Foods to Enhance Your Athletic Performance and Health
In the field of sports nutrition, supplement companies push their products, claiming they have the “magic bullet” for weight loss, weight gain and/or performance enhancement.
Many of these products are costly, include a number of artificial chemicals, and are not supported by research.
Some of them can even have adverse effects on your health, such as energy drinks causing restlessness and insomnia, and some herbs causing kidney and liver damage.
Supplements should not be considered a substitution for healthy eating. Ideally, optimal nutrition and nutrient timing should be used to enhance your performance.
Many of the foods to which you have access may be used as ergogenic (performance enhancing) aids. Here is a list of a few:
Consuming watermelon before exercise helps cut recovery time and boost performance.
Watermelon is a rich source of citrulline, an amino acid that can be metabolized to arginine, a conditionally essential amino acid for humans. Arginine is the nitrogenous substrate used in the synthesis of nitric oxide. It plays an essential role in cardiovascular and immune functions by accelerating lactic acid removal, and allowing better physical performance by enabling athletes to carry out more intense training. The end result is faster recovery after each workout.
Dose: 500 mL of natural watermelon juice.
(Collins, 2007) (Tarazona-Diaz, 2013)
Beetroot and leafy greens are good sources of naturally occurring nitrate (not to be confused with sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite, which are preservatives often added to cured meats and are not healthy). Dietary nitrate from beets and greens is absorbed rapidly from the stomach and small intestine.
Six days of dietary nitrate supplementation in the form of beetroot juice (~0.5 L/d) has been reported to reduce pulmonary oxygen uptake (VO₂) during submaximal exercise and increase tolerance of high-intensity work rates, suggesting that nitrate can be a potent ergogenic aid.
A study tested the effects of regularly taking green tea extract (GTE) and found that over 10 weeks, endurance exercise performance was boosted up to 8-24% with 0.5% GTE supplementation.
Researchers at the Biological Sciences Laboratories of Kao Corp., Tochigi, Japan, said the 8-24% increase in swimming time-to-exhaustion was accompanied by lower respiratory quotients and higher rates of fat oxidation.
The results indicate that GTE is beneficial for improving endurance capacity and support the hypothesis that the stimulation of fatty acid utilization is a promising strategy for improving endurance capacity.
Results came from the equivalent of about 4 cups of green tea a day.
(American Physiology Society, 2005)
In a study by Saat et al, eight healthy male volunteers exercised at 60% of VO2max in the heat until 2.78 +/- 0.06% of their body weight (BW) was lost.
After exercise, the subjects sat for 2 hours in a thermoneutral environment and drank a volume of plain water, coconut water and a carbohydrate electrolyte beverage on different occasions representing 120% of the fluid loss.
Coconut water was found to be significantly sweeter, caused less nausea, fullness and no stomach upset. It was also easier to consume in a larger amount compared with a carbohydrate electrolyte beverage and plain water.
They concluded that the ingestion of fresh young coconut water could be used for whole body rehydration after exercise.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition proposes that exercising individuals need approximately 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. The actual amount is dependent upon the mode and intensity of the exercise, the quality of the protein ingested, and the status of the energy and carbohydrate intake of the individual.
Concerns that protein intake within this range is unhealthy are unfounded in healthy, exercising individuals.
Optimally, one should seek to obtain protein requirements from whole foods (e.g. eggs, meat, fish, poultry and dairy as well as nuts, soy and legumes), but supplemental protein is a safe and convenient method of ingesting high quality dietary protein.
Consuming protein shortly after an exercise session can improve recovery and lead to greater gains in fat free mass.
Fat – Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) – e.g. Coconut oil
The effect of ingesting medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) on swimming endurance was investigated by Fushika et al.
The group being fed MCTs showed significantly greater swim capacity than the control group. These findings were evident in both trained and untrained subjects.
This was attributed to accelerated metabolic conversion, with less fat storage and more conversion into fuel for immediate use.
MCTs have gained in popularity, with athletes seeking to increase energy levels and enhance endurance during high-intensity exercise, as well as serving as an alternative energy source for athletes on high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets.
Lastly, MCTs can be quickly mobilized in the post-exercise recovery phase to rebuild muscles and prevent catabolism.
The dose of MCTs (e.g. Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil) is about 1/4 teaspoon several times daily), increasing the dose as tolerated (MCTs can cause nausea and gastric discomfort).
