Interview with Vegan Fitness & Lifestyle Expert Victoria Lissack @fitgirlgonegreen
by Brent Hruska
Brent: Where are you from and when did you get into fitness?
Victoria: I am from the UK – I was born and raised in London. I was the “fat kid” at school and didn’t get into fitness until my gap year prior to starting university, when I went to a local yoga class to see what it was like. I was tired of feeling uncomfortable in my skin – like for so many people, exercise began as a way to “lose weight” and get the body I thought I wanted. It ended up being so much more than that.
Fitness was predominantly just (Bikram) yoga and Pilates for me for the first four or five years – I joined a gym at university and went most mornings but only to use the cardio equipment and then do a quick tour of the weights machines with no real idea what I was doing. Then I would do yoga or Pilates in the evening. This routine left me feeling healthy and alive (and sparked a real interest in nutrition, fitness and wellness) but it wasn’t changing my body the way I wanted it to. In 2010, while working in the City, this frustration prompted me to request a consultation with Nick Mitchell at his personal training gym Ultimate Performance, which was a few minutes away from my office (I had found Nick and his gym online after searching for new ways to train). Nick trained clients using the Poliquin method – heavy weights, strongman exercises in place of “cardio”, and a diet based on real food, not diet foods, juices or shakes. I was hooked on the training style and the diet and my body started to transform practically overnight. I’ve never looked back – I’ve been training in a similar way ever since. I continued to work almost exclusively with Ultimate Performance until early 2016 – they prepped me for my first two bodybuilding contests. I am now coached by John Meadows, and so have incorporated his training and nutrition methods as well.
What is your story with competing in fitness?
I had been training bodybuilding style with weights for several years and my then trainer entered a WBFF contest. That was the first time I had really been exposed to the idea of competing – I had literally never heard of it before (I didn’t get an IPhone or get on social media until late 2014 – I was basically living under a rock as far as the fitness industry goes up until then!). I thought it looked like something I could be good at and enjoy, so I committed to doing my own contest, found the right coach and got to work. To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into – the work and discipline involved and how tough it would be. I certainly found out soon enough!
Tell us about your journey transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. What made you decide to go vegan? At this point, were you already into competing fitness or did that come later?
As I will explain more fully below, I competed twice as an omnivore before going vegan in the new year of 2016. The contest prep I have just finished was my first vegan contest prep.
I was a vegetarian for around five years in my 20s, not for ethical reasons but because I didn’t really enjoy eating meat and vegetarianism was popular within the yoga community at the time. However, when I started lifting weights I was encouraged to try a Paleo style diet and was seduced by the fast results – my body responded very quickly to this way of eating (which I now recognise was more the macronutrient balance than the animal products – I still feel and perform better on a lower carb, higher fat/protein diet as a vegan).
I stuck with a diet high in animal products for several years. However, after finishing the 2015 competitive season I noticed that I was suffering from digestive issues, my skin was looking dull and my eczema was flaring up, my nails and hair were not as strong and healthy as they had been before and I was run down and low on energy – I felt like I needed some kind of change to recover. I went on a holiday to Australia that December and when I got there I decided that I was going to put myself on a “nutritional detox” – not a juice fast or a fad diet, just a couple of weeks of simpler, “cleaner” eating with plenty of protein, good fats, veggies and low sugar fruits. As part of this I removed animal products – it just seemed like a good way to take the pressure off my system. This was easy in Perth, where I was staying – the produce is amazing and there are endless plant-based restaurants and cafes to enjoy (I also discovered PranaON raw vegan protein, which was a game changer!). I ended up feeling much better.
During this time, while I was enjoying eating plant-based, I started thinking more about where my food came from and was inspired by a vegan friend and fellow fitness competitor to educate myself about the meat, dairy, egg and fish industries. What happened next is, I think, pretty classic – I stayed up most of the night watching YouTube videos and crying my eyes out. I was actually shocked by my own reaction (I had an idea of the reality of animal agriculture and best described as a realist) – what I saw deeply affected me and I knew after watching that I no longer wanted to support those industries because the way they were being operated was morally unacceptable to me. The next morning, I made the commitment to go vegan – not just follow a plant-based diet, but overhaul my whole life. Everybody thought I was totally crazy – but two years later I am still happily and wholeheartedly living the lifestyle with zero regrets.
What shows and how many have you competed in? Why did you decide to prep vegan?
