Some days you need a lift to get you through a tough workout. Maybe you’re looking for natural ways to get the extra edge over your competition. Most people turn to the supplement aisle.
The reality is that there is deep wisdom to the “food first” approach to athletic nutrition: Some of the best performance-enhancing aids are foods found in the grocery store. Not only are these foods a delicious and healthy addition to your training diet, they’ve got scientific research to back them up.
Here are some of the best foods to include in your diet for optimal athletic performance.
Well known for their high-nutrient density and health-promoting abilities, almonds may improve athletic performance by boosting energy use and antioxidant capacity. They are packed with key nutrients for performance including bioavailable vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, copper, phosphorus, arginine, omega-6 fats, and an array of antioxidants.
Real-Life Performance Evidence: One study of professional cyclists found that adding a little over half a cup of almonds to their diet for four weeks improved cycling distance and resulted in lower markers of oxidative stress.
The caffeine in coffee makes it the most effective performance-enhancing food available. Controlled studies show caffeine can boost performance by as much as 25 percent, which translates into real-world improvements of 5 to 10 percent. How does it do it?
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system for greater strength and power capacity. It also decreases the sensation of pain and blunts the brain’s message of fatigue, allowing you to keep going when you’d normally collapse in exhaustion. Finally, coffee provides powerful antioxidants that help eradicate inflammation, especially the kind produced in response to muscle damaging contractions that are associated with severe post-workout muscle soreness.
Real-Life Performance Evidence: Coffee can benefit both strength and endurance performance. One study of trained cyclists found that coffee containing a caffeine dose of 5 mg/kg/body weight resulted in a similar increase in performance as the same dose of straight caffeine. Time trial performance was 5 percent better in both the coffee and caffeine groups compared to a placebo and decaf coffee group.
A second study found that trained men who consumed caffeinated coffee lifted more weight when squatting than during a placebo trial. Other studies testing the effect of caffeine alone on performance show improved jump height and faster repeated sprint performance.
One of the most loved fruits for their numerous health benefits (they protect your heart, lower cancer risk, and prevent dementia), blueberries also have athletic benefits. The antioxidants help fight the high oxidative stress load produced during intense, high-volume endurance training. They also counter post-workout muscle soreness and help sustain energy levels during exercise.
Real-Life Performance Evidence: One study found that blueberry consumption lowered DOMS muscle soreness after a tissue-damaging eccentric workout. The antioxidants in berries help accelerate the removal of waste products produced during hard training so that the body is better able to repair tissue and recover strength.
Other studies show berry consumption blunts the release of insulin, which allows for steadier blood sugar levels. This translates into an improved ability to use energy during exercise and may boost endurance and sprint performance.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, beets can significantly increase athleticism by improving the body’s ability to extract oxygen for a greater work capacity and longer time to reach exhaustion.
Beets contain nitrates, which increase nitric oxide, a compound that increases blood flow to the muscles. As more blood reaches muscles, energy production improves and your able to get more done with less effort. Beets also contain abundant antioxidant compounds such as betanin, which has anti-inflammatory effects and is particularly effective at eliminating toxins from the body.
Real-Life Performance Evidence: Most studies have tested the effects of beetroot juice, with results showing increased time-trial performance, lower RPE, and improved muscle force production during high-intensity exercise.
Beets also benefit strength performance: One study found that trained men who drank beetroot juice containing 400 mg of nitrate for one week performed significantly more reps and lifted more weight during a 3-set bench press workout. Total weight lifted for the workout in the beetroot juice averaged 2,582 kg compared to 2,171 kg in the placebo trial. Scientists think the performance benefit is through more efficient usage of the high-energy phosphocreatine pathway, allowing for greater force production within the most powerful type 2 muscle fibers.
Whole beets appear to also improve performance. A recent trial compared the effect of eating 200 grams of baked beats (the size of 2 medium beets, which contains about 500 mg of nitrate) with a placebo meal of cranberry relish on 5k running performance. Results showed that the beet group increased running velocity by 3 percent (equaling about 40 seconds faster if you normally ran 8 minute miles).
Despite faster running speed, heart rate was similar to the placebo trial, indicating the body was using oxygen more efficiently. RPE was also slightly lower during the first mile of the 5K. Although more research is needed, this study suggests similar performance benefits whether you eat or drink your beets. The key appears to be to ensure you are getting 400 to 500 mg of nitrates about an hour prior to training.
#5: Tart Cherries
By a similar effect as blueberries, tart cherries have consistently been shown to lower intense muscle soreness after hard training due to their high concentration of antioxidants.
But tart cherries are unique because they can naturally raise levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, which has been shown to significantly enhance sleep quality in normal sleepers and individuals with insomnia. Tart cherries are especially good for folks who can’t sleep due to mental stress because they reduce the buildup of inflammatory factors like IL-6, which can spiral out of control when you experience a lot of anxiety. Tart cherries may also have cardioprotective and cancer fighting effects.
Real-Life Performance Evidence: Most studies have tested the effects of tart cherry juice (either from an extract mixed with water or a powder) and shown reduced muscle soreness and faster recovery of strength in marathoners and strength athletes. For example, when trained men drank tart cherry juice for 10 days and then performed 10 sets of 10 back squats they reported less muscle soreness and faster recuperation of strength at 24 and 48 hours of recovery compared to a placebo.
It’s likely that eating whole cherries will be equally as beneficial since they contain all the antioxidant and other health promoting compounds of a juice. The catch is that fresh cherries are only available a few months a year. Frozen cherries are one alternative. When purchasing juice or powder, watch out for added sugar or the addition of other juices (often apple) to lower the manufacturing cost.
Final Words: Including these foods in your diet on a daily basis is an excellent way to get a leg up on the competition and have delicious, health-promoting meals. If you’re looking for more ideas, there are many other performance-enhancing foods that scientists haven’t gotten around to investigating yet. Here are five more that are renowned for their health benefits and will likely convey ergogenic effects:
Salmon is packed with inflammation fighting EPA and DHA fats as well as providing a complete protein for increased protein synthesis and muscle repair.
Sweet Potatoes are the primary food staple of the Okinawans—the world’s longest living people—providing healthy carbohydrates, an array of nutrients, and loads of inflammation abolishing antioxidants.
Dark Chocolate is packed with antioxidants that improve blood flow and help eradicate oxidative stress.
Bananas raise melatonin and improve blood antioxidant levels. They also provide a nice blend of healthy carbs, which may help extend endurance performance and aid in the replenishment of energy stores.
Vinegar improves nutrient partitioning so that the body is able to metabolize carbohydrates and fat more efficiently.