Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong may have retired from professional cycling, but the über-athlete continues to train hard and compete.
Armstrong, 40, is currently preparing for the Ironman France triathlon, which takes place June 24, and hopes to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October 2012.
Lance, who won his first triathlon at the age of 13, says switching to a mostly-vegan diet has helped his regulate energy levels and improved his overall fitness.
“It’s basically whole grains, different types of beans, kale salad with creative alternatives for dressing,” Lance told Huffington Post Canada. “So I did it for one day, then two days. Then I branched out and started doing it at breakfast and lunch. I still insist that I get to do whatever I want for dinner, but it’s made a significant difference in just in a month.”
Armstrong began experimenting with the vegan diet in February 2012, when he started swim training with former triathlete Rip Esselstyn, who created a plant-based, organic eating plan called the Engine 2 Diet.
Esselstyn’s father is cardiologist Caldwell Esselstyn (a former gold-medalist Olympic rower), who treated former President Bill Clinton for heart disease and converted him to a completely vegan diet. Clinton, 65, has credited his vegan diet for saving his life and helping him lose 24 pounds.
Armstrong says the biggest difference he noticed on the vegan diet was his increased, sustained, energy throughout the day.
“My energy level has never been this consistent, and not just consistent, but high,” says Lance. “I’m a big napper, but I couldn’t even take a nap these days if I wanted to.
“I didn’t expect the mental side of it, and the sharpness and the focus that I’ve noticed. And I was the biggest non-believer [in the vegan diet], and I’m in. I’m not doing dinners yet, but breakfast and lunch, I’m in.”
Lance, who has been a professional athlete since age 16, works out every single day, no matter how hectic his schedule.
“I exercise every day,” he says. “I swim, I bike, I run and I go to the gym. It’s anywhere from an hour to six hours a day.”
And frequent plane travel doesn’t deter him, even if that means he has to ride his bike home from the airport.
“It is difficult to do when you’re on the road,” says Lance. “If I know I have a four-, five-day stretch traveling, then you build up to that and factor in a few recovery days, which essentially is what these end up being.
“I’ll literally ride home from the airport, because my bike’s with us. So you just somehow fit it in.”
Armstrong, who’s the father of five, hopes to spread the message about the importance of physical activity to children.
“If we don’t somehow stem the tide of childhood obesity, we’re going to have a huge problem,” he says. “If you just look at the rates of obesity and where they originate, it always starts in the southeast [United States], and they eventually, almost like a cancer, kind of grow further to the northeast, and then it stretches out west.”
But obesity isn’t just an alarming epidemic among kids. Middle-aged Americans also need to eat better and exercise more to stay healthy, says Armstrong.
“We have this huge segment of our population that’s getting older, and as we know, cancer is a disease of the older population, so at some point these are going to cross, and we’ll be in a place where we can’t keep up with that,” he says.
“It’s all about prevention. Prevention is a key factor with so many types of cancer, so whether that’s encouraging kids to exercise, or even encouraging adults to exercise, whether that’s encouraging kids to not smoke, encouraging kids to stop smoking — all these preventative measures have, I think, been ignored for the most part.”
Ironman France, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run, takes place in Nice, France on June 24, 2012.
[Update: Armstrong banned from triathlon competitions as new doping charges surface]