Most green vegetables, especially leafy greens, are full of vitamins, minerals, disease-fighting phytochemicals and fiber. Fiber helps to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, controls blood-sugar by slowing the absorption of carbohydrates into your bloodstream after meals and helps with the elimination process of digestion (8). More importantly, most greens are high in minerals like potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are crucial for supporting athletic performance by contributing to muscle function, oxygen uptake and blood pressure management. In other words, greens keep you a lean, healthy, and fast racing machine.
Greens: Broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach, kale, beet greens
2. Colored Vegetables and Fruits
Colored vegetables and fruit contain phytochemicals that act as antioxidants and serve to protect and regenerate essential nutrients for the body. Each hue has a different but important function. Antioxidants are important nutrition for runners as antioxidants are the perfect complement to your training. Training actually breaks the body down, it is the time in between when the body repairs and adapts that it becomes stronger and antioxidants are crucial in this process.
Blue/Purple hues in foods are high in anthocyanin, which may help reduce cardiovascular disease, cancer and improve cognitive function (1)
Blue/Purple Foods: blueberries, elderberries
Yellow/Green foods are rich in lutein (2) which is beneficial not only for eye health but also digestion. They are also generally high in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant.
Yellow/Green foods: squash, kiwi, and greens mentioned above
Red plant foods,like beets, can help create vasodilation due to the nitric oxide. Other red plant foods can be that color way from the pigment lycopene. We know as runners it is important for our blood vessels to relax and dilate. In at least one study those who had taken 7 mg of lycopene for two months saw 53 percent better blood vessel dilation compared to the placebo group (3). Red plant based foods are also a source of flavonoids which help reduce inflammation. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that has been associated with a reduced risk of some cancers, including prostate cancer, and protection against heart attacks.
Red plant foods: Beets, tomatoes
Yellow/Orange foods are high in beta-cryptoxanthin and beta-carotene, which is a particularly good antioxidant. Results from a study on the effect of beta-carotene on race performance published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise indicated that there was a statistically significant improvement in 5 kilometer race performance. The average race times during the placebo and beta-carotene phases were 19:55 minutes and 19:18 minutes respectively. In addition, 64% of the subjects noted a subjective benefit from the use of beta-carotene supplementation (4). Beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, and alpha-carotene are all orange-friendly carotenoids and can be converted in the body to vitamin A, a nutrient integral for vision and immune function, as well as skin and bone health. While supplementation is one way to get these nutrients, getting them from real whole foods is the ideal way for your body to process these nutrients.
Yellow/Orange Foods: Pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe
3. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods require little energy from the body to digest and assimilate while providing nutrients and beneficial gut bacteria. They are rich in enzymes and assist with digestion and support the pancreas. According to Kelli Jennings RD, founder of Apex nutrition, a 2014 study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that regular probiotic consumption not only led to better digestion and fewer gastrointestinal issues, but also improved immune function, recovery, and overall health. In athletes, this can translate to less time missed due to illness and increased recovery from training. She goes on to state that, “beyond boosting gut health, probiotics directly support immune function by promoting higher levels of interferon, a protein made and released by cells in response to the presence of viruses, bacteria, and parasites. The production of interferons can be suppressed in some athletes during periods of intense, extensive training, and past studies in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition showed that daily supplementation of probiotics by fatigued athletes led to increased interferon production. Over time, these individuals also showed decreased incidence of illnesses like colds and mononucleosis (5).
Fermented Foods: sauerkraut, kim-chi, plain yogurt
4. Nuts/Seeds and Healthy Fats
Nuts and seeds are generally rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals. Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation and support many processes that contribute to cellular healing. Remember, with nuts and a seed a little goes a long way, and for optimal nutrition soak or sprout your nuts beforehand. Healthy fats not only help with absorption of nutrients, but have also been found to increase energy expenditure. This study found that 15-30 grams of MCTS per day increased 24 hour energy expenditure by 5%.
Foods with healthy fats: Fish, chia seeds, almonds, and flax
5. Protein, Organ Meats
The body needs protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is a macronutrient, meaning that the body needs relatively large amounts of it. Vitamins and minerals, which are needed in only small quantities, are called micronutrients. But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply.” (6) Aim for around .8 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day, depending on how heavy your training cycle is.
Something that gets often overlooked or discarded completely in American kitchens as a protein source is organ meat, and yet as athletes, organ meats are some of the most nutrient dense and beneficial foods we could be eating. For instance, take a look at the nutritional profile of beef liver
- Higher levels of vitamin B1, B2, B6, folate , B12 (all of which are involved in hundreds of metabolic processes in the body, including energy production and endurance) and A, D, E and K.
- Packed with minerals like phosphorus, iron, copper, magnesium, iodine, calcium, potassium, sodium, selenium, zinc and manganese.
- One of the most concentrated and bio-available forms of Vitamin A
If the idea of eating beef liver is just too disgusting, you can buy it in a powdered or pill form.
Whole grains that have been soaked or sprouted are also a good addition to your daily diet but are so commonly eaten that they didn’t make the top 5 list – not many runners need a reminder to eat their carbs that come from grains.
- PLOS ONE; June, 2014, Volume 9, Issue 6, e99070
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 31: S118, 1999.