Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Ian Cramer (aka The Plant-Based Cyclist) during a Skype interview he did with me. Ian has a fascinating story himself being a competitive athlete and doing it all without any meat or dairy in his diet.
Not only is Ian an endurance cyclist, but he also works as an athletic trainer teaching the benefits of healthy eating and exercise to the bright, young minds that attend Alfred University in upstate New York. Needless to say, Ian’s work is shaping our future, literally, as the lessons implanted in the minds and hearts of his students will stay with them for the rest of their adult lives.
Because of Ian’s great work and his own personal story, I asked him if he would share his own journey of how he got started on a life of optimal health. I hope you enjoy the interview and find inspiration in yet another success story on a plant-based diet.
The Plant-Based Cyclist Interview
Dustin: When and how did your story begin getting into cycling?
Ian: The summer of 2004, my sophomore year of high school, a friend of mine asked me to join him for an easy bike ride. I enjoyed it so much, I kept riding my mountain bike on the road more and more. I eventually splurged and bought my first road bike, an aluminum Trek 1200 and the rest is history. Unlike swimming or running, I enjoy the speed, efficiency and simplicity of a bicycle.
Dustin: On average how many miles do you cycle on a weekly basis during training periods?
Ian: During my training blocks, I typically ride 150-350 miles per week. This can certainly vary depending on my training and racing schedule. But, I like to think of riding in terms of hours. So right now, putting in base miles on the trainer, I’m averaging 7-8hr/week.
Dustin: You’ve become known as The Plant-Based Cyclist. Did you always eat healthy growing up? When and why did you adopt a plant-based diet?
Ian: From what I observe as the “Standard American Diet”, I do feel like we ate very healthy growing up. 50-80% of our dinners from June through September came from our garden. We did eat meat a couple times a week as well as dairy. While in graduate school at Miami of Ohio, I watched Forks Over Knives in January 2011. That was the impetus for me to change my diet. At the time, I ate very little meat, ate quite a bit of Greek yogurt and about a gallon of milk a week. I thought that excluding those foods wasn’t that much work and ever since, eating a plant-based diet has served me well. I wanted to change because I was getting serious about racing my bike. I wanted every advantage possible over my competitors. And if that meant eating more plants and less animal products, I was more than willing to do it and, I felt, it was a small price to pay.
Dustin: How does eating a whole foods, plant-based diet help you as an endurance athlete?
Ian: Recovery and Energy. I recover from my workouts very quickly and am able to pack more workouts into a shorter period of time, which translates to more fitness. I also need to be able to ride my bike for 50+ miles at a time. Plants provide that energy, given sufficient calories. The body recognizes plants much more effectively than animal products, which is coined ‘bioavailability’. If the body can more easily recognize and utilize the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and others nutrients from plants, it can run more efficiently, and efficiency is a huge part of a healthy body and competitive cycling as well.
Dustin: What is your ideal pre- and post-workout meal?
Ian: When I am training indoors in the winter, I typically don’t eat anything before a trainer workout. I find that training for 60-90 minutes in a fasted state or with a cup of coffee in my body improves fat metabolism and eliminates stomach upset. Fat metabolism and intra-muscular glycogen stores are sufficient to power one through a 90-minute workout. However, post-workout is much more important, as that builds the foundation for the next workout. I typically eat a smoothie of ¼ cup soy/hemp protein, 1tbsp flax and chia seeds, a generous handful of spinach, 2 cups frozen berries, 2-3 bananas, 2 cups water and 1 cup of juice or apple cider. I also turn to Oatmeal. Typically 1.5 cups of oats, 2 cups almond milk, a dozen or so cashews, almonds and walnuts, pumpkins seeds, flax, chia and a banana.
Dustin: Many athletes are afraid of giving up meat and dairy because they believe they won’t get enough protein. Do you ever have this problem?
Ian: I have never seen any signs or symptoms of obtaining too little protein, and as an endurance athlete and an Allied Health Care professional, I know what I’m looking for. Adequate protein consumption should not be a concern for any athlete or average person as long as they are eating sufficient calories from whole, unrefined plant foods. It’s ironic that there is such an emphasis on consuming enough protein these days while several chronic diseases of today are caused by too much animal protein (i.e cancers, heart disease, stroke and kidney disorders).
Dustin: I heard you completed a challenging and grueling journey called the Race Across America where you literally cycled across the entire United States. Tell me about this, and what made you want to do this?
Ian: The Race Across America, or RAAM, is an annual cycling race that attracts competitors from all over the world. When the whistle blows, it’s one continuous stage race from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. I completed RAAM, with 3 other teammates on Team Oxford Autoimmune out of Oxford, Ohio as part of a relay. Only one person needed to be on the road at a time while the rest followed in follow vehicles. We each rode around 100-125 miles a day for 7 days and when we were done with riding for the day, we traded with another teammate and they rode their share. We completed the 3200-mile journey in 7 days, 16 hours and 27 minutes. It was a journey full of adventure, scenic views, 120-degree heat, pouring rain, mountains, plains, flooded roads and comradery. It was something I will remember for the rest of my life. I first learned about the race when I was in graduate school at Miami of Ohio in Oxford. There was a time station right in Oxford and as I learned about the race, I knew that I wanted to add it to my bucket list. I didn’t expect that dream to come to fruition so soon. Special Thank you to my teammates Lisa, Nelson and Dustin as well as our support team. The whole race was a true team effort.
