Insights from one of the greatest Vegan Athletes – Fiona Oakes

This is the story of Fiona Oakes.  Not only is she an incredible vegan athlete, but her story is incredibly inspiring.  This article uncovers more on what she eats and how she lives to achieve optimal performance.

Fiona Oakes works as a firefighter – which means she is often on call and has to react quickly to any calls. She also, alongside her husband, runs an animal sanctuary which is home to 400 rescued animals and then she manages to find time to fit in her demanding running training schedule!

If anyone thinks that being a parent (try being one of 400 animals!), with a full time job, prohibits you from being and high level athlete and a vegan at the same time, think again.  Fiona has proved that anything is possible!  I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of Fiona’s time before getting a tour of the sanctuary and helping her feed her gorgeous pigs!  See interview below.

I was lucky enough to spend some time with this inspiring woman at her Sanctuary ( )in the UK.

*Excerpt from Fiona Oakes Great Vegan Athlete 

Her personal best for marathon is 2:38:00, and some career highlights include:

  • National cycling titles (before changing to marathon running)
  • 5th place in the Florence Marathon
  • 17th place in the Berlin Marathon
  • 8th place in Amsterdam Marathon
  • 1st place in 2007 Halstead Marathon, in which she broke the Essex County Champion Course Record (which had stood for 9 years) by 11 minutes. Press coverage was excellent, including pictures of Fiona receiving the award in her Vegan Runners vest.
  • In June 2010 Fiona won the Rovaniemi (Finland) marathon, and in doing so set a Guiness world women’s record for the fastest marathon ever inside the artic circle.
  • 10th place in Moscow
  • 22nd place in London
  • Fiona won the 2011 Great North Run half marathon (Masses Race)
  • winning the Levi International Marathon (Finland) in a course record of 2.58 in
    September 2011 – beating the old course record by 22 minutes.  This was while wearing a backpack for training reasons. 
  • In 2011 Fiona entered the tough Dartmoor Marathon in training for a future event. She carried weight as part of her training, but still won the event by over 14 minutes.
  • Fiona has completed the 2012 Marathon des Sables, a 156 mile event across the sand dunes and rough terrain of the Sahara Desert.  She faced extreme temperatures of 51 Centigrade and suffered a broken foot days before the race began.  Early on another entrant collapsed so Fiona dragged her to safety.  See more on this amazing performance here.
  • In 2013 She took on the North Pole Marathon, in temperatures of -28 Centigrade.  She completed the event, won the women’s race, came third to two male competitors and broke the women’s course record by an amazing 45 minutes.  Read more about her event here.
  • Later that year she became the fastest woman ever to complete a marathon on all continents plus the North Pole.  She also set the Guiness world record for the shortest aggregate time for those runs. 
  • As part of that marathon series she set the course record for the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
  • In 2014 she also attempted the Marathon des Sables again.
  • in July 2014 she ran the Rio marathon and in doing so broke two of her own Guiness world records (read more here).
  • In October and November 2014 she ran seven marathons in seven consecutive days, finishing with an emphatic win (read more here).
  • In February 2015 she took on the challenge of running a marathon a day for seven days – each on a different continent (read more here).
  • In April 2017 she completed her third Marathon des Sables (read more here).

Tell us your Vegan Story.

My Vegan story is that I have always wanted to help and care for animals in some way.  I have continued to grow and expand that story as my life has progressed, but none of it has been planned – other than the part that it would always contain, and be based on, the idea of helping animals.  A self-inspired vegetarian at age 3, transitioning to self-inspired vegan age 6.  No role models or influences in my family, just a very childlike, innocent and basic instinct to protect animals from harm.  A childhood fantasy to start an animal sanctuary – never daring to dream it would become a reality.  Then a need to address the myths, misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding plant based living and ethical veganism using what ‘talents’ I had via my sporting abilities.  Currently moving forward in an information sharing direction via film, press, public speaking and social media outlets whilst continuing to stay heavily time invested at the Sanctuary and achieving more with my running exploits.


