. A vegetarian diet that minimizes consumption of animal foods like dairy and eggs is about as beneficial as a vegan diet.

Fauja Singh – vegetarian centenarian athlete

Fauja Singh. Source - Wikipedia.

Fauja Singh. Source – Wikipedia.

There are few people I admire as much as Fauja Singh, vegetarian centenarian Sikh marathoner, who recently retired from marathon running just before turning 102. I almost feel like converting to Sikhism because of his example.

According to his biography on Wikipedia:

Fauja Singh was born in Beas Pind, Jalandhar, Punjab, British India on 1 April 1911,[6] the youngest of four children. Fauja did not develop the ability to walk until he was five years old. His legs were thin and weak, and he could hardly walk long distances. Because of this, he was often teased, and had to carry the nickname “danda” (Punjabi: दण्ड) for the next ten years. As a young man, Fauja was an avid amateur runner, but he had to give it up and return to farming due to the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition. It was only after witnessing the death of his fifth son, Kuldip, in a construction accident in August 1994, that Fauja returned to his passion for running, in 1995. The deaths of his wife in 1992, and his eldest daughter who had died from complications after giving birth to his third granddaughter, gave him the determination for this new focus in life.[1]

At 89 years, he took seriously to running and ended up in international marathon events.

Although he doesn’t run marathons any more, he still runs for pleasure. He holds many world running records for his age group. The fact that he learned to walk later than most should quiet the excuse-maker too many of us have in our brains about why we can’t run or exercise on a regular basis. Besides this, he’s a shining example of how a vegetarian diet is more than adequate even for elite athletes. His ability to overcome very tragic life events is also inspiring.

Whenever you have trouble sticking to your fitness routine, keep the amazing Fauja Singh in mind. Although he’s not a joggler(which is hardly a shortcoming for him!), I probably wouldn’t be a joggler right now if it wasn’t for his example.

The benefits of upper body cardio

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for many years, or secretly invented a drug that provides the benefits of exercise without actually exercising, we all know we have to exercise. The real question when it comes to exercise is “how?”.


When most people think of cardio, they think of exercises that primarily use the legs: walking, running, and cycling. Even many otherwise fit people often neglect to do endurance work on their arms if their favorite cardio exercise is a leg exercise.

A cardio workout that includes both the arms and legs may be more beneficial than a workout that exercises either alone – Aerobic exercise training programs for the upper body. In fact, arm cardio all by itself has some interesting benefits: Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988 Apr;20(2):136-41 – “Effect of arm training on central and peripheral circulatory function.”

The data suggest that endurance arm training as prescribed in this study elicits significant circulorespiratory function adaptations to support improved performance in both arm and leg work. Further, the findings suggest both a specific and general training effect, with the more dominant effect specific to arm work

This is pretty remarkable. So doing arm cardio can benefit the entire body, including the legs, not just the arms.

This raises an important question, and this is especially important for jogglers – Are the arms and legs in competition for cardiac output? Luckily, some scientists at the The Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, have already tried to answer this:

Oxygen transport to working skeletal muscles is challenged during whole-body exercise. In general, arm-cranking exercise elicits a maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) corresponding to approximately 70% of the value reached during leg exercise. However, in arm-trained subjects such as rowers, cross-country skiers, and swimmers, the arm VO2max approaches or surpasses the leg value. Despite this similarity between arm and leg VO2max, when arm exercise is added to leg exercise, VO2max is not markedly elevated, which suggests a central or cardiac limitation. In fact, when intense arm exercise is added to leg exercise, leg blood flow at a given work rate is approximately 10% less than during leg exercise alone. Similarly, when intense leg exercise is added to arm exercise, arm blood flow and muscle oxygenation are reduced by approximately 10%. Such reductions in regional blood flow are mainly attributed to peripheral vasoconstriction induced by the arterial baroreflex to support the prevailing blood pressure. This putative mechanism is also demonstrated when the ability to increase cardiac output is compromised; during exercise, the prevailing blood pressure is established primarily by an increase in cardiac output, but if the contribution of the cardiac output is not sufficient to maintain the preset blood pressure, the arterial baroreflex increases peripheral resistance by augmenting sympathetic activity and restricting blood flow to working skeletal muscles.

(Emphasis is mine)

Leg blood flow 10% less during arm/leg exercise, than leg exercise alone? This is significant, and I must admit that when I joggle it certainly feels like this sometimes. But then at the same time, don’t forget the general fitness benefit from arm cardio suggested by the first study. So it may be 10% less than a higher blood output rate than if I were only running. In other words, a higher fitness level that is the result of leg/arm combination cardio is being compromised than a lower fitness level that is the result of mostly leg cardio. And don’t forget that unless you’re joggling with 3 heavy balls(or 4 or more light balls), juggling isn’t as intense as rowing, so it may be a lot less than 10%.

So if for whatever reason you can’t run or walk long distances, juggling by itself can also provide aerobic benefits. Also, if you joggle, or you are considering joggling, your leg speed may be slightly compromised, but it’s not really a big deal and the juggling may be making you fitter than if you were just a runner.

Weirdest joggling experiences of 2012

One of the best things about joggling is all the weird things that happen to you while you joggle, largely due to all the bizarre things people say to you as you pass by. It really is an exercise journey into the Bizarro World.

While most people who say anything say “that’s so cool!” or “that’s amazing!”, there’s a good number of jokers and weirdos out there who can’t resist making sarcastic comments. I’ve even received a few threats(“who the %$#^ you think you are!!”, “get the $%^& outa here!” type of threats) from some gang-banger types, but that was back when I would foolishly joggle through these run-down, crime-ridden areas.

