This week, we chatted with Pauri Pandian, Head Coach of the men's and women's tennis teams at Wheaton College. A plant-based athlete for going on five years now, Pauri talked to us about protein myths, the unexpected benefits of plant-based eating, and how he fuels his daily workouts.
Can you tell us a little about your background as an athlete and coach?
I grew up playing basketball, soccer, and tennis. I focused exclusively on tennis when I got to high school; playing for the high school team, junior tournaments throughout New England on weekends, and then training in camp clinics throughout the school year and summer. I finished out my playing career by competing all four years for the tennis team at Wesleyan University. After graduating, I became a teaching pro, working with younger kids and teenagers for a number of years, and also coached a high school team in the Boston area. I then spent four years as the Assistant Coach with the Brandeis University men's and women's tennis teams, before becoming the Head Coach of men's and women's tennis at Wheaton College, where I'm in the midst of my second year running the program.
What motivated you to begin eating a plant-based diet?
After I finished up my first year of work at Brandeis (May of 2012), I knew I needed to make a change. Between being a teaching pro and working with the teams at Brandeis, I was physically drained by the end of the season. For this to be a long-term career, I had to make changes to my get my mind and body better prepared to handle the demands of the job. A teaching pro friend of mine had recently gone plant-based and said he’d never felt better. I did more research on plant-based athletes, and saw that more and more professional athletes had made this shift across a variety of sports with great results. I decided that I would try it out for two weeks...and I'm still going strong four and a half years later!
How did changing how you eat impact your health and athletic performance?
The biggest physical changes I noticed were increased stamina and energy, and rapid recovery time…which most athletes will tell you are among the most important components of peak performance. I was shocked at how much better I felt, and how quickly it happened. While physically I didn't look all that different (even before going plant-based, I tried to take good care of my body), I had never felt as good as I did after going plant-based. I got to a point where I would bike 10 miles to work, hitting/coaching on the court for anywhere from 4-8 hours, then would bike 10 miles home...all the while having the energy and recovery time to wake up and do it again day after day. I was sleeping better, and felt much more mental clarity.
Do you encourage your athletes to eat plant-based? If so, why?
I think the big thing I want my players to understand is that what you put in your body has the biggest impact on how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. While I do encourage them to eat more plant-based, I understand that everyone is on their own journey with personal health and wellness, and that a person needs to want to make a change in order for it really stick. I've had a few players go fully plant-based, and almost all of them have started eating more plant-based (to varying degrees).
What foods keep you fueled and going before, during, and after your workouts?
I'm a big fan of smoothies in the morning and/or before workouts. A typical one for me has almond milk, bananas, some sort of ground seeds (flaxseed, hempseed, or chia seeds), peanut butter, a handful of greens, and some frozen strawberries in place of ice. During workouts, I'm largely just drinking water, and may snack on dates or bananas if it's particularly hot out or a longer workout. After workouts, I typically have some sweet potatoes, more fruits, and more water. Most people get hung up consuming a ton of protein, without realizing that you don't need all that much, and that your body doesn't process protein efficiently in large quantities.
A number of our customers struggle with a transition to a plant-based diet - what advice do you have for them?
I often suggest people try and swap out one meal at a time. For example, try to keep your breakfast plant-based for a week, then add in lunch, then add in dinner. Also, if you go fully plant-based for a week, and then have a meal with animal products in it, don't view that as a failure. You just spent a full week plant-based! While some people are able to flip a switch and go 100% plant-based, most people tend to ease into it. You have to figure out the method that works for you, and sometimes it takes a while to figure that out. Stay patient, and know that the fact you're trying to be healthier means you're on the right track.
What surprised you the most after you started eating this way?
I couldn't believe how much better I felt, and how quickly. It made me truly appreciate how much of an impact the food you eat has on how good (or bad) you feel day-to-day. Since going plant-based, I haven't had the common cold, flu, sore throat, etc. at all, and I work on a college campus most of the year, where people around me are sick all the time!
Do you have a philosophy by which you live?
I try to live each day with gratitude, compassion, and purpose. I was blessed to be raised by and have spent so much time around incredible people in my life who have really shaped me as a person. I feel like it's my responsibility to pay it forward and try to make a positive impact on the people around me every day, and I work as hard as I can to do so.
To read more about plant-based athletes, check out our recent interview with Dr. Ruth Heidrich, Ironman triathlete, author, and cancer survivor.