Veganism, fitness, and strength: a journey

If you’d told my fifteen-year-old self – too self-conscious to even visit the hairdresser’s – that I’d one day be referring to myself in this way, I’d have laughed at you. But I would say I’m a pretty determined, headstrong individual these days.

Most people assume that anyway, given that I’m vegan and practice martial arts in a heavily male-dominated gym.

None of it really seems like that big a deal to me, but there are times when I do need to draw on other people’s help, encouragement, and support to remind myself why I don’t sometimes just make life easier for myself. Now seems like a good time to thank those people, even though most of them will never see this.

Mum – acceptance and adaptability

I remember the conversation very clearly. I was about 15 or 16 years old, and in a phase of having a plate of fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and a pot of yoghurt before going to school each morning. A few mornings in a row I left my yoghurt untouched – so obviously Mum asked why. I didn’t really know, the thought of yoghurt just creeped me out a little. Mum just shrugged and said, “Ok, but maybe we should try and find you some soy yoghurts or something”. A while later, I went vegan. Mum never batted an eyelid and went straight to work finding hearty, tasty recipes with the limited selection of vegan substitutes in Luxembourg at the time. She defended my choice and always rolled her eyes when the extended family made a big deal of it.

I also remember another pivotal conversation that took place when I must have been about 13. I had decided to quit fencing, which I had been doing for 3 years. Again, absolutely no issue for Mum – but she made it very clear that if I were to give that up, I would have to take something else up; it didn’t have to be intense or competitive, but I needed a physical activity. I can’t imagine that that wouldn’t have had a significant impact on the way I live now, and my belief that exercise has to be fitted into one’s lifestyle rather than forced into it like a square peg in a round hole.

Of course, Mum has had a lot of say in the individual that I have become – much more than could be summed up in any couple of paragraphs or indeed, any number of blog posts. But I think those are the two key points I can remember which sum up how I was brought up.

Antiga (piano teacher) – passion and perseverance

 Although we didn’t speak a huge amount of the same language, this lovingly caring and yet fierce and strong woman taught me everything I feel I will ever need to know about pursuing your goals and consistently working towards them. I do not know many people who are as passionate about one thing as she is, and I certainly don’t know anyone who devotes so much time and energy to their passion.

People toss around motivational phrases like, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”

Rachel (Thai boxing instructor) – strength of character and compassionate living

Although I was horribly nervous the first time I turned up to Thai boxing, Rachel instantly made me feel comfortable enough to ask for help. She got one of the guys to help me with my handwraps, and was always friendly, open and caring. When I joined, I had an old pair of cheap PVC boxing gloves and foam shinpads, both of which were useless and deteriorating, and it was rapidly apparent that if I wanted to train properly I would need proper gear. Unfortunately I didn’t want leather gloves, and there really aren’t a huge amount of good quality options out there for vegan martial arts equipment. I had only just joined the gym and was still pretty useless, so the last thing I wanted to do was make a big song and dance about being vegan, but I had no choice – so I asked Rachel, and without batting an eyelid she explained she had previously looked into it because she had been vegan, and promised to look into it for me. The next time I went in, she had ordered me my own gloves and shinpads in my size, which I still have three years later (well, except the shinpads got lost or stolen at my current gym).

Throughout my time with Lumpini, Rachel was a strong advocate of healthy, balanced eating with limited animal product consumption. When there were club meals, she made sure I would get vegan food; when there were gifts to be made, she gave me vegan products from Lush; she even gave me a vegan carrot and apple cake recipe! What I love is that everyone, not just me, listened to her and respected her, and she inspired me to live my life healthily and compassionately.

Daniel (Greg’s older brother and first training buddy) – the importance of good form and solid routine

I used to be one of those people who paid a gym membership to get on a treadmill and run for an hour. Although I am ashamed to admit it, I do believe the phrase “I don’t want to get big arms” did once come out of my mouth when I was invited to lift some weights with my friend Greg and his older brother Daniel, who used the same gym.

Once I got past that, however, I think Daniel and Greg were the reason I got into fitness to the extent I am into it today. I first lifted weights with them when I was about 17. Daniel was unbelievably responsible in his teaching of a basic 3-day strength and hypertrophy split (not that I would have known any of what that meant at the time). He taught me squats and deadlifts without ever letting me put any weight on the bars until he was satisfied I had learnt correct technique, always making me and Greg warm up, pushing me just hard enough to learn that sometimes pain can be a good thing, never seeming frustrated that he had his little brother’s weak unathletic friend tagging along.

Had I not trained with them, I doubt I would have ventured into the gym at university, which was where my routine really started to take hold on me. I only wish every 17 year old visiting a gym for the first time could have such a great training partner and mentor.

Henrike (personal trainer) – putting mind and soul back into the health and fitness equation

Once my gym routine did take hold, around my second year of uni, it didn’t take long for the only two girls in the weight room to notice each other and eventually start talking. Henrike was studying for a qualification in personal training, and needed a study case that she could rely on to follow her programme. I agreed, and we met up to talk about my current routine, goals, and diet.

Henrike was straight away accommodating with a vegan diet, and also very accepting of the fact that I didn’t want to include food quantities and weights in my eating log, having just come out of a slightly rough patch with my relationship with food. It was great to have somebody to talk to openly about the fears I had about training so consistently – was it a passion or an obsession? was it healthy or unhealthy? People are often scared to analyse these questions about themselves, but it was very necessary for me to have someone to talk to at that stage, to realise that I wasn’t the only one who spent this much time at the gym and planning meals, but also questioning what I was doing.

Henrike was also the first person to introduce me to protein shakes and to insist I implement at least one rest day per week – two very important pieces of advice!