I have only competed in three shows. I competed twice with the WBFF in 2015 (Fitness Model class, which aesthetically sits somewhere between Bikini and Figure classes in more traditional bodybuilding federations), placing third in my first show and sixth two months later at the World championships. I was told that I needed to build more muscle mass in my back body and shoulders, so chose not to compete in 2016 and instead work on improving my physique over an extended period. I switched to the NPC (National Physique Committee) during this time and have just competed in my first show with that federation.
As I did not go vegan until January 2016, for my first two contest preps I followed an omnivore diet. My extended off season and recent contest prep were all vegan because by then I had changed my diet and lifestyle. I didn’t decide to prep vegan – I was a vegan by that point, so there was no other option.
What were some of the biggest challenges during this prep? How did you overcome them?
This contest prep did not present any specific challenges, but the process is generally challenging. I’m not sure many people realise the extent of the commitment and how demanding it is to reach contest condition, especially for a woman. Training twice a day (cardio in the morning, weights at night), six days a week is standard for me and total calorie intake necessarily drops low over time. Life doesn’t stop because you’re preparing for a contest, so you still need to deal with work, relationships, family and other responsibilities.
One particular factor for me is managing my prep while I am on the road – I am fortunate in that my lifestyle involves overseas travel, but this does make prep more difficult, particularly as a vegan (i.e. because the food I eat for my meals is not food that can be picked up from any old supermarket and usually needs cooking– no Wholefoods market ready cooked foods for me) – and one on a set meal plan. It is definitely possible to do it but it involves a high degree of planning (knowing ahead of time where you will train, where you will buy your food, how you will prepare it, etc) and dedication (prepping food to get you through the journey, flying all day and still hitting the gym on arrival to get your workout in or finding a place to buy food before you can relax, getting up at 4 am to do cardio before going back to the airport, travelling further than you want to get to a decent gym, having to choose accommodation based on your need for a kitchen, etc). It’s also impossible to travel “light” – I end up with one case full of protein powder and other dried foods, food prep items (never forget your scales!) and gym gear and another for my non-prep things! This can in itself be a headache – I have spent many late nights and early mornings lugging heavy suitcases up and down narrow Airbnb stairwells.
What is your training philosophy? Walk us through a typical week of training? And does it differ when not preparing for a show?
I combine traditional bodybuilding style weight training with yoga and some cardio work.
My approach to weight training is the same regardless of whether I’m dieting or at maintenance (when I’m in a caloric deficit I am using those weight sessions to preserve muscle). I have built up from three sessions per week to six over the years. Each session generally lasts no more than an hour and involves typical bodybuilding movements (a lot of compound exercises like squats and deadlifts followed by isolation work). For each exercise, I lift the heaviest weight I can with proper form given the rep range (and am honest about that with myself – no ego training). I change my programme regularly and manipulate a number of variables as well as load (weight) to ensure that I continue making progress (rest periods, time under tension, reps, sets, etc). Since starting work with John I have started incorporating more advanced techniques such as including drop sets and iso-holds.
Cardio does depend on whether I’m preparing for a contest or not. Generally, I won’t do any (or much at all) during “off season” – I save it for contest prep, when I introduce a combination of short high intensity interval training (“HIIT”) sessions (less than 20 minutes) and low intensity, steady state (“LISS”) work. I add cardio in small increments, beginning with perhaps just a couple of sessions per week and increasing it as needed (i.e. as my fat loss plateaus). By the end of contest prep I am usually up to at least six sessions a week on top of the weights. After damaging my hip flexor during outdoor sprinting last year, I now tend to stick with approaches that carry a low risk of injury, for obvious reasons – the spin bike or Versa Climber for HIIT and incline treadmill for LISS.
I practice yoga (mainly Bikram and power) and in the “off season” I usually do this in place of cardio. During contest prep I gradually taper off my yoga sessions as my cardio increases so as not to completely wear myself out. I’ll start by dropping the power yoga and focusing on Bikram, which is not as physically challenging. Eventually most or all of my yoga practice will inevitably fall away. I think you have to be realistic and respect the importance of rest and recovery – when you’re training hard twice a day and calories are low it’s usually not usually feasible to add a third session without doing more harm than good. Priorities on prep are always fat loss and maintaining muscle mass and I do everything I can to protect the integrity of my weights sessions (i.e. ensure I have enough energy and strength to train with intensity) as they are absolutely key.
