Top Superfoods that Enhance Athletic Performance
If you haven’t heard of superfoods by this time, you must be living under a rock. Superfoods are all the rage among food-trend watchers, health-food enthusiasts, and especially top athletes.
A superfood is defined as, “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”. In the case of athletes, superfoods are also beneficial for training, endurance, and performance.
Maca grows naturally as a root. It was originally cultivated in Peru by the Incans, who used this root to enhance endurance while fighting in war. Peruvians not only take maca root as a supplement, but they consume it as a food, much like we would eat carrots or potatoes in the Western world. Maca only grows at high elevation and local Peruvians hold claim to the fact that it allows visitors, at risk for altitude sickness, to adapt faster to the elevation.
The marketplace is flooded with maca products marketed for endurance, and rightly so. Maca works by improving oxygen transportation in the body. Efficient oxygen transportation means a higher capacity for endurance, greater energy levels, and increased mental clarity. In a race like an ultra-marathon, all of these components come together to give an athlete a significant advantage. The advantages extend to speed as well. A research study looking at endurance cyclists supplemented with maca, showed a significant improvement in speed from their baseline times.
Maca root is a good source of amino acids as well. Because muscles are composed of amino acids, this makes maca great as a recovery tool. After stress-induced exercise, maca can fill in the gaps for muscle repair. It also works by reducing inflammation and nourishing overstressed adrenal glands. Maca root is most easily found for purchase as a ground powder. I buy an organic maca root powder online, but co-ops and alternative health food stores may carry it as well.
If you happen to have read the top-seller book “Born to Run” or fell victim to purchasing this superfood as a ‘household pet’, you have likely already heard of chia seeds. In the book, Born to Run, the Tarahumara, an ultra-running indigenous tribe in Mexico, swear by the benefits of these seeds for endurance and stamina when running distances of up to 400+ miles. Google them if you want your daily dose of inspiration. After the book came out, I started seeing chia seeds for sale by store checkouts, in bulk containers at co-ops, and plastered across magazine covers as the next superfood for athletes.
While perhaps not a miracle food, these seeds are packed with nutrients. They are a rich source of fiber, protein, magnesium, phosphorous and the anti-inflammatory fat, omega-3-fatty acid. Consuming anti-inflammatory fat is very important to athletes that are inducing stress on their bodies through high-intensity workouts or competitions.
Research has evaluated the efficacy of chia seeds as fuel in endurance sports lasting greater than 90 minutes; the results show that they work as well as carbohydrate supplements (sports drinks, GU’s, bars) with the added benefit of the omega-3-fatty acids. While there weren’t any surprise performance enhancing advantages discovered through the research, these tiny seeds do pack a nutritional punch with their healthy fat, protein, and nutrient content.
Goji Berries come from a shrub native to china. Historically, Chinese took this berry in hopes of longer lives with increased energy and stamina. These brightly pigmented, red berries are hard to miss, and are typically found in stores dried like raisins.
Goji berries are considered an adaptogen, meaning they can aid in dealing with stress and boost your immune system. They are also one of the highest anti-oxidant foods on earth; therefore they can eliminate damaged cells (free radicals) in the body.
They can be a bit hard to chew, so soaking them in a cup of water for half an hour can help soften them. I like to eat them as a dried, chewy snack in trail mix.
Have you ever purchased a 'superfood' to enhance your athletic performance?
Goji Berries Topping a Smoothie
Beet Juice or Beet Powder
Olympians and the average health-enthusiast have both been found guzzling down beet juice before practice and competition. The reason being -research is making beet juice look nearly as effective as illegal blood doping for performance enhancement.
Research shows that beet juice or powder is effective because of its high concentration of nitrates. These nitrates are converted to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessel to dilate, allowing better perfusion and more oxygen getting to muscles during physical activity. More oxygen means faster times running up hills or greater endurance on longer endeavors.
Beet juice is also high in vitamins and antioxidants making it additionally beneficial for healing stressed cells in the body. When taking advantage of the beet juice benefits, research points out that is good to consume 3 hours before planned fitness activities to gain peak benefits.
I typically consume beet juice by simply adding a beet into my cold-pressed juice mixes, but beet powders and supplements are available on the market as well.
Try For Yourself
New science on superfoods is emerging every day and benefits are becoming more obvious for athletes. Understanding the power of superfoods can optimize your performance, recovery, and help you have the best edge in your field.
Trial and error is a process for any athlete, and incorporating one superfood into your diet at a time can allow you to personally identify any benefits.
If you are consuming superfoods in the form of supplements, it is important to discuss these with your doctor before starting any new regimen.
Stone M., Ibarra A., Roller M., Zangara A., Stevenson E. A pilot investigation into the effect of maca supplementation on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2009;126(3):574–576. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2009.09.012.
Illian T.G., Casey J.C., Bishop P.A. Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. J. Strength Cond. Res. 2011;25:61–65. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fef85c.
Potterat O. Goji (Lycium barbarum and L. chinense): phytochemistry, pharmacology and safety in the perspective of traditional uses and recent popularity. Planta Med. 76, 7–19 (2010).
Bond H, Morton L, Braakhuis AJ (2012) Dietary nitrate supplementation improves rowing performance in well-trained rowers. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 22(4):251–256
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