As athletes we're always looking for ways to increase our performance and speed recovery time which is why there is such a big market for sports related supplements.
I see it everywhere. Active people who can't fathom a workout without their fluorescent pre-workout drink, their BCAA's, their recovery shake, and their muscle milk. Or whatever- insert supplement here. Before you get your gym shorts in a bunch, understand that supplementation is not a bad thing. The problem lies in the quality of most of these substances. Many of these products are packed with caffeine, refined sugar, artificial colors and flavors, and other harmful and unnecessary fillers.
So let's say you want to run faster, lift heavier, burn fat, and still eat as clean as possible. Not to mention avoid the unexpected bathroom breaks that your other pre-workout caused you...
When you break it down, the two main purposes of performance enhancing supplements are:
1. To help you perform better during your workouts
2. To recover faster so you can do it again
The good news is Mother Nature has some pretty powerful supplements of her own. These herbs and natural foods not only aid in athletic endeavors, but many of them also improve digestion, fight against cancer, and boost the immune system. The ancients would be so proud.
top 10 food-based athletic enhancers.
- Raw beets: Beets have many nutritional benefits, but it is their high nitrate (different from sodium nitrite, which is a common preservative in processed meats) content that makes them a powerful pre-workout booster. Recent studies show that these dietary nitrates "reduce the oxygen cost" of exercise (source). In other words, it helps preserve your energy stores so you can make your energy reserves last longer. This is especially beneficial for endurance sports such as running or biking. Beets are also a natural vasodilator. In other words, they give you that "pump". Lastly, they contain easily digestible carbs as a quick energy source. Try blending or juicing half a raw beet into your pre-workout smoothie or beverage.
- Turmeric: Turmeric is probably most famous for its ability to reduce inflammation, and for good reason. Studies show that the curcumin in turmeric contains anti-inflammatory properties that are comparable to potent drugs, as well as common OTC ones such as Tylenol and Ibuprofen. It can also help reduce soreness and DOMS. Try adding a tsp of turmeric to your post workout meal or shake, or supplement with 400-500 mg curcumin per day.
- Ginger: Ginger is another powerful anti-inflammatory, and the bonus of ginger is that it's spicy-sweet flavor blends much better with most juices, shakes, and smoothies. It also soothes digestion and reduces gas and bloating. This can be a huge benefit to those who sometimes experience GI discomfort during heavy workouts. (Runner's gut anyone??) Ginger, especially fresh and raw, is beneficial taken either before or after a workout.
- Cayenne and Paprika: The active property in both of these spices is called capsaicin. Capsaicin acts as a stimulant and can increase basal metabolic rate. It has also been shown to stimulate fat burning for energy. So although it may not taste best mixed in with your fruit smoothies, a shot of cayenne pepper before a workout can help boost blood flow and your body's fat-burning capabilities.
- Rhodiola and/or Ginseng: Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps the body adapt to stressors of any kind. Rhodiola boosts energy and performance not by stimulating the body, but rather by dampening the body's perception of pain, stress, and fatigue. Another bonus of this herb is that is has no known side affects or interactions with other drugs. Panax Ginseng is another adaptogen that is well-known for it's energy boosting properties.
- Magnesium rich foods: Magnesium is one of the most widely used minerals in the body, and is also easily depleted quickly with stress and exercise. This mineral is sometimes referred to as a natural relaxer, as it eases muscle tension and can even aid in sleep. It is imperative that athletes get adequate magnesium, especially if they're experiencing extra tension or even spasms in muscles. Best sources of magnesium are sea veggies, almonds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dark leafy greens, buckwheat, brown rice, figs, and avocados. For supplementation, 200-300 mg a day in glycinate form is ideal.
- Antioxidants: As beneficial as exercise is, the process of converting energy in the body is very oxidizing. This oxidation process creates free radicals that are damaging to our cells. Antioxidants reduce the damage done by these free radicals. Include plenty of antioxidant rich foods in your post-workout meal, as well as all throughout the day. Some great sources are dark leafy greens, berries, green tea, cacao, and orange veggies such as carrots and sweet potatoes.
- Caffeine: Yup, caffeine. I hate to admit it, but many studies show that caffeine significantly increases athletic performance in many cases. Healthy individuals can boost their workouts with one to two cups of coffee or other caffeinated beverages before a heavy workout. Gulping down the Joe isn't for everyone though. It can cause GI discomfort and jitters, and shouldn't be a replacement for adequate sleep and rest. Check out my Brew or Not to Brew article for more advice on caffeine.
- Omega 3's: Omega 3's are another powerful anti-inflammatory, as well as necessary for a healthy nervous system, brain function, and cardiovascular system. Most Americans are deficient in omega 3's, and can benefit greatly from supplementation. Athletes may especially benefit if they tend to experience achy joints or other inflammatory issues. Best sources of these fatty acids are flax seeds, walnuts, and fish such as sardines and salmon. If supplementing, take 1,000-2,000 mg fish or krill oil per day in divided doses.
- Bone broth: This stuff is liquid gold when it come to maintaining healthy joints, muscles, and digestion. Long-simmered bone broths provide easily absorbed minerals, collagen, protein, and glycene. For more on the benefit of bone broth and tips on how to cook and store your own, check out this article.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and doesn't discuss proper carbohydrate, protein, water, and electrolyte intake- all of which are also essential for optimal performance. These are supplement options to consider after you establish a generally clean diet with adequate macro-nutrients.
Need more guidance on nutrition that is right for your body? I'd love to chat with you! Holler here
Bauman, E., Friedlander, J. Therapeutic Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College, 2011.
Murray, Micheal T., Joseph E. Pizzorno, and Lara Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria, 2005.