(Fushika, 1995) (Dean, 2013)
Carbohydrate and fat are the two primary fuel sources oxidized by skeletal muscle tissue during prolonged endurance exercise. The contribution of these fuel sources depends on the exercise intensity and duration, with a greater contribution from carbohydrate as exercise intensity increases.
Endurance performance and capacity are influenced by the availability of carbohydrates. Therefore, improving carbohydrate availability during prolonged exercise through carbohydrate ingestion is an important strategy for performance enhancement.
Carbohydrate ingestion during prolonged moderate-to-high intensity exercise (>2 h) can significantly improve endurance performance. This is likely related to the sparing of skeletal muscle glycogen, prevention of liver glycogen depletion and subsequent development of hypoglycemia.
Small amounts of carbohydrate ingestion during exercise may also enhance the performance of shorter (45-60 min), more intense exercise bouts.
There are multiple studies suggesting that milk consumption (fat-free and low-fat chocolate) during and/or after exercise may be more helpful than commercial sports drinks in recovering from strength and endurance training.
Milk also has the added benefit of providing additional nutrients and vitamins that are not present in commercial sports drinks.
For those who are lactose intolerant, there are lactose free options.
(Cermak, 2013) (Lunn, 2012) (Roy, 2008)
Nieman et al compared the acute effect of ingesting bananas versus a 6% carbohydrate drink on 75-km cycling performance and post-exercise inflammation, oxidative stress, and immune function.
They found that eating bananas before and during prolonged and intensive exercise is an effective strategy, both in terms of fuel substrate utilization and cost, for supporting performance.
Dietary carbohydrates have varying glycemic indexes and may differentially affect metabolism and endurance.
In a study by Kern et al, they examined the potential differences in metabolism and cycling performance after consumption of raisins vs. a high glycemic commercial sports gel.
Eight endurance-trained cyclists completed 2 trials in random order. Subjects were fed 1 g carbohydrate per kilogram body weight from either raisins or sports gel 45 minutes prior to exercise on a cycle ergometer at 70% VO2max.
The study concluded that raisins appeared to be a cost-effective source of carbohydrate for pre-exercise feeding in comparison to sports gel for short-term exercise bouts.
By choosing “whole foods” as ergogenic aids, one can not only enhance performance, but can also provide nourishment to support optimum health.
American Physiology Society. (2005, January 31). Green Tea Extract Boosts Exercise Endurance 8-24%, Utilizing Fat As Energy Source. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/01/050128221248.htm
Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007 Sep 26;4:8.
Cermak NM, Gibala MJ, van Loon L. Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Feb;22(1):64-71.
Cermak NM, van Loon LJ. The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Med. 2013 Nov;43(11):1139-55. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0079-0.
Collins JK1, Wu G, Perkins-Veazie P, Spears K, Claypool PL, Baker RA, Clevidence BA. Watermelon consumption increases plasma arginine concentrations in adults. Nutrition. 2007 Mar;23(3):261-6.
Dean, W. Nutrition Review http://nutritionreview.org/2013/04/medium-chain-triglycerides-mcts/
Fushiki T, Matsumoto K, Inoue K, Kawada T, Sugimoto E. Swimming endurance capacity of mice is increased by chronic consumption of medium-chain triglycerides. J Nutr 1995 Mar;125(3):531-9.
.Kern M, Heslin CJ, Rezende RS. Metabolic and performance effects of raisins versus sports gel as pre-exercise feedings in cyclists.J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1204-7
Lunn WR, Pasiakos SM, Colletto MR, Karfonta KE, Carbone JW, Anderson JM, Rodriguez NR. Chocolate milk and endurance exercise recovery: protein balance, glycogen, and performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Apr;44(4):682-91
Nieman, D, Gillitt, N, Henson, D, Sha, W, Shanely, RA, Knab, A, Cialdella-Kam, L, Jin, F. Bananas as an Energy Source during Exercise: A Metabolomics Approach. PLOS One. May 17, 2012
Roy, Brian. Milk: the new sports drink? A Review. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2008, 5:15
Saat, M, Sing, R, Sirisinghe, RG, Nawawi, M. Rehydration after exercise with fresh young coconut water, carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water. J. Physiol Anthropol Appl Human Sci. 2002, Mar;21 (2): 93-104
Tarazona-Diaz, M., Alacid, F., Carrasco, M., Martinez, I., Aguayo, E. Watermelon Juice: Potential Functional Drink for Sore Muscle. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2013, 61 (31), pp 7522–7528