You recently competed the Marathon des Sables, tell us a little bit more about your training, the actual marathon, adversity you faced and how you believe the vegan diet helped you through the training and event?

Marathon des Sables is always billed as ‘the toughest footrace on the planet’ and revels in the notoriety of this and enjoys living up to the expectations this statement suggests.  It is just over 250km of running in the deepest southern Sahara Desert encompassing a week.  Totally self-sufficient aside from limited water and very basic tent accommodation shared with 7 others all supplies must be carried in a backpack weighing, on average, around 11kg with water.  Temperatures can reach up to 55 degrees Celsius -the heat is both relentless and brutal.  Running distances are equivalent to around a Marathon a day for the the whole week with one day being a ‘double’ Marathon.  Terrain is extremely challenging – sand dunes, rocky, harsh under foot with dangerous and steep climbs and descents.  Aside from the obvious challenge of actually staying well, injury free and fit enough to keep going for the huge distance required day in day out, fatigue, heat exhaustion, lack of sleep, insufficient calorific intake really start to play a part in the event, particularly in the closing stages and on the longest stage.  Having now completed this race 3 times the best possible description or advise for anyone attempting this race is ‘always expect the unexpected’.  This year my main problem was an ‘operational obstacle’ in that my own body and mind held up very well but part of my kit didn’t.  My running shoes – a style which I had worn many times before in such races – fell to pieces on the under-sole.  A problem we hope to have solved for next year as Will’s Shoes have taken this on-board and created my own personal running shoe – The Oakes Cross Trainer – which I hope to use in all my events in 2018.  Obviously, it is hard to say how my vegan diet helped me through this race as I really don’t have a ‘before and after’ to compare my performance with.  My whole life as far as I remember has been plant based but I think this is probably the main benefit for me.  I know that all my performances – whether fast road Marathons, Arctic Races, Desert Ultras – have all been achieved without harm to others.  This is very important to me when I stand on any start line – I know no other creature has suffered for the performance I am about to deliver, that makes me confident I can delivery maximum suffering to myself to achieve the best results I am able.


How do you eat? Take us through a day of meals.

I eat just one meal a day – in the evening.  This is something I have always done as it fits in very well with my rather unique and hectic lifestyle.  I had no idea this regime had a name until I was at a race in Russia and one of the Kenyan athletes coaches I was speaking to said it was known as the Warrior Diet and quite popular amongst athletes in his country.  I am always very careful to pay attention to my hydration levels throughout the day and drink copious quantities of tap water and fruit tea.  My evening meals consist of basic grains, pulses, fruit, vegetables, nuts, pasta and dried fruits.  Having been vegan for so many years, there were none of the convenient products available to buy from supermarkets and so I adapted – or rather my Mother did – a very basic but specialised dietary repertoire and regime which I still adhere to today.


Is there any specific Macronutrient breakdown you use to optimise your performance?

Regarding Macronutrient breakdown I would have to say I am very much a person who has learned to listen to my own body and what suits it best given the event I am training for.  I am a very high mileage runner which compensates for the fact I have little actual talent for the discipline.  This is a fact, everyone’s ability level and strengths lie in different areas.  My mental strength, willpower, determination and discipline are probably where my ‘talents’ fall.  I generally always run around 100 miles – 160 km – a week which is made up of different sessions and different cycles.  If I am at a phase in my training where I am doing more long, slower, endurance based training I will eat more carbs, if I am in a phase of short, sharp, strength, power, explosive and weights based training I will veer more towards the proteins but honestly, I do not track macros religiously.  I find that if I eat a generally healthy and balanced diet my running is successful.


What are your thoughts on paleo and ketogenic diets?