Anyhow, among the more amusing remarks from last year were from this old guy saying “you can only juggle 3? just 3? come on!”. I did manage to respond that I was working on 4, and asked if that was good enough, to which I think he said “great”(I was going too fast to say much of anything).

I’ve also received a bunch of “I wish I could do that”, as well as a few “I wish I was you!”. I often just respond, “thank you!” or “you can do it too, it just takes practice”.

By far the most bizarre was a few months ago when I had to slow down at this busy intersection, and this young woman I had never seen before comes up to me and tells me “I love you, I really really do”. I didn’t say anything because this was so totally unexpected, and I was trying to catch my breath and darted off as soon as I was able to cross the street. And she started shouting at me again, “I really do!”. Of course I don’t believe she does and this may be her own weird way of expressing admiration.

A few people around here really seem to get it. If I am going slow enough or taking a break, some people will praise me(I’ll tell them I don’t deserve the praise) and start a conversation about how juggling is good for the brain so juggling while running is such a great exercise. I will usually try to encourage them to do it too, but they will say it is impossible for them. Some claim it is impossible for them to juggle even while standing still. But it is just a matter of practice I will say, before parting ways.

Oh how could I forget the man who asked me as I joggled by – “can you chew gum while doing that?”.

You get most of your protein from nuts?!

Rumors have been swirling around about this for quite some time. I thought it was time to tell the truth. I do, in fact, on many days get most of my protein from nuts. Or a delicious combination of nuts and legumes. The Wild Juggler is in fact a vegetarian.


So how is this possible? Is he, yet again, violating the laws of physics? Truth be told, nuts are a great source of protein.
1/4 cup of almonds contains about 6 grams of protein.

While it also has a lot of fat, it is mostly the healthy, unsaturated kind of fat. Almonds and many other nuts are also good sources of fiber, minerals, and protective phyto-chemicals, similar to the ones in tea and some vegetables. I love my nuts raw and unprocessed. I don’t eat nuts that have added oils, salt, sugar or anything. Read labels. I often snack on nuts after a long joggle.

If you’re afraid that eating nuts will cause weight gain, do not worry. I eat tons of nuts almost every day; if you’ve been pecan at my photos, you know I’m not exactly obese. Still not convinced?

According to Fitwatch.com, eating nuts regularly can help you lose weight by speeding up your metabolism – Why Eating Nuts Can Help You Lose Weight

Fiber, always your friend, helps prevent the fat from getting absorbed. I think nuts are a great way to replace meat and dairy in your diet. People who eat a lot of nuts are generally slimmer, on average than those who eat the least. Nut butters make a great snack and are good for making sandwiches. Peanut butter is one of my favorites, though technically, peanuts are a legume.

I totally love nuts. When people call me a “nut”, I take it as a compliment. So go nuts with nuts, and try to violate the laws of physics with your fitness routine!

How I got into joggling

I am often asked why and when I started joggling, among many other questions, and here’s the answer:

I have only been joggling for about a year and a half and juggling for a little while longer. The main reason I started juggling and joggling soon after was because I was in a nasty car accident about 2 years ago. Besides breaking my right hand(one of the metacarpal bones), my left leg was badly bruised, and I had trouble walking. Luckily I spent only a day in the hospital, and my right hand was in a cast for a month.

As soon as the ugly cast came off when my bones had healed, my right(dominant) hand was extremely weak and near useless for several days. I did the rehabilitation exercises(submerging my hand in hot water for 10 minutes, closing and opening a fist) the doctor told me to do every day, and slowly regained my strength but still had little dexterity.

After a few months of this, my hand was mostly back to normal, but I felt I didn’t have the same hand and arm coordination I had before the accident. I was already running again(I’ve been a runner since an early age), but this was becoming increasingly boring. Running had become boring to me before the accident, though I still did it. So I decided to learn how to juggle. It took me weeks due to my poor coordination, but after about a month and a half, I was proficient with the 3 ball cascade. I juggled with lacrosse balls, since they are easily available where I live.

Even before becoming proficient with juggling a 3 ball cascade while stationary, I tried to joggle with 3 balls since it is more time efficient(why run and juggle separately if I can do them at the same time?), but the results were disastrous. So I started “joggling” only 2 balls, and this came easy to me. This isn’t real joggling or even juggling, but it was something to build from.

The transition to 3 ball joggling was difficult. I practiced almost every day for 1 to 2 hours, dropping balls very frequently. Eventually after several months of practice, I could joggle for a mile without dropping any balls or tripping and falling. Then 2 miles. Then 3, while increasing my speed. These days, I am capable of joggling for 5 miles without any drops, though I don’t do this very frequently. I trip so rarely, it surprises even me. One important limiting factor in the early stages of learning to joggle is how exhausting it is; it’s significantly more tiring than mere running, but soon enough you will adapt.

I often do juggling tricks while joggling, twirling around, leaping up on benches and trying to joggle faster, so I do drop balls just about every time I go out to joggle for an hour. I also joggle at about the same speed I would run at if I were not juggling 3 balls, so it isn’t a hindrance to having a good running speed. In fact, since joggling absolutely requires good form and flawless posture, it is possible it is helping me run a little faster – this makes it excellent cross-training for runners and other athletes.

There is still some room for improvement, like not dropping while doing tricks, or when dealing with distractions and crossing busy roads, but I have more than compensated for any loss in coordination due to the accident, and running is a lot more fun than it used to be. I can’t joggle or juggle with 5 balls yet, but I am working on it. Juggling and joggling become boring unless you’re challenging yourself.

If I can joggle, a self-confessed total clutz, a person with little natural athletic ability, who only learned how to juggle at the age of 30 who was a lousy baseball and soccer player as a child, I believe many more people can do it. It just takes a lot of practice.