As a collegiate student-athlete, my life was centered around my sport. I was a pole vaulter and had been since I was 12 years old. I was raised on home-grown beef, 2% milk, and garden veggies in a rural town in North Texas. I knew it wasn’t just my diet that made me strong, but my hardcore Texan mentality that allowed me to out-train almost anyone on my team, despite yearly stress fractures in my back. Out of high school, I was recruited to pole vault for the University of Oklahoma, where I broke more than just personal records. Gradually throughout the fall, and as the indoor season began, I developed severe pain in my right shin. Like any good Texan, I competed through it- at least until I could no longer walk. It wasn’t long before I was warming a bench with a walking boot and season-ending diagnosis: stress fracture.
Fast-forward a year, my coach left Oklahoma and took a position at a school called Wake Forest in Winton-Salem, NC- a place I’d never heard of, but soon it became home. I liked to tell friends, “it’s hard to find a good pole vault coach”, which justified my transfer. Shortly after the transition from Oklahoma to North Carolina, I was back to competing- but not without having to sit out a few times due to a resurgence of my tibial stress reactions. Nothing a strong mental game can’t fix- I successfully qualified for the regional track meet (some may call this NCAA round 1), which is hosted on the East and West sides of the United States with 48 athletes in each event, competing for 12 coveted spots that take them to the NCAA National track meet. The pole vault alone can last upwards of 4 to 5 hours in a single meet, which requires some stamina. About ¾ of the way into the competition, I felt my hamstring pop. It felt like a snake bit me, a mean ‘ole Texas rattlesnake. I was tied for 12th, which meant I had to participate in a “jump off” tiebreaker with my newly torn hamstring. I know you’re on the edge of your seat, so I’ll keep it short and sweet- I didn’t make it. But I was so close I could taste it!
Other things I tasted that year included baked chicken and salmon, skim milk (my coach lovingly suggested I cut down from 2%), and Greek yogurt in my smoothies. I was quite the cook, so I always made “health foods” seem tasty by adding lots of veggies, grains, and spices. Another year of physical therapy came and went, and I concomitantly established my college major as “Health and Exercise Science”. I was interested in the subject, but I’ll admit that I mostly got into it to help my athletic career. Any advantage I might learn in class could get me back to being a contender for the national meet. Unfortunately, I stayed stagnant in my junior season at Wake Forest and battled back and forth with my stress reactions. At the beginning of the outdoor season, I was getting warmed up for vault practice. On one of my first practice jumps I “ran through” and didn’t plant the pole, which is a common thing to do for us pole vaulters- we are a finicky bunch. As I began to slow my speed, I felt a *POP* in my foot. Ouchy! Sprain, I thought. But the doctors and their x-rays thought not. Acute fracture, 4th metatarsal. But how!?! I was just RUNNING!?! And I eat my yogurt, dangflabbit! Out for another season and I had a very long, arduous, and depressing recovery ahead of me.
That summer, while sitting at home with yet another boot on my leg, I began to use the skills I had learned in my classes to begin searching the body of scientific literature: What can cause stress fractures? How can I mitigate stress fractures? The best diet for an athlete? This research, oddly enough, led me to a plant-based diet. I knew I’d face a lot of resistance if I started broadcasting this information…*cringe*. At first, I was in denial, but I ruminated on the thought- could there be something here? I had read that a plant-based diet could reduce the inflammation in my body- both in my muscle as well as my bone. This could allow me to recover faster from not only workouts but also injuries. It also had the potential to make me feel less beaten-up after a hard practice on the track. Additionally, reducing the flood of highly acidic animal proteins in my bloodstream could give my body time to recover and would allow the calcium in my body to stay in my bones rather than being leached into my blood to neutralize the acid. The few athlete testimonials I could find raved about their improved energy levels, and I even read a book about some crazy guy named Scott Jurek that ran the entirety of the Appalachian trail (some of which crosses through NC) while only eating plants! Hmph….why have I never heard of this?