Recovery and regeneration are a huge part of performing at a high level. Tell us about the use of IV therapy and Vitamin shots.
This year a company providing vitamin shots and IV therapy (intravenous vitamin therapy) opened in Grand Cayman and I have been experimenting with it. I was diagnosed with coeliac disease this summer and was having issues absorbing certain vitamins and minerals from my food as a result of damage caused by ingesting gluten without being aware of the condition (mine is “silent”, with no GI symptoms). By injecting vitamins or taking them via an IV you know they are passing straight into your bloodstream without having to go through the gut first – i.e. you don’t need to worry about absorption in the same way that you do when you take vitamins orally. This is why it appealed to me. It is also easier than taking multiple oral supplements every day.
I have found the treatments beneficial (my bloodwork has improved) so I have replaced my oral supplements with weekly B-vitamin and amino acid shots and a bi-weekly IV treatment providing a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (I chose those shots based on my plant-based diet and fitness regime/lifestyle).
Supplements are never, however, going to replace a nutritionally dense, varied diet. I start by eating well – the treatments I use are supplements in the true sense of that word. They really come into their own when I’m on a very restrictive diet towards the end of my contest prep when I can’t eat as many different foods as I would like.
What is your vision with health and fitness / what do you see yourself doing with this long term?
I am a level 2 Poliquin strength coach and BioSignature practitioner and yoga instructor and have a certification in plant-based nutrition from Cornell. I am currently working on a couple of fitness and wellness related projects to launch in the new year. Watch this space!
In terms of competing, the current plan is to transition to the NPC’s Figure class and compete again in late 2018. I competed in Bikini this season and it was clear that I’m carrying too much muscle for that category (something my coach and I always knew was a possibility).
Where do you live now? Tell us about your decision to move to the Caribbean – did your transition to a vegan lifestyle play into this decision at all? What’s it like living where you live now?
I have lived here for six years and came here to work. I am a lawyer by profession, with a financial services regulatory practice. The Cayman Islands is an offshore financial centre and recognises English legal qualifications. While I was working at a US firm in London I was offered a role at a fantastic law firm here and decided to give it a go. I worked at the firm for a little over four years before opting to take a sabbatical from the legal profession – I do, however, still live here on island. It’s home
What advice would you give to anyone desiring to travel or live abroad?
Go for it! Find a country that you can make a living in and make it happen – there really is nothing more to it than that.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone just starting out with a vegan lifestyle?
Experiment for as long as it takes to find the right version of plant-based diet for you. Contrary to what you may see on social media or online, there is no one perfect way to eat vegan that works for everyone – and there are just as many variations of plant-based eating as there are omnivore eating.
In a similar vein, keep an open mind – there are lots of delicious, healthful plant-based foods that can replace animal products and help you transition more easily such as seitan, tofu, tempeh, vegan eggs, certain high quality “mock meats” (I particularly like the soy free versions made with seitan and pea proteins) and there is no reason at all to exclude these foods from your diet if you enjoy them. Just be sure to balance them with plenty of whole foods. As omnivores, we are often taught that these foods are somehow “bad” because they are “processed” – it took me too long to appreciate that they are still usually better for us than meat and other animal products, which are not as “clean” as you might think (for example, meat may contain steroids, hormones, bacteria and other contaminants, antibiotics, etc – give me a block of tempeh or a “Beyond Meat” burger any day!).
I think it’s also important to remember that your caloric and macro/micro nutrient needs don’t change just because you suddenly go plant-based. You still need a certain number of calories each day to feel energized and your body still needs the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate. A lot of people seem to think veganism is a magic diet where the usual rules no longer apply – so they go from eating a varied, balanced diet to a diet consisting, for example, solely of fruit and vegetables (i.e. low fat, low protein and low in many nutrients they were formerly used to consuming in abundance such as iron, amino acids and B12), wonder why they feel tired, run down, are losing muscle mass, suffering deficiencies, etc, blame the vegan diet and revert to eating animal products. To make a vegan diet work for you long term, it pays to think about these things at the outset. Don’t be afraid of high quality supplements, particularly while you’re finding your feet – vegan EPA/DHA, calcium, iron, B12 and amino acids can all be highly beneficial.
Finally, do your best and give yourself a break if you mess up or accidentally make a mistake (the latter is really easily done, especially when you start out). Any steps you take towards this lifestyle bring major benefits to the world around you – be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey!
Follow Victoria on Instagram @fitgirlgonegreen