How plant-based athlete Brooke Donoghue fuels her mind and body

Olympic rowing silver medallist, new mother and recently minted author Brooke Donoghue is a proudly plant-based elite athlete, whose recent book Sustain: Plant-based food for active people (written with fellow athlete and silver medallist Luuka Jones and nutritionist Christel Dunshea-Mooij) aims to educate and inspire people wanting to eat more plant-based foods.

“We’re not looking to convert anyone to be plant based.” Brooke explains. “We’re just trying to show people yummy recipes you can whip up without feeling like you’re missing out not eating meat.”

The decision to go fully plant-based can’t have been an easy one for a professional athlete, who has a literal team of people invested in her performance. “That definitely played on my mind,” Brooke admits. “I got to the point though where it was more important to follow my values; it just put pressure on me to do it well.”

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Brooke describes it as being no different to any other performance preparation. “If anything it made me more conscious of what I was eating. I was more aware and more informed of what I needed to be eating and doing.”

She’s applied many of the learnings to the book, with information around vitamin intakes and recommendations alongside the plant-based recipes. She hopes the book can be used as somewhat of a ‘sporting bible’, the kind of resource she’d had as a young athlete. “Hopefully people pick it up, learn a lot and improve their performances from it.”

As an elite athlete competing at the very top level, Brooke has unique insight into her health and mental health, making her a great subject to tap into on the subject of wellbeing. Herewith she imparts her wisdom.

What do you do for a living?

For the past 10 years I’ve been a member of the New Zealand Rowing team. This year, post the Tokyo Olympics, has been a little different. I worked at Rabobank in the sustainability team and am now on maternity leave. ​

What hours do you work each day?

​Rowing is intensive, we do 3-4 hours of training each day usually over 2-3 sessions, six days a week, plus time spent in meetings with nutritionists, sports physiologist, sport psychologists, physios, coaches etc. and then recovery time to rest and eat.

Working for the bank I would do seven hours of work a day, plus training morning and afternoon.

Sustain “breaks down the vitamins and minerals we need daily and the food sources to get these from.”


Sustain “breaks down the vitamins and minerals we need daily and the food sources to get these from.”

Do you have set work/life boundaries or do they merge?

Rowing has never felt like work. Over the past year I’ve juggled transitioning from being an elite athlete with a very strict routine, to filling up my cup with all the things I was unable to give my full attention to while rowing.

These include working full time in an office job, training, pregnancy, writing Sustain, renovating a house and finishing my masters. It’s a tricky balancing act.

For me personally, exercise makes me feel good, so I’m always going to prioritise that in my day. From there it’s about doing things that make me happy and are important. Things that are less important just have to go to the back.

What time do you wake up?

​Usually sometime around 6am or 7.30am if I get a sleep in.

What do you have for breakfast? ​

My go-to is two pieces of toast with butter and peanut butter.

Do you have an exercise routine, if so what is it?

​Being an elite athlete meant exercise was my life. Doing the amount of training we did meant that I often felt more exhausted than fit. But I enjoyed seeing the rewards from this discipline when racing internationally.

The past year I’ve found that it is really important to exercise every day – no matter what it looks like. I’ll often go for a run in the morning or go to the gym and sit on the stationary bike or do weights. I always feel better from doing something rather than nothing. I find exercise clears my head.

Do you use supplements?

I believe it’s possible to get all you need from food. However, being a plant-based athlete I’m conscious not to let my iron get too low. We [training team] put more effort into doing blood tests and food diaries to make sure that we’re filling all those gaps and not leaving any stone unturned.

I supplement with iron tablets when I need to. Sustain breaks down the vitamins and minerals we need daily and the food sources to get these from.

What time do you go to bed at night? Do you sleep soundly?

​I am usually in bed and asleep by 10pm. Currently, not sleeping soundly with a newborn!

What do you do in the final hour before bed? ​

Blob on the couch. It’s probably the only time of the day I allow myself to not be productive. I’m pretty bad at mindlessly scrolling Instagram, which I know isn’t the best thing to do, but it definitely makes me switch off.

Tell me about your poop.

All I will say is one benefit of a plant-based diet is the extra fibre which is definitely beneficial for your gut, probiotics and stools.

How do you deal with the stress of failure?

If I feel stressed or upset about ‘failing’ it shows how much that thing must mean to me. I try to use this as fuel to the fire to make me better going forward – definitely easier said than done. In rowing, the big times where I’ve felt that huge sense of failure and like I’ve let other people and myself down, those were the times I feel like it makes you better. Because you’re so motivated after feeling those emotions.

What do you do for fun? ​

I love being outdoors and enjoy hikes, surfing or diving with my husband, Jeff.

Favourite free stress-buster?

​Cleaning the house. Jeff might also say that this is what I do for fun.

What’s been the biggest change you’ve made when it comes to looking after your health, mental health and wellbeing?

​Four years ago I made the decision to go plant-based. I’ve never really enjoyed the taste of meat (I’d been vegetarian since high school) and through my masters’ studies in sustainability I wanted to do more for the planet which led me to giving up meat. I put more focus on what I was eating and how much I was eating which helped improve my sporting performance and general health.

Learning more about sustainability I also became more conscious of what I was consuming and made an effort to reduce my waste and think about what I was purchasing and consuming. I believe that living with less, and being conscious of the people and planet around us is a way to improve wellbeing. I feel less stressed having less ‘stuff’ around me which makes me more intentional about what I do own and consume.

Sustain: Plant-based food for active people by Brooke Donoghue, Luuka Jones and Christel Dunshea-Mooij, published by Bateman Books, is available now, $45.

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