Annemarie (dance teacher) – building a lifestyle around my passion

We all know smoking is bad. We know alcohol is bad. We know a diet high in saturated and trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods is bad. We know not sleeping enough is bad. We know we don’t need to spend that much money on that. We know we should get up and get out of the house instead of watching another Friends re-run. Do we really care?

As much as I am not a carpe diem sort of person, I do have to admit I really don’t care about a lot of health and safety guidelines. Being kicked, punched, choked, and armbarred is hardly good for my long-term health, is it?

I did that thing that most kids do when they first get taught the “Smoking = Death” equation in primary school and put up “No Smoking” signs around the house to try and get my dad to stop smoking, but honestly I think I could very well have started smoking in my teenage years if not for one conversation with my dance teacher.

I was really, really into dancing – like, “I am going to work towards spending my adult life as a member of a dancing troupe” into dancing. So when my dance teacher tried to show us a dance then sat down wheezing at the end of it, shaking her head and saying she could barely make it through the whole thing anymore since she had been smoking, my ears pricked up. She showed me her gums, which had rotted away to show way more of her teeth than needed to be exposed, and picked at her flaky yellow fingernails. That wasn’t what worried her the most. What worried her was that she couldn’t make it through an entire dance anymore without feeling like her lungs were going to explode. And that was what worried me, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I never started smoking.

More than that, though, I think it sparked something in me to convince me that I would build a healthy lifestyle around what I wanted to do – not how long I wanted to live, not how I wanted to feel when I was 70 years old, but what I wanted to be able to do now and at any given point in time. It taught me to respect my body. (online forum) – community and support

The first time I went vegan, it wasn’t cravings that I caved to but social pressure.

Interestingly, I came across during my second year of university not because of an interest in veganism, but through research on eating disorders and disordered eating. There was a few threads on the forum which completely resonated with how I felt, and as I read more threads I really connected with the way members there gave straightforward solid advice. As I kept reading more and more, I realised how much I disliked the fact that I was still eating animal products, and I went vegan again.

I have had some issues with the forum, and sometimes still do, but then you don’t always get on with all of your acquaintances in everyday life either. Being a member of the forum has been absolutely crucial to me in terms of providing me with a vegan community, as I didn’t know many (if any!) vegans in real life when I went vegan. On those days when you are hungry and surrounded by non-vegan snacks and people who don’t know you, it is good to remember why you believe in your cause, whatever it may be, and why you fight to uphold it every day.

Any new vegan or prospective vegan I encounter, the first thing I urge them to do is to find some sort of community and support network, whether it is a forum or a social group or whatever works!

Counsellor – focussing on the positives

As I said, second year of uni wasn’t a great time for me. When I realised each of my conversations ended in my whining about myself to someone I cared about, I decided to give them a bit of breathing room and sign up for free counselling with the university.

I hated it, to be honest. I came out of each session feeling frustrated, as not only did the counsellor not give me solutions to my problems (which is not a counsellor’s job anyway), but she made me feel like I didn’t really have any problems and was just being melodramatic. A few weeks down the line though, I realised that was the most valuable thing she could have taught me. What happened was she kept asking me to tell her more about myself, and less about what I was unhappy with. My feelings were that I was there to talk about what I was unhappy about, but later down the line I realised the message she had been sending me was to think about the positive things about me and my life. It’s one of those things we all know in theory, but that few people put into practice.

I know it’s not going to solve everyone’s problems, but it really was an important lesson for me, and is something I draw upon whenever I start feeling sorry for myself – and it’s part of the reason why I have my weekly Sunday thoughts posts. I remember the way she put it was, “All I know about you is that you’re not happy with XYZ – but I know there’s more to you than that, so tell me more about what makes you happy, what makes you you.”

Ben, Eilidh, Tommy, Todd, and pretty much all my friends – enjoying the little things in life

I have just singled those three out because I have lived with them and spent a lot of time with them. What stands out about them is that they do what they want, when they want to (wherever possibly, of course), which is something I sometimes don’t allow myself to do. We are fed so many rules and guidelines about being healthy, being productive, and being happy, that it’s so rare to find somebody eating what they want, waking up when they want, or watching what they want, just because they want to.

However, all my friends get a mention here because they are all very different and individual, and yet everyone is accepting of each other’s interests and supportive of them. I know a lot of people who get scorned for being at the gym “again” or “still” being vegan or not “loosening up” on their diet or refusing to drink or to stay out late. I am lucky to have a group of friends who are totally respectful of all of my choices. Whether I want to train, skip the gym, stay in, drink tea in a pub, or even if I wanted to stop being vegan, I never have any reason not to do what I believe is the right thing for me to do.

There are undoubtedly dozens of people who should get a mention here, but all I wanted to highlight was a few key conversations and personalities that helped make me who I am today, and that keep me motivated and passionate.

Just to stop this post being too soppy, there is one more category I need to acknowledge:

The haters, naysayers, ignorants and disrespectfuls

Sometimes knowing what you don’t want is as good as knowing what you want.

I am one of the few girls most men will train with, one of the smallest people many people will train with, and probably the only vegan most people will encounter. Ignorant and disrespectful people are just dying for me to show some sort of inadequacy, so that they can bask in their imagined superiority. So I need to be stronger, smarter, faster, friendlier, happier, and just plain better.

We all have moments of self-doubt, loneliness, and exhaustion. Having amazing people in your life won’t stop those from happening, but they can make them a little more bearable. If I achieve nothing else in life, I would want to be an inspiration to someone like the people above have been to me (though preferably not in the last category!).

If you have anyone in your life, present or past, that you would like to acknowledge or thank, please do let me know in the comments because I would love to read what inspires you!