Nothing beats a healthy, well-balanced diet to help keep you in tip-top shape. Once you’ve cleaned up your diet basics by eating wholesome and more fresh foods overall, you can begin to take the time to refine your nutrition program even more by including some smart foods in your regime.
There are loads of fresh and tasty smart foods that can help boost your athletic performance. In this post, I’ve listed a handful of promising performance enhancers. Some of them are so delicious you may be surprised they made the list! Even better, they are easy to add to your diet right now.
Whether blended into a smoothie or tossed in a salad, beets are an athlete’s best friend. They are a source of iron, nitrates and the antioxidants resveratrol, quercetin, and polyphenols. Nitrates are fantastic for boosting exercise efficiency and improving resting blood pressure, even though they seem to get a bad rap in some fad diet circles. In the body, nitrates are changed to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates your blood vessels, improves blood flow and reduces the amount of oxygen your muscles need.
Some research says that beetroot juice consumption lowers the oxygen cost of exercise, possibly enhances exercise capacity and increases the time to exhaustion by 25% during high-intensity exercise. While this performance benefit is still under research, the potential of beetroot juice in sport seems promising.
Studies show that 5-9 mmol nitrate/day for 2-6 days (and up to 15 days) taken 2 to 3 hours before exercise can enhance performance – this translates into 300 to 1,200 ml of regular strength beet juice. There is evidence that high performance athletes may require a slightly higher dose. Such athletes should aim for the higher end of the dose range to see benefits.
You can also try beet shots that provide are concentrated and allow the same benefits in 70 ml portions. Try a lower dose of beet juice first, as some athletes report GI side effects like diarrhea. Also interesting to note: mouthwash and gum reduce levels of mouth bacteria that convert nitrates to nitric oxide so limit their use if you’re using beets for performance.
You can also try:
In general, green leafy vegetables are a good source of dietary nitrates. Arugula is a fabulous choice – no wonder it also goes by the name of “rocket”!
Salmon seems to make every top food list – and for a good reason. This tasty fish is on the list of smart foods as it is packed with heart-friendly omega-3 fats and is a great source of protein. Omega-3 fats are fantastic for supporting good heart function and for keeping you mentally sharp. These fats are also renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties.
For athletes, omega-3 supplementation shows great promise. Studies have found that omega-3 supplementation can reduce muscle soreness after exercise, reduce heart rate both during and after exercise, and improve reaction time and decision-making. Omega-3 fatty acids also improve peripheral neuromuscular function and some aspects of fatigue in athletes.
All these factors make salmon a great food to boost your athletic performance. As with many emerging potential ergogenic aids, omega-3s require more research. However, even if their effect on performance is not clear-cut, they are a great benefit to your cardiovascular health.
So how much salmon is a good amount to incorporate into your diet? Salmon is low in mercury compared to other types of fish. In fact, this Globe and Mail article suggests that wild-caught salmon is one of the safest types of fish to consume (and it’s also sustainable!)
You can also try:
Hemp seeds are loaded with omega-3s and are a good plant-based substitute.
Yes, coffee! It’s no secret that caffeine gets your engine going and helps you feel awake and ready to take on the day. For many people, caffeine is also a great performance booster. A recent study looking at repeated use of caffeine in cross-country skiers found a 4-5% enhancement of performance. While athletes obtain caffeine from several sources like caffeine tablets, sports drinks, gels, or other supplements, coffee is a simple choice. Doses of 200 mg or 3 mg/kg are beneficial and have minimal side effects. A cup of coffee provides an average of 95 mg of caffeine.
Thinking of adding caffeine to your regime? Just be mindful of a few caveats. As with any new strategy, start slowly and always include it in practice first before it becomes part of your competition day routine. You never know how caffeine is going to affect your personal exercise results. Also, there is a small group of people who are slow metabolizers of caffeine. For this group, caffeine does not help and may even hinder performance. And finally – stay away from energy drinks that combine other substances with caffeine, particularly if you are an adolescent.
You can also try:
Black and green teas also contain caffeine. While the level of caffeine may not be equal to that of coffee, tea is often easier on the stomach.
With summer comes heat. Rehydrating properly after a tough workout is important to keep you mentally sharp and physically ready to tackle your next session. Research has shown that salt and water together is better for rapid rehydration than water alone. While sports drinks often contain sodium, the levels are lower than needed for optimal rehydration.
Pretzels are a convenient choice because they are salty, low in fat and are also a source of carbohydrates. On a hot day, add a pinch of salt to your sports drink (like this Cranberry Orange Sports Drink), or snack on a handful of salty pretzels after exercise.
You can also try:
A cup of broth has the bonus of providing fluid and salt in one tasty package. This is a particularly good choice for those who sweat profusely and those who are salty sweaters. Salty sweaters are those who sweat more salt than the average person. You can spot a salty sweater by looking for white salty sweat rings on their dark workout clothes. Be cautious about adding extra salt though if you have a health condition such as high blood pressure or kidney disease.
Fortified milk is on our list of smart foods because it is packed with vitamins and nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium. Milk is also a good source of protein and carbohydrates, making it a fabulous choice for recovery nutrition. Finally, milk is a great source of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is fantastic at stimulating muscle repair and building. Aim for 2-3 g of leucine after a workout. You can achieve this goal by eating everyday foods that contain dairy.
When it comes to the type of milk you should drink, the options can seem endless. Many have weighed in on the grass-fed or organic milk debate, but in my opinion, the potential health benefits of choosing organic milk over regular milk are minimal. All Canadian cow milk (organic and conventional) is growth hormone and antibiotic-free. There may be some environmental or animal welfare differences between how the cows are raised, but this is a different consideration.
You can also try:
Peanut butter. Leucine is found in other dairy products, meat (chicken, beef, pork, and fish) and other legumes and nuts – but peanut butter is a great portable of leucine.
Was this article helpful? Try adding one or more of these smart foods to your routine, and let us know the results.
When it comes to sports nutrition, be careful what you read online and what you put in your body. These trusted resources are great tools to help you make smart purchases and dietary choices:
- Stadheim HK, Spencer M, Olsen R, et al. Caffeine and performance over consecutive days of simulated competition. Med Sci Sports Exerc.
- Jones, A.M. (2014) Dietary nitrate supplementation and exercise performance. Sports Medicine 44(Suppl1):S35-S45.
- Lewis EJH, Radonic PW, Wolever TMS, Wells GD. 21 days of mammalian omega-3 fatty acid supplementation improves aspects of neuromuscular function and performance in male athletes compared to olive oil placebo. J Int Soc Sports Med.
Nutrition planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one-on-one or group nutrition counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. In addition, the Gazelle Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!