Vlad Ixel is an elite ultramarathon runner powered entirely by a plant-based diet. Since beginning his professional running career in 2012, the Australia-based athlete quickly became one of the leading athletes on the trails, running over 30 ultramarathons a year and setting course records. In this interview, we sit down with the North Face team ultramarathoner and coach to talk about his personal story that led him to professional running and veganism, the fitness and plant-based trends that will accelerate due to the coronavirus, and why he’ll be fuelled by plants for life.
GQ: We know your journey that led up to becoming an elite trail runner was an unconventional one – tell us a bit about your story.
VI: Yeah definitely, my journey is quite different than most professional runners. So I started back in 2012 when I entered my first ultramarathon. I was 25 and addicted to smoking, and for me, it felt like I needed to make some changes as it was going to be a quarter of my life! I suppose now, running is really a different kind of addiction. After my first race, my legs were hurting for 3 weeks straight, but it gave me that sense of achieving something, to work towards this goal and being able to overcome it. And right after, I signed up for a number of races, and soon after completed my first self-supported 250km stage race across the desert in Chile. I haven’t looked back and have been running hundreds of races since.
GQ: You eat a completely plant-based diet, and for many people unfamiliar with plant-based or veganism, they might be surprised to hear about how you can run over 30 ultramarathons a year. How important is plant-based nutrition to your physical performance as a professional runner?
VI: So I became vegan almost 8 years ago, soon after I began running. I had been looking for different ways to shorten my recovery time after training and races, and during my research I found the benefits of a plant-based diet, so I decided to try it out. It was just right before Christmas, and I had to basically tell my family that I wasn’t going to eat anything with animal products on the table! My parents probably thought it was going to be a phase for maybe two weeks or a month – before this, I was eating meat literally 3 times a day, and wouldn’t even look at the menu when I went to restaurants and would immediately order a steak. But after I experienced it and gave it a try for two weeks – I was sleeping better, I had more energy, I felt lighter, I didn’t have all that inflammation so I could recover faster. And so I’ve been vegan ever since.
As someone who runs almost a half-marathon every single day, and for me, I started running later in my life than most runners out there, it’s important to be able to catch up and gain every inch that I can. Eating a plant-based diet to ensure that I have better and faster recovery is an important part of that to help me improve my running.
GQ: Last year, we saw the movie The Game Changers really raise the profile of plant-based diets and athletic performance. In your opinion, do you think that this awareness has led to more sporting athletes to take veganism seriously and even try it out?
VI: Definitely, for sure. After the movie came out, I received so many messages on my social media channels and Instagram messages asking for advice and tips to try out a plant-based diet. I think it’s such a great and positive thing to be happening. But basically, what it comes down to is really seeing the bigger picture. For me, I definitely chose to try a plant-based diet because of my personal goal of shortening my recovery time after running. But over time, it became much more than that – it was about not causing harm to animals or to the environment as well. And that is what will really make it last much longer than just a short-term thing – when you realise the bigger picture, it becomes much easier to sustain. I can go to bed at night knowing that I’m doing what I can to avoid affecting other animals and the planet. I mean I don’t know how long I will be running for, and my guess is that I probably won’t be running professionally like I do now for the rest of my life. But I know that being vegan will definitely be something I do forever.
GQ: Do you have any tips for runners and other athletes who are interested in switching to a vegan diet?
VI: Basically, to keep it really simple! People tend to overthink about protein. Even I did in my early 20s. I would think that I needed a certain amount of protein – 2 grams for every pound or whatever – and would be so focused on making sure I got enough. But what you really need to do is to get as many nutrients as possible with the basis or the foundation of your diet made up of plant-based whole foods like fruits and vegetables. It’s really great now that we have so many options nowadays like vegan junk food, which I think is great and I love enjoying a plant-based burger once in a while, but don’t base your entire diet on it and I still eat lots of salads and greens. Try to get as many nutrients as possible across a wide variety of healthy fruit and vegetables.
GQ: In our annual trends report, we predicted that more people will be returning to nature-based fitness, health and exercise this year. Do you see this trend happening, and how does the coronavirus pandemic factor into this?
VI: Definitely. With all the gyms and studios closed due to the pandemic, and things not looking to return to normal in many parts of the world anytime soon, I’ve noticed way more people going running, cycling, exercising outdoors to stay healthy and fit. And I believe that this will last even when gyms begin to open again. For sure, people will go back to the gyms once they reopen, but I think that less people will be and will instead do more nature-based kind of fitness.
I also see the same thing happening with plant-based foods. The coronavirus has meant that more people are becoming aware about the link to animal products and the meat industry, so I think that ultimately, the pandemic will bring about a lot more positive interest in plant-based diets.
GQ: How has the coronavirus affected your training?
VI: To be honest, it hasn’t really affected my own training. I’ve still been able to run as much as I usually do, it’s just that there are more people than usual on the trails! I run at least a half-marathon every single day of the year. In terms of my gym routine, I normally used to go around twice a week. But I’ve been able to adapt and do most of my routine at home. The main thing is that races have been cancelled. For me, I haven’t lost any motivation, but it can be challenging to go without races. I’ve been seeing this time as an opportunity to train more, to really be able to focus on getting better.
GQ: For many of us, the pandemic has given us more time for reflection. Has it been a reflective time for you, and has it shifted your mindset in any way?
VI: Yeah, while I don’t think that much of my mindset has changed, I think that the one thing is travel. The current situation has really made me think about how much I used to travel around, and I think that in the future, once this is over, I won’t be travelling as much as I did before. Definitely with flying, which is obviously very damaging to the environment, I will be doing less. Even driving by car, for example. So when the coronavirus is over, I think my wife and I will be travelling less by plane and driving less.
GQ: What is something you wish you knew 10 years ago?
VI: I wish I knew about plant-based diets 10 years ago. Even 20 years ago, 30 years ago. I wish my parents were vegan, and that I was raised vegan! I mean now in 2020, it’s so much easier to get access to information. I can open up my Facebook page, and the conversations that are happening and information about the animal industry online would have convinced me back in the day. Of course, there are still people who have yet to make changes despite there being so much evidence now, and that is disappointing, but there are a lot more people choosing plant-based foods now and it’s great to see that happening.
GQ: Do you have any advice for young people who look up to you as a role model?
VI: To stay true to who you are, no matter what. For me, I have chosen a path where I make sure my actions don’t affect others – whether it is other people, animals or the environment – and this is something to stick to. So being true to yourself is really important, and to be grateful for it too.
GQ: Final question – team rice or team noodles?
VI: Can I pick rice noodles? I love having rice noodle curry. So while I do enjoy rice, I guess I’m a noodle person.
Lead image courtesy of Vlad Ixel.