I think everyone’s dietary choices and how they manage them are quite specific to the individual and their own personal circumstances.  For me, I consider myself first and foremost an animal carer not an athlete.  The animals always come first and feeding over 400 hungry mouths every day leaves me little time to think of my own.  I would say I am more paleo based as I do eat a lot of fresh, natural, home grown products and more carbs but my diet is more about my veganism as a lifestyle choice simply than what I actually consume.  It’s about the ethics behind what I eat, how I eat and why I eat.  I prefer to not put labels on things beyond that, this works for me and has worked for me practically all my life and certainly over my running career which has spanned almost 2 decades, injury free and radically multi-disciplined whilst combining it with my extremely physically strenuous life caring for the animals at the Sanctuary.


What do you eat on race day?

For a road Marathon where I am aiming for a very quick time – I have a PB of 2hrs 38 minutes – I don’t actually eat on the Morning of the race.  The day before I drink an awful lot of a homemade sports drink – the recipe of which I am proud to say was confided by the great Haile Gebrselassie – the week before the race I carb load and eat high calorie, low bulk the day before the actual event.  I have never taken on board anything but water during a road race – up to Marathon distance.  Obviously, things are different in ultra or multi stage events.  I do however try to keep my diet in these events as near normal to my actual diet at home.  I obviously cannot carry fruit and vegetables but dried fruits- especially dates – pine nuts, basic flapjack bars, expedition foods, ginger and noodles feature heavily in my pack.  I don’t use gels or other artificial supplements as I personally find they don’t suit my stomach.  I believe you have to train with the food you intend to race with, otherwise it’s too much to introduce yourself to new forms of nutrition when you are already putting your body through the extremes of climate, fatigue, terrain, sleep and calorie depravation.


What is your proudest moment?

My ‘proudest’ moment’ – if I had to pick one – would have to be wining the Marathon in Antarctica and, with it, breaking 3 World Records for the animals.  It was a huge undertaking of both logistics, physical, mental, spiritual and financial resources.  So many things needed to go right and so many things could have gone wrong.  Keeping fit, well and injury free was always a worry but the operational side of organising it was also a huge undertaking.  Even though I broke the World Records in this event and have achieved such high placings and marks in other events such as the Worlds’ Major Marathon Series – London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rio, Moscow, Great North Run, Florence, Omsk, Adelaide, North Pole etc. as well as triple completion of Marathon des Sables – it all seems relatively insignificant in terms of the huge problem I am attempting to address via my running exploits.  I guess I am humbled by the cause and reason I run.


How many animals are at Towerhill Sanctuary and  where do the animals come from?

We have around 400 animals at the Sanctuary – horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, dogs, cats, turkeys, donkeys, chickens, ducks, swans, cockerels, rabbits and many, many more besides.  As to where they come from – every imaginable source and scenario and many unimaginable ones too.  Animals rescued from the jaws of the slaughterhouse – pigs, sheep and cattle, farmers who can no longer ‘use’ animals but have heard I care for them and might offer sanctuary, horse owners who have become injured, horses themselves who are injured or just elderly, animals with behavioural problems, sick animals, those who have been found running loose on public highways, carers who have passed away and their animal companion found themselves homeless, animals tethered to our gates or dumped in our fields.  Just a few of the reasons or situations which lead them to end up residing here.  We don’t judge, we just try to help all we can by whatever means possible.


If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

I would change the attitude of the human race towards each other, all animals and the environment.  To be more aware of suffering, the needs of others to consider that every action an individual takes impacts another and the planet we reside on.  To think about what really matters and to value what they have rather than continually focus on what they feel they need or don’t have.

I believe veganism is the only way forward for both the individual, the animals, the environment, the planet and the future.  It is too late?  I don’t know, but I do know that to embrace a vegan lifestyle and ethic is to empower oneself in so many ways via both the mind, body and soul.  To take the first step on the ladder to veganism is almost a liberation akin to coming out of a haze and into a clear, clean environment where things can be viewed so much more easily.  In my opinion there are hundreds of reasons to be vegan and none to not be – longevity, sustainability, animals welfare, human wellbeing, health, climate change, conscience, global equality and distribution of resources are but a few and once an individual starts on the path of thought and reason behind veganism the sky is truly the limit!

Please follow Fiona or at least make a donation to Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary!

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