Dustin: What did you eat while doing this cross-country race?
Ian: I estimate that I was burning, in the neighborhood of, 5000-6000 calories per day. At that point, calories matter more than nutrients. I tried to keep things plant based, but eating 5000 calories of apples, broccoli and mushrooms ain’t gonna happen! What matters most in events like this is eating a food that you enjoy, that sits well on the stomach and that provides calories. I enjoyed eating fig newtons, dates, bagels, nut butters, some bananas and apples, Gatorade, honey and homemade granola bars. At night, after a long day of riding, I slammed whole-wheat spaghetti noodles or rice noodles with tons of water.
Dustin: You also teach at Alfred University in upstate New York. What classes do you teach and do you incorporate nutrition into your lessons?
Ian: I teach a 200 level Nutrition class as well as various one-credit Athletic Training classes. I try to incorporate my knowledge of plant-based nutrition into the class without being too biased. I do teach from a textbook, which does an OK job at not emphasizing meat and dairy, but it’s still based, in part, on the USDA food pyramid. I do make it very clear that I am plant-based and so this makes students more forgiving when I do emphasize the consumption of plants over and over. It also plants the seed that “This guy isn’t a skinny nerd, he’s an athlete and seems healthy, so maybe plants are enough to be healthy”.
Dustin: What kind of response do your students have to the message of plant-based eating? Does ‘walking the walk’ yourself as an endurance athlete resonate with them?
Ian: I truly believe in the power of “walking the walk” and leading by example and yes, me being a plant-based athlete does resonate with many of my students and athletes. Some students are very receptive and inquisitive, others are more indifferent and very few are openly or noticeably opposed to this idea. I’m happy to say that even those who are opposed are still civil in their discussions with me on the subject. As always, I wish more students would adopt this lifestyle and use me as a resource, but that just comes with time.
Dustin: What are the three most helpful tips you can give others who are training to better himself or herself, whether it be cycling, running, swimming, or some other sport?
Ian: #1: Consistency- Whether it’s a sport or your health, you’re not going to be better if you do whatever it is you do sporadically.
#2: Suffer: This depends on what you’re goals are for a particular sport. But, if you’re anything like me and you have any level of competitiveness, you must suffer physically in order to get better. You must imply greater demands on your body, apply an overload and then the body adapts to increased levels of stress, called adaptation. Once your body recovers from that stress, you need to increase that stress, which equals suffering (i.e feeling the burn, tasting blood, seeing stars). If you’re not willing to suffer, you’re not going to get better. Again, for someone who just wants to become healthier, simple low-intensity exercise combined with dietary changes is more than enough. If you want to be competitive, some level of suffering is necessary.
#3: Set a Motivation: This applies to athletics or personal health. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to become healthier? Why do you wake up at 6AM to workout? You have to have an answer to these questions. Write your answers down, post them around your house, and/or recite them every day. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing and it will make it easier to stay motivated and on track.
Dustin: What are your favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals?
Ian: Breakfast staples are oatmeal or fruit smoothies with greens.
Lunch: Could be bananas, Rice and beans, another smoothie. It varies.
Dinners are usually rice, noodles, potatoes with steamed broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, onion and avocado sauce. My girlfriend and I keep things very simple because of our simple tastes and her food allergies.
Dustin: What’s next on The Plant-Based Cyclist’s agenda for 2016?
Ian: I hope to be successful with a new cycling team out of Geneseo, NY, the Once Again Multisport Racing Team. I hope to help as many people as I can with their nutritional needs through social media.
Dustin: How can others find you and/or contact you?
Ian: I have a Facebook page and YouTube channel @PlantBasedCyclist. My Instagram is a slight variation @PlantBasedCyclist1. That’s the best way to get in touch with me and contribute to the community.
Dustin: Any last words of advice for those out there looking to get healthy in the New Year?
Ian: First, Becoming healthier is not a fast process, so don’t jump into this journey thinking it will be easy and over in a month. For many people, they have lots of weight to lose, or clogged arteries or high blood pressure or high cholesterol. These conditions didn’t happen over night, nor did they happen in a month. They take years and years of poor health, poor nutrition and poor lifestyle choices to develop. Thus, it will take a very long time to see positive changes and see changes in one’s health.
Second: Learning anything new takes time and patience. Included in this is learning about a new way to cook and eat food. Because we eat 3 times every day in such an instinctual and often mindless manor, we’re not aware of how comfortable we are with cooking meat or making a toasted cheese sandwich. In the same way, we’re not comfortable with how to steam vegetables, cook rice or make a tasty smoothie. But much like the learned behaviors of eating take out and microwave dinners, one can unlearn these behaviors and in their place can learn how to eat healthy.
Third: Connect with someone. With the advent of social media, it’s so easy to connect with someone down the street or across the country. Find someone on Instagram, YouTube or Facebook you can connect with who is also plant-based and lean on them for answers. We’re all in this together and a more health society means a better society.
Dustin: Thank you so much Ian for taking the time to answer a few questions here. I’ve become a big fan of yours and always look forward to the information you share. The world needs more people like yourself living the plant-based lifestyle and being a role model for others to follow.
For more plant-based success stories click here.
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