By: Stephanie Di Grazia, RHN
Becoming a successful athlete requires time, commitment and practice. However, in spite of diligence in training, several other factors come into play that extend beyond time spent on the field, court or ring. One of these major factors is diet, which can significantly impact how well an athlete performs. Improper diet and nutrients can impair even the most tenacious and conditioned of athletes. To maximize athletic or fitness performance your body requires support through proper nutrition and hydration. Ensuring adequate caloric intake and the right balance of macronutrients is crucial for sufficient fuel, building and repairing muscle fibers broken down during training, and to ensure balance of biochemical reactions in the body to keep you performing at peak levels.
In addition to macronutrient consideration, certain foods are particularly beneficial to athletes as they contain micronutrients that boost endurance and strength, improve muscle function, aid in recovery, and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress post training.
Including these foods can help you to become a better athlete, or achieve a better work out, by optimizing your body’s capabilities so that you can challenge your limits and help you to outperform your opponents.
Do I have your attention?
Through adopting a natural approach to nutrition, you have access to the building blocks needed to fuel your workouts and successfully recover. The formula is simple: Eat well, perform well, and recover well.
These super foods in particular make a great addition to any athlete or fitness enthusiast’s diet:
Pomegranates contain nitrates to boost blood flow and deliver more oxygen to muscle tissue. This allows for the body to use oxygen more efficiently and accomplish more work before reaching physical exhaustion (1,2). Pomegranates are also high in polyphenols and have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation (3).
Gram for gram spirulina is an incredibly abundant source of beta-carotene, calcium, and protein (4, 5). This makes it a nutrient dense powerhouse to promote energy, endurance, and vitality and allows for improved training and agility. It is also very rich in bio-available iron which becomes more difficult to maintain when you are physically active (4, 5). As a result, spirulina helps to prevent symptoms of iron deficiency and helps to replenish hemoglobin levels. Furthermore, spirulina is high in tyrosine which releases dopamine to improve mental focus.
Beetroot juice has been shown to trim minutes off run time and trigger the release of nitric oxide which helps to increase cardiovascular endurance and regulate blood flow (6, 7, 8). This is particularly useful for sports and exercise that require stamina such as marathon runners. Beets also improve tolerance against high-intensity training and improve blood flow to muscles (6, 7, 8).
Bananas are loaded with easily digested carbohydrates, making them a great source of energy for athletes. They not only provide you with a quick boost of fuel but help to maintain blood sugar levels and balance fluids. Bananas are also packed with potassium which helps to maintain nerve and muscle function.
Honey is loaded with vitamins and minerals and has been shown to boost athletic performance, increase speed and energy, and sustain blood sugar for over 2 hours (9). Honey is also extremely anti-inflammatory and can help to combat post work out inflammation and oxidative damage (9).
Cherries are one of the most antioxidant rich fruits available and provide several health benefits ranging from reduction in belly fat to lowered risk of stroke. Cherries or pure tart cherry juice can significantly reduce inflammation and speed exercise recovery, as well as combat oxidative stress post work out. Studies have also shown that marathon runners who drank tart cherry juice in training pre-race experienced faster recovery of muscles and strength, and also reported significantly less muscle pain and symptoms of muscle damage (10, 11).
Sometimes referred to as nature’s ‘sports drink’, coconut water is a good source of electrolytes like sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium. This makes it a perfect low calorie option and alternative to sports drinks to re-hydrate during long workouts and restore minerals lost through excessive sweating.
Dates and other dried fruits
Rich in carbohydrates, natural sugars, and potassium, dried fruits like dates and raisins can provide a natural burst of energy and help to control heart rate when taken right before training. Dried fruits have been shown to be as effective as and less costly than energy gels and drinks (12).
Coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride, which is easily digested by the body and used directly for energy. This helps to supercharge brain function, raises metabolic rates and helps to burn more fat while maintaining muscle mass (13,14). Furthermore, coconut oil is an excellent source of anti-inflammatory omega 3 (13, 14). Coconut oil can give a much needed boost of energy when taken before a work out and reduce stress in the nervous system and brain.
Always strive for progress, and discover the strengths you never knew you had.
1. Trombold, J. R., Reinfeld, A. S., Casler, J. R., & Coyle, E. F. (2011). The effect of pomegranate juice supplementation on strength and soreness after eccentric exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1782-1788.
2. Roelofs, E. J., Hirsch, K. R., Trexler, E. T., Mock, M. G., & Smith-Ryan, A. E. (2015). The effects of pomegranate extract on anaerobic exercise performance & cardiovascular responses. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(Suppl 1), P56.
3. Swamy, M. S. L., Naveen, S., Singsit, D., Naika, M., & Khanum, F. (2011). Anti-fatigue effects of polyphenols extracted from pomegranate peel. Int. J. Integr. Biol, 11, 69-72.
4. Dr. Cath. (2014). Spirulina Nutrition: Athletes’ Best Kept Secret. Spirulina Academy. Retrieved August 23, 2016, from http://spirulinaacademy.com/spirulina-nutrition-athletes-secret/
5. Spirulina for Athletes. Synergy Natural. Retrieved August 23, 2016, from https://www.synergynatural.com/ask-a-naturopath/health-articles/spirulina-for-athletes.html
6. Murphy, M., Eliot, K., Heuertz, R. M., & Weiss, E. (2012). Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(4), 548-552.
7. Muggeridge, D. J., Howe, C. C., Spendiff, O., Pedlar, C., James, P. E., & Easton, C. (2014). A single dose of beetroot juice enhances cycling performance in simulated altitude. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 46(1), 143-150.
8. Fitzgerald, M. (2014). Beetroot Juice: The Drink Of Champions. Retrieved August 23, 2016, from http://running.competitor.com/2014/06/nutrition/got-beetroot-juice_17653
9. Franzen, H. (2001). Honey Heightens Athletic Performance. Scientific American. Retrieved August 19. 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/honey-heightens-athletic/
10. Kuehl KS, Chestnutt J, Elliot DL, Lilley C. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain after strenuous exercise. American College of Sports Medicine. 851. May, 2009.
11. Connolly DA, McHugh MP, Padilla-Zakour OI, Carlson L, Sayers SP. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006: 40(8): 679–683.
12. Frazier, M., & Ruscigno, R. (2013). No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press
13. St-Onge, M.P., & Jones, P. (2002). Physiological Effects of Medium-Chain Triglycerides: Potential Agents in the Prevention of Obesity. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences. vol. 132 no. 3 329-332.
14. Dalgleish, J. (2014). Coconut: What are the benefits for an endurance athlete? Endurance Sports Nutritionist. Retrieve August 17, 2016, from http://www.endurancesportsnutritionist.co.uk/blog/coconut-what-are-the-benefits-for-an-endurance-athlete/