Smart supplementation can go a long way toward boosting performance and recovery. But before you reach for powders and pills, there’s another secret weapon you can use to get results: real food. With this in mind, we asked one of our favorite performance nutrition gurus, Beachbody Director of Scientific Affairs Dr. Nima Alamdari, to share some of his favorite performance-enhancing foods.
Drinking coffee daily is a must for many athletes. Not only is it a rich source of antioxidants, but from a fitness perspective, its caffeine content can play a role in performance.
Caffeine (whether you get it from coffee or tea) is an accepted component of the training and competition arsenal for athletes throughout the world. It is a legal compound that has a potent work-enhancing—or ergogenic—effect in many athletic situations. Research is ongoing, but it is likely that the performance-enhancing effects of caffeine are explained by changes in the central nervous system.
When it comes to caffeine, you don’t need a lot. Most people only require low doses of caffeine (up to ~1.5 to 3 mg/kg body mass, or up to ~200 mg, which is just slightly more than your average cup of coffee) to improve athletic performance. Recent studies have also demonstrated the potent ergogenic effect of low doses of caffeine taken during prolonged exercise.
Caffeine can be taken in the hour before exercise—or during prolonged exercise—to improve performance. Low doses of caffeine are not associated with the side effects of higher doses, such as jitters, nervousness, the inability to sleep, or gastrointestinal distress. And, low doses of caffeine do not dehydrate users during exercise under normal conditions.
In addition to turning certain bodily excretions pink, beets are a naturally rich source of inorganic nitrate, a compound believed to enhance endurance performance by improving exercise efficiency.
Following consumption, dietary nitrate is converted to nitrite, then stored and circulated in the blood. In situations of low oxygen availability, nitrite can be converted to nitric oxide, which may enhance muscle efficiency and oxygenation, and improve exercise performance.
Other recent studies also indicate nitrate may have promising effects on cardiovascular and metabolic functions. However, little is known about nitrate intake that may optimize these positive effects while minimizing any potential risks to health. That said, experts agree that dietary supplementation through naturally nitrate-rich vegetable products such as beet juice is very unlikely to be harmful and appears to afford several benefits to human health and performance
Although this shouldn’t be an excuse to go for seconds at the all-you-can-eat Indian buffet, one of the main healthful components of turmeric is curcumin, a phytonutrient that is responsible for the yellow color of curry. The effects of curcumin have been well investigated over recent years, but its efficacy as an anti-inflammatory has been known in Asia for centuries.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen are commonly used by athletes of all levels in an effort to alleviate pain, muscle soreness, stiffness, and overall inflammation that occurs as a result of intense exercise or competition. However, NSAIDS can have serious side effects including cardiovascular complications and gastrointestinal distress. Phytonutrients such as curcumin also possess anti-inflammatory properties and are now being investigated as potential recovery aids following physical performance—without the nasty side effects.
Curcumin’s (safe) anti-inflammatory aspects are well established. They include changes in cell signaling, particularly inhibition of certain proinflammatory pathways, which have been linked with impaired performance.
In a recent study, curcumin was shown to reduce evidence of muscle damage, and resulted in a trend for lower pain intensity at 48 hours after eccentric aerobic exercise. These findings suggest that curcumin might be beneficial in the prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)—better known as “how you felt after week one of P90X”—but further long-term investigation is likely required to confirm this.
Pomegranates are delicious…even though they seem to stain everything they come close to. Here’s another great reason to eat them: recently, the impact of phytonutrients in pomegranates including ellagitannins on performance recovery after exercise has been getting some attention. Like curcumin, ellagitannin research has focused on reducing inflammation. In a study featured in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers examined the effects of pomegranate treatment on muscle damage and strength performance recovery following heavy resistance training. The results indicated that the pomegranate-treated group had greater muscle strength at 48 to 72 hours after heavy resistance training. A follow-up study confirmed that pomegranate supplementation reduced muscle weakness and soreness and implicated an ergogenic effect of pomegranate in resistance-trained individuals after eccentric exercise.
If training or competing on successive days, pomegranate supplementation might work to your advantage. Additionally, eating pomegranates during the early stages of new training regimens could offer benefits by decreasing soreness and preventing weakness.
The adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” might not be an old wives’ tale after all. Apples are rich in phytochemicals and are a particularly good source of quercetin, a flavonol that may benefit endurance performance and counter exercise-induced inflammation. A few early studies sparked interest in quercetin as an ergogenic aid with reports of improved bike time-trial performance. Preclinical reports also suggest that quercetin may increase the production of mitochondria—the “batteries” of our cells. Two studies partially confirmed these findings. A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported that quercetin increased VO2 max and bicycle ride time to fatigue in healthy untrained subjects. Similarly, a second study reported that quercetin treatment resulted in an increase in distance covered in a time-trial performance in untrained subjects. They also found slight increases in the expression of genes associated with mitochondrial production in muscle. Other studies have shown conflicting findings with regard to quercetin and its performance-enhancing potential. In light of the conflicting studies, a recent meta-analysis review concluded that there was a small but significant benefit of quercetin on exercise performance as presented in literature.
Quercetin, like curcumin, also has relatively powerful anti-inflammatory properties. There are several clinical investigations that have examined the anti-inflammatory effects of quercetin following exercise. For example, one study reported a reduction of certain blood inflammatory markers in quercetin-treated ultramarathon runners. In another study by the same group, the influence of quercetin in combination with a flavanol from green tea was found to reduce markers of inflammation immediately after cycling.
Resveratrol is a natural polyphenol present in the skin of grapes and red wine. It’s commonly considered the key to the “French Paradox” and has been ascribed multiple beneficial effects, including cardiovascular protection and improvement of metabolic disorders. Like quercetin, preclinical studies of resveratrol show impressive benefits on endurance exercise. One frequently cited French study found that resveratrol treatment was associated with advantageous adaptations to the muscles of mice, strikingly similar changes to those seen with aerobic exercise training. In other words, resveratrol seemed to mimic some of the benefits of exercise.
Since this landmark study, a number of preclinical studies have reported favorable changes associated with resveratrol treatment, including improved exercise capacity, more muscle mass, and improved time to exhaustion. However, these positive findings have yet to be confirmed in humans. So, don’t go bingeing on resveratrol-rich foods or supplements and expect to wake up looking like an NFL quarterback.
Scientific excitement around early resveratrol studies has also led to investigation and investment in drug development by Big Pharma in an effort to mimic some of the benefits of exercise or even increase life span and promote bone and muscle health.
We spend so much time focusing on foods for weight loss and general health, it sometimes slips our mind that food serves a third important purpose: fuel. We can’t guarantee that these foods will accelerate your performance, but given they’re all also incredibly beneficial from a nutritional standpoint, it’s certainly worth making them part of your diet either way.