There are few sports more demanding than the Ironman. The race challenges participants to a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and finally, a full marathon (26.2 mile run) across extremely difficult terrain in unpredictable conditions. Participants have to have grit. They have to have endurance. And they have to fuel properly. Joe Gambles knows what it takes to not only complete an Ironman, but to walk away a champion.
Gambles is a true triple threat. He has earned multiple championships in both the half and full Ironman distances, and he holds several impressive course records. Further, Gambles is an Aussie-born lifetime vegetarian and recently began transitioning to a vegan diet. We caught up with him just before the first race of the season to find out more about his rigorous training schedule and new vegan lifestyle.
Diving into Vegan
Nicked-named “Tofu Joe,” Gambles was raised on a pure vegetarian diet. He has never eaten meat, and although part of this decision was influenced by his home life, he continued to practice vegetarianism as an adult. For him, it’s an ethical choice. “I couldn’t get my head around why you would eat an animal. I can’t see the difference between a cow and my dog. I can’t see why you would eat one and call the other your best friend. I just have a lot of respect for animals and treating them well.”
Although Gambles has always felt empathy for all animals, like many, he was not equating the dairy and egg industries to the same type animal suffering as the meat industry. He continued to consume egg and dairy products while training, and was even sponsored by nutrition companies which promoted whey-based supplements and shakes.
In 2017, Gambles received a letter from a longstanding friend and vegan athlete, Dotsie Bausch. The letter was part of the Compassion Champs’ first campaign, #XMilk. The campaign sent out several letters to accomplished professional athletes, asking them to drop their animal-based sponsors and ditch dairy. Gambles was intrigued. He spoke with Bausch and learned more about the ethical and health-related complications of eggs and dairy, shocked by this new knowledge. Encouraged by Bausch and his unending compassion for animals, he decided to give veganism a try.
Like any new training program, Gambles approached his transition to veganism step by step. “At first I lacked the knowledge to make sure I got everything I needed on a purely vegan diet,” he admitted. He knew there were “a lot of great vegan athletes out there,” so he was not too concerned about his performance suffering, he just had to figure out how to do it.
He first gave up dairy milk. “I didn’t feel good on it, honestly. That was an easy one.” Eggs soon followed, and, somewhat reluctantly, he weaned off cheese. “Cheese was my weakness. That’s one thing I’m trying to find a replacement for,” Gambles admitted.
Now that he’s spent a few months transitioning into his completely vegan diet, he believes, “It’s not that complicated. Initially it took more time to plan [meals], but eventually it becomes habit. My norm has shifted.”
More importantly, Gambles can feel the difference. “I’m feeling a lot better now that I’m on a plant-based regiment,” he said.
We wanted to get specific about Gambles’ new eating and training schedule. What does it take to be an Ironman champ? “25 – 30 hours of training a week,” Gambles said. “On a typical Tuesday, I’ll ride 3-4 hours on the bike with 90 – 120 minutes of race pace efforts. I’ll recover for two hours, then go for a 75 – 90 minute run with 5 – 8 miles of race pace efforts.” Although it’s essential that he train in all race disciplines, Gambles prefers the run. “I love to run,” he gushed.
To fuel for these intense training sessions, Gambles eats a variety of nutrient-dense, plant-based foods. His staples include beans, roasted sweet potatoes, pasta, and almost anything with hemp. “Hemp is such an amazing product,” he raved. He loves hemp milk, hemp seeds, and hemp protein powder for on-the-go shakes. He keeps his meals fairly simple, but every now and then he’ll get creative in the kitchen. He makes a mean lentil shepherd’s pie, and he has a secret mashed potato recipe that rivals any butter-based recipe. “Coconut milk mashed potatoes. It’s amazing,” he said.
During training, Gambles relies on dates and Larabars for quick, easily accessible energy. “You want to go high carb, high glucose,” he advised. On the other end of the spectrum, we wanted to know about the foods he enjoyed that may not be great for training, but are delicious nonetheless. “Anything that goes with coffee,” he said. He noted that he made an incredible banana zucchini bread the other day. We want the recipe!
The Long Haul
Gambles is no longer content with keeping his feelings about the meat and dairy industry to himself; he wants to help others and spread the word. His approach is soft-spoken and non-confrontational. Of course, his incredible athletic performance can speak for itself, but he also will sit down with others and talk to them about giving vegan a try. “I tell them, go vegan or even vegetarian two days a week, and just do it. Going in 100% can be daunting. I’ve seen so many people go vegan right away and after ten days they’re done.” Like his vegan journey, Gambles believes in the small steps approach. “They might notice how good they feel and go full vegan from there,” he suggested.
Gambles will compete in his first race of the season on April 7 at the Carlsbad Ironman 70.3 (half Ironman). He is scheduled to participate in several other half and full races through early fall in order to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
To follow Bausch’s most recent campaign, check out Switch4Good.org and watch the 30-second commercial that aired on NBC during the 2018 Winter Olympic closing ceremonies and on ABC before and after the Academy Awards.
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