Skeptical of the purported health benefits of a vegan diet? You may have a right to be: while there’s some evidence to suggest that going vegan can help improve your heart health, it might not necessarily help you lose weight, nor will it automatically make you healthier. But if you are considering going vegan, Rich Roll’s mind-boggling athletic feats might have you trading in burgers for leafy greens.
Last September, the 51-year-old ultra-endurance athlete and best-selling author ran 40 miles and swam six miles over 26 islands of the Stockholm Archipelago off Sweden as part of the grueling Otillo Swimrun World Championship, as reported by the New York Times.
“You’re either freezing in this incredibly chilly water or your falling down in rocks in these woods,” Roll told MensHealth.com about the event. “It’s probably the hardest one-day thing that I’ve ever done in my life. It proved to me that at 50, I could still go out and compete at a high level.” It’s no wonder why his podcast, The Rich Roll Show, has more than 30 million downloads.
Following the recent release of the updated edition of Roll’s best-selling memoir, Finding Ultra, MensHealth.com caught up with the man who is arguably the world’s fittest vegan alive.
You endured a rough patch in your life, which paved the way for you to become vegan shortly thereafter. Can you take us through that time and that decision?
Absolutely. During my 20s and the first part of my 30s, I was sort of a lost soul, struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction and it really took me to a very dark place. But I was lucky enough to get sober at 31. I spent 100 days at a treatment facility in Oregon.
In the wake of that experience, I threw myself back into my professional life very determined to repair all the wreckage that I had created. I destroyed so many relationships over the years. My ambition was to get back on track and align myself with this American dream that had been the driving force in my entire life. I was able to do that, but ultimately, I was very much a workaholic trying to become this partner at a prestigious law firm and doing the 80-hour work week thing.
“By the time I was 39, I was a junk food addict and 50 pounds overweight.”
By the time I was 39, I was a junk food addict, 50 pounds overweight, and really just the classic couch potato. At the same time, I was becoming progressively disillusioned with this myth of the American dream because I had sort of achieved that. I was living in a really nice house, I had a Porsche in the driveway, I was building a family. From the outside looking in, it looked like I had everything. But from the inside, I was suffocating. I was so discontent with my professional choices. It was like, “Who am I? What am I here to do?”
Shortly before I turned 40, I had this moment on the staircase walking up to my bedroom one evening. I was so lethargic and unwell that I had to pause halfway up the stairs. I had tightness in my chest, labored breathing and sweat on my brow. I really feared that I was on the precipice of a significant heart attack. That really shook me out of my denial about how I was living. I made a very concrete decision in that moment that I was going to change my priorities. That’s how I set in motion this exploration of food and nutrition and ultimately after that, fitness and human potential.
How did the early stages of that exploration begin?
It started with a seven-day fruit and vegetable juice cleanse, which ultimately led me to eating a plant-based diet, which revitalized me in a very profound way. That’s what guided me into the world of ultra-endurance, because it’s this amazing, perfect template for exploring your potential — not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
People tend to think vegans don’t get enough protein. What’s your food intake like while preparing for ultra-endurance events to make sure you’re sufficiently powered?
I would generally start the day with a green smoothie with dark leafy greens: kale, spinach, chard. Beets became a go-to for me. They’re an amazing endurance booster, so beets, beet greens will always make their way into my morning smoothie. Also, lots of berries: blackberries and blueberries. And then some of the more exotic superfoods like matcha, chia seeds, ground flaxseed, spirulina. The smoothie is really kind of centerpiece. In terms of meals, lots of rice and beans, veggie burritos, gigantic salads with lots of vegetables, steamed broccoli, and then eating a heavier dinner.
What’s your workout routine?
For a long period of time it was swim, bike, run and some yoga and stretching. That was all I had time for. I got four kids and I’m doing a lot of things. But as I’m getting older, being in the gym and maintaining my strength has become much more of a priority specifically in the past year. I’m a firm believer in stretching. Maintaining a strong core is super important. Yes, I do sit-ups, but I do lots of planks, pushups, inverted sit-ups to strengthen my lower back, lots of squats, including air squats, kettlebell work, medicine ball work, lunges. And then, I do some really basic weight work. I like to do low weight, high rep stuff on all the basics: bench press, floor exercises, sled work for the quads and all the typical stuff you’d do in the gym.
You may very well be the world’s most fittest vegan.
That’s a heavy title. I’m not so sure I could claim that crown and one of the reasons for that is we’re seeing the explosion of vegan athletes right now. Everybody from Kyrie Irving to [Boston Bruins defenseman] Zdeno Chara, [Oakland Raiders wide receiver] Griff Whalen. For me, that’s exciting.