When in doubt, reach for these science-backed ingredients
“What should I eat?” It’s a loaded question, one that people have been Googling en masse for more than a decade. The specifics of that answer depend on your goals—if you’re trying to shed a few pounds, for example, you’ll need to eat differently than someone trying to ramp up during a training block.
But for athletes in particular, there are a few key ingredients you should try to work into your diet every day. Eat these nine foods for performance gains, a sharper competitive edge, and improved general health.
Greens like spinach, kale, and arugula are high in nitrates, chemical compounds that improve blood flow and, in turn, have been shown to make both short and long endurance efforts feel a lot easier. This study, for example, found that athletes who used around 500 milligrams’ worth of nitrate supplements improved their performance on a sprint trial by 4.2 percent. A similar study found the nitrates found in beetroot (an approximately 500 mg serving) helped people drop 41 seconds from their 5K time. Throw a serving of your favorite green into a smoothie, use it as a bed for a grain bowl, or blend it into a homemade pesto for that same dose and potential performance boost.
You’re best off with around .75 grams of protein per pound of body weight, according to a massive 2017 review of the research. That amount of protein also improves your health, helps you recover more quickly, and possibly speeds your metabolism to shed more fat, studies suggest. You can—and probably should—get much of your protein from lean meats like chicken breast, but realistically, .75 grams per pound of your body weight is a lot of protein (almost 100 grams for a 130-pound woman and 135 grams for a 180-pound man). Enter protein powder. It’s cheaper and more convenient. Need a good option? Try our three favorites.
We can’t put it better than this study did: “An overwhelming body of research has now firmly established that the dietary intake of berries has a positive and profound impact on human health, performance, and disease.” Berries are full of anthocyanins, chemicals that have been shown to boost brain health, and drinking something like a blueberry smoothie may also help you recover quicker, according to research. Try topping your yogurt with some blueberries or throwing raspberries into your oatmeal.
Odds are good that heart disease is what’ll kill you. Which is exactly why you need garlic. A huge body of research suggests that garlic can improve cholesterol ratios and reduce triglycerides, blood pressure, and arterial stiffness. It’s also been shown to boost immunity and reduce the length of illness. And a healthy heart and body is key to keeping you in the outdoors. Raw chopped or crushed garlic contains the most beneficial compounds. Buy prechopped garlic and save the time and mess of peeling.
Two words: gut health. This fermented milk and grain drink is a probiotic bomb. While we’re still sorting out the specifics of gut bacteria’s impact on health—researchers, for example, were recently rocked when they discovered that one of the healthiest tribes in the world actually has more of what we thought was “bad” gut bacteria and less of what we thought was “good” gut bacteria—preliminary science suggests that your microbiome is instrumental to everything from your overall health to your outlook on life to your athletic performance. Kefir in particular may improve your immunity while cutting inflammation—keys to post-workout recovery. You can drink it straight or add it to your morning smoothie.
Take our word for it: Spuds are the original superfood. Many cultures have lived on potatoes for thousands of years—a feat you can accomplish thanks to the staple crop’s ample carbs, protein (a diet of potatoes alone allows you to hit the protein RDA), and nearly every vitamin and mineral your body needs. These qualities also make potatoes a killer endurance food (some ultrarunners even carry bagged mashed potatoes in lieu of goos). The potato’s bang-for-your buck value is off the charts: They’re not only the cheapest vegetable, but also the most filling. Roast one up with a little salt for the ultimate easy and healthy side dish.
All nuts and seeds are great. They pack healthy fats and essential fatty acids and offer high levels of magnesium and selenium. The former may reduce exercise-induced extreme physical stress, while the latter is a potent antioxidant. So why single out sunflower seeds? They’re cheap. A pound of raw, shelled sunflower seeds costs just $2 to $3. An equivalent amount of raw, shelled almonds, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, or cashews cost anywhere from $10 to $19. Since you’ll likely be snacking on these by the handful, you want to cut costs where you can.
We’ve written at length about why oatmeal is a top performance food and how to best whip it up. But here’s another case worth considering: Oats are a budget-conscious dirtbag’s dream. Did you know you can buy a 50-pound bag of rolled oats from a farm supply store for $16? That makes the cost of a plain bowl of oatmeal just $0.03. If you find a cheaper performance food, you probably stole it.
What can we say about coffee that hasn’t been said about performance-enhancing drugs? OK, caffeine isn’t quite that powerful of an exercise aid, but it’s the closest legal option. Studies consistently show that it improves your anaerobic capacity, endurance, power output, and reaction time while reducing your perception of exercise-induced suffering. But beware: Using caffeine is a little more nuanced than just pounding espressos. Here’s how to use caffeine on race day.