Whether you’re a professional or everyday athlete, it’s likely you’re constantly striving to improve your training. The food we eat has a direct impact on us physically. A good quality diet abundant in nutrients will help to increase your performance whilst training, recover faster, and optimize your body composition.
Whilst there are a number of expensive pre-workout powders, fat burners and other performance enhancing supplements available today they are usually filled with synthetic ingredients, preservatives or additives which may come with adverse health risks. Real food is always best, so here are a few foods known to improve your athletic ability, and how to use them.
Beetroot for increased performance
Beets are the colour of blood so it’s no wonder they are great for the circulatory system as a whole. Specifically, beets contain nitrate (that the body converts to nitrites then nitric oxide) which dilate the blood vessels. This means working muscles experience an increase in blood flow and oxygen which reduces overall oxygen consumption and decreases the time it takes an athlete to reach exhaustion. This may mean the difference of an extra rep or two or a faster run time.
Drink beet juice prior to exercise/training or for a few days leading to a race. Or add fresh beetroot to a pre-workout smoothie or meal. Argula (bitter leafy greens) are also a good source of nitrates.
Maca Root for athletic performance, energy & overall health
This heart shaped herb found in the Peruvian Andes has traditionally been used in Peruvian diets as a remedy for infertility, libido, physical and mental energy, mood balance and general good health, due to its high nutritional value. Maca is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it will help your body adapt to stress (including exercise induced stress) and fight fatigue by improving the health of your adrenal system.
Maca is rich in fibre, B vitamins, vitamin C and E. It is a good source of iron (important for oxygen transport in the blood); calcium (for muscle function); amino acids (energy production, muscle growth and recovery); zinc and magnesium (both which play significant roles in hundreds of enzymes in the body particularly related to hormones, reproductive health and metabolism).
Maca is available in powder form and has a nutty malt flavour. Start with 1 teaspoon per day, working up to no more than 1 tablespoon per day. Add it to your pre-workout smoothies, oats or quinoa porridge, homemade protein bars or balls, or add to your protein shake or morning coffee.
Nutritional Yeast to boost immune
We know that exercise strengthens your immune system, but have you ever over-trained or increased training intensity or duration and found yourself getting sick? That’s because excessive training stress can put stress on our immune system and increase our risk of infection. It has been found that a certain kind of fiber found in baker’s, brewer’s, and nutritional yeast can help maintain a higher amount of circulating white blood cells which fight infection.
Nutritional Yeast has a delicious cheesy flavor. Add a teaspoon or two a day to salads, soups or veggies during periods of intense training or after a race.
Spirulina for improved strength, endurance & recovery
Spirulina is a member of the blue-green algae family and is considered as the most nutritious food on the planet! A single tablespoon (approx. 7 grams) provides 4 grams of protein (with all essential amino acids), is a good source of vitamin B1, B2, B3, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese and potassium, as well as most other minerals and vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Spirulina has powerful antioxidants that decrease oxidative stress. This makes it perfect for recovery as exercise-induced oxidative damage is a major contributor to muscle fatigue. Studies have shown that spirulina supplementation improved muscle strength and endurance.
Add spirulina to smoothies or raw balls. Or shot it down first thing in the morning.
Fenugreek for increased muscular strength
Fenugreek is one of many herbs and spices that pack a powerful nutritious punch, providing numerous vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Studies have shown numerous health benefits including reduced inflammation, appetite control and reduced blood cholesterol. Fenugreek has shown to increase testosterone in men. A study in 2010 has shown that fenugreek significantly improved strength performance, as well as reducing body fat in 30 resistance trained men compared to placebo.
Fenugreek seeds are commonly ground into curry pastes or leaves are used in curries and slow cooked dishes. Or use it to flavour meat, poultry and vegetables before cooking.
Green Tea or Coffee as a pre-workout alternative
Caffeine is known to improve physical performance by signaling muscle activation in the brain, enhancing focus and energy by its effect on the nervous system, and increase fat burning via lipolysis (the breakdown of fat from fat cells). The bioflavonoid, quercetin, present in green tea has been shown to increase VO2max (the amount of oxygen you can use) and decrease the time it takes an athlete to reach fatigue.
Just be mindful of the amount of caffeine you consume on a daily basis as too much can impact your nervous system and adrenal glands. Each person’s caffeine sensitivity is different so if you experience insomnia, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, stomach upset, or muscle tremors perhaps cut the caffeine for a period of time to see if these symptoms improve.
Swap your pre-workout powder for a hot (or chilled) green tea or coffee before your session for a natural pre-workout without the crash. You can even add a teaspoon of coconut oil for sustained energy.
Written by Tristen Van Der Kley
Balanced Body Nutrition
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