My coach always told me that athletes performed their best when they had nothing left to lose. I had lost enough, I thought. What else have I got? I had to make a change if I wanted to get out of this cycle of injury- and I knew I could only control so much. My coach wrote the workouts, but I was in charge of what I put into my body and how it recovered. Sleep and nutrition became my mantra! I started to search out vegan items in my parents’ pantry while I was home over the summer, but this was dicey and difficult to achieve without getting caught. My dad is a cattle rancher, so I’ll let you imagine my turmoil. I distinctly remember looking at the ingredients on the back of a can of stewed tomatoes one day, thinking “this is the only thing in the house I should eat to feel better, here goes nothing!”. While I love tomatoes, I don’t necessarily suggest this method.
When I got back to school and was responsible for feeding myself again, things got easier. I was totally in charge of my pantry and only minimal judgement could be had amongst my roommates-right? I threw out every item that had eggs, dairy, or meat in it and started fresh. I realize this method isn’t for everyone, but I consider myself an extremist, so this was my way. All in!!! My roommates (all distance runners on the track team) thought I was ~slightly crazy~ and asked me droves of questions- which allowed me to tell them about the research I had been reading. Despite their doubts and relentless concerns, “Katie, you must get enough calories!”, I was confident I would prove them wrong. I wasn’t great at eating this way right off the bat. It took a while to adjust, but eventually I got better at cooking and more efficient at digesting the amazing fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that were doing my body so much good.
From a training standpoint, I started the Fall semester of my senior year at the lowest performance I had been at since my early days in high school. I was weak, and more than that, I was scared. But I had a plan- plants and poles- that’d get me to “Natty’s” (my redneck genes are really coming out now!). This was a unique year in my studies as well. My favorite professor (even to this day), Dr. Brubaker, helped me start my own research study. In this study, we looked at athletes on the track team, including myself, and tracked lean body muscle, body fat, and bone density throughout the academic year to see about changes in the body throughout the training and competitive seasons. So, not only am I about to blow your mind with my performance, but I also have some hard and fast numbers that only a Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) scan can provide! You can do the math yourself on the tables and figures I have provided here (like a true scientist), but my rough estimates indicate that I gained 7.8 pounds of lean muscle and lost about 2.2 pounds of fat in the 8-month span of testing. If you take nothing else from this blog post, I want you to note that this was ON A PLANT-BASED DIET!!!!
Who cares about fat and muscle if you can’t make it fly over a bar that is 13’8.5” in the air, you say?! Well, I did just that! That year, I staved off the stress fractures, which gave me just enough time and training to reach the pinnacle of my pole-vaulting career. Not only did I reach a personal best that was 6 inches higher than ever before, but I qualified for the NCAA Division I National track meet in Eugene, Oregon! You can see an interview of my younger self discussing this here, along with my coach at the time.
While I could tell you about how wonderful that experience was- I’ll let you imagine it for yourself. And it was wonderful, I don’t want to take that away from the story, but I do want to take a minute to tell you about where I have gone from there, and how the plant-based diet has permeated many aspects of my life. While I did eventually have to stop pole vaulting, I have not stopped my pursuit of health through plant-based nutrition. Since graduating from Wake Forest University, I went on to compete for a 6th year of eligibility at the University of Pittsburgh while working on a master’s degree (I had 2 prior medical redshirts, for those of you doing the math). I studied health, physical activity, and chronic diseases during my master’s- which opened my eyes to a world beyond sports. Shortly thereafter, I took a job as a research assistant at a hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I studied pregnancy. This gave me time to consider what I really wanted to study- which was the plant-based diet, of course! From there, I applied to do a doctorate in kinesiology, exercise, nutrition, and health promotion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. I am now a Ph.D. candidate, which means I am very close to graduating- I just have to get that grueling dissertation done! I am blessed to be able to continue my study of the plant-based diet and how it impacts a variety of individuals, mostly those with chronic diseases. Specifically, I study chronic kidney disease and diabetes and have published a few articles in my field, and I hope to continue to help others by showing them the power of plants. I aspire to reach a multitude of individuals, from the elite athletes to your average middle-aged mom (that I hope to one day be), the plant-based diet can help you. I recommend you give it a try- what do you have to lose?
Video link: https://youtu.be/0EbRgdfet8I
Article link: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/4/1007