Every day, more professional and recreational level athletes are turning to plant-based nutrition to gain an athletic advantage. Plant based diets can reduce inflammation, improve energy, enhance athletic recovery and build a stronger immune system. All of these are important in achieving your best physical potential.
Below are my top three plant based foods for improving your athletic performance. Forget the pills, powders and supplements. The power of plants is nothing short of remarkable!
When I first learned about the performance benefits of beets, I wondered how long it would take to be considered cheating to use them to enhance my running performance for racing.
Several studies have now establish beet juice as a powerful ergogenic aid. Ergogenic aids are anything that enhances athletic performance. Some are legal, such as caffeine, others are banned substances, such as EPO and anabolic steroids.
Beet juice is not likely to become a banned substance any time soon, though its effects are powerful. In one study, cyclists were shown to be able to decrease the oxygen demands of riding at a certain pace by 19% and increase their time to exhaustion during extreme efforts buy 16% only after a few days of consuming two cups of daily beet juice!
It would take months of correct training to produce similar effects!
How do beets do it? Oxygen plays an important role in working muscles. Endurance training produces many changes in the body to improve the utilization of oxygen such as improved lung capacity, a stronger heart pump, and increased red blood cells for oxygen delivery.
Beets contain nitrates, which not helps to dilate the blood vessels for better oxygen delivery, it seems to reduce the oxygen demand of working working muscle cells. It somehow makes your muscles more oxygen efficient!
Many other plant foods are also rich in nitrates. Leafy greens such as kale and swiss chard contain appreciable amounts, but arugula is the best common source. Any high performance diet should be rich in these powerful greens!
Anyone who exercises strenuously on a regular basis is familiar with what lactic acid build-up feels like. This by-product of aerobic metabolism is what causes the burning sensation in your muscles. If it builds up enough faster than it can be removed, you are forced to stop.
Proper training will improve lactic acid clearance through physiological adaptations such as increased vascularization of the muscles.
Studies have shown that people who consume citrus, equivalent to two cups of orange juice a day, have 10% better lactate clearance than those not consuming the citrus! This would have a significant impact on reducing exercise fatigue, and increasing the intensity of exercise you can sustain before exhaustion.
Of course, the whole food is always better than a processed juice. If you do decide to consume orange juice, I always recommend juicing your own and avoiding the highly processed commercial varieties. Better yet, eat the real fruit! After all, it’s not just about athletic performance, it’s also about achieving your best possible health!
The best way to improve your athletic performance is to increase your training volume – that is the amount you train. Generally speaking, those who are able to train more will perform better than those who train less. This means that your ability to recover from training sessions is paramount. The faster you recover, the sooner you can train again.
One of the primary reasons more athletes are switching to a whole food, plant based diet is for its anti inflammatory benefits. Many plant foods are rich in anti inflammatory compounds that help to speed recovery, reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and keep injuries at bay. Eating a plant based diet allows them to train harder with more frequency.
Of all the inflammatory foods, the most potent may be berries. Studies have shown cherry juice to significantly reduce muscle soreness after strenuous exercise when compared to a placebo group.
Berries get their red, blue or purple colour from anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is thought to give cherries their anti-inflammatory effect. Berries of all kinds are, therefore beneficial.
I always keep bags of wild blueberries, cherries, raspberries and strawberries in my freezer for smoothies, oatmeal and banana berry “nice cream”. If you’re not eating berries every day, you should be. Athletic performance aside, they are one of the most potent foods in the prevention of chronic illness.
In fact, all of the foods on this list promote optimal health and they are delicious. In a world where many athletes compromise their health with dubious supplements, powders and sometimes even banned substances to gain an edge, what more can you ask for?
If you’d like to learn more about becoming a better athlete through the power of plants, check out my page for Plant-Powered Sports Nutrition Consulting.