Finding fresh, healthy food that gives you energy to tackle your workouts is never easier than in summer, given the wealth of straight-from-the-farm produce. These nutrient-dense foods will help you optimize performance and recovery all summer long.
Beets are high in nitrates, which our bodies use to make nitric oxide, which in turn signals blood vessels to relax, helping widen the arteries and increase circulation, bringing more oxygen to hardworking muscles. The elevated rate of oxygen delivery to working is a natural performance enhancer. In a study at the University of St. Louis, researchers had 11 participants eat about 1.3 cups of beets (200 grams) 75 minutes before a timed 5K. Participants improved their speed by 3 percent compared to a later timed trial in which the runners consumed a placebo. To make the most of the summer beet stock, Breanne Nalder, a sports nutritionist and member of the DNA Pro Cycling team, recommends roasting them by wrapping each beet in foil, placing them in a glass baking dish, and cooking at 400 degrees for 40 to 60 minutes. You can enjoy beets cold in salads or as an added boost in a smoothie.
Early summer is prime time for cherries, which have a short season. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of cherries protect against muscle damage and accelerate recovery, Nalder says. Most of the cherries you’ll find at the grocery store or farmer’s market are the sweet kind, which still have anti-inflammatory effects, but the biggest performance benefits come from tart cherries, which can be a bit harder to come by. A 2010 study conducted at Oregon Health Sciences University found that tart cherry juice can reduce post-run muscle pain, while a 2009 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found it can aid recovery after running a marathon. Grab fresh cherries while you can, and opt for unsweetened tart cherry juice when they’re out of season.
These sweet, crisp melons have a reputation for being high in sugar, but their potential upsides outweigh the extra carbs. “Eating watermelon or drinking watermelon juice may have several health benefits, including lower blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced muscle soreness,” Nalder says. Watermelon’s high water content—around 91 percent—is hydrating, and it’s a good dietary source of the antioxidants citrulline and lycopene. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2013 found that citrulline helped improve post-exercise muscle soreness when participants consumed watermelon juice an hour before a workout. It’s also an excellent mid-workout snack, with a good ratio of water to quick-burning carbs.
Peppers of all kinds are abundant in summer, and each have their own benefits. Spicier peppers like habañero and jalapeño contain capsaicin, which helps metabolize fat needed for fuel in endurance exercise and boosts blood circulation, Nalder says. Spicy food also enhances release of the feel-good hormone serotonin, helping you manage stress. If spice isn’t your thing, mild red bell peppers are packed with vitamin C, which is crucial for tissue growth and repair. A medium pepper contains about 250 percent of the daily recommended value. Nalder recommends making red bell pepper candy: Slice two peppers and drizzle with one tablespoon of pure maple syrup. Place peppers on a parchment-covered wire rack on top of a baking sheet, and bake at 150 degrees for eight to ten hours with the oven door ajar about four inches.
Dark Leafy Greens
Greens like spinach, collard greens, and kale are packed with calcium, and you can—and should—enjoy them year-round. But summer offers a bounty of versatile, market-fresh options. “All athletes should make sure they get 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day,” Nalder says. A cup of cooked collard greens, for instance, has more than 250 milligrams of calcium. “Excessive training may cause hormonal declines that can compromise bone formation, possibly leading to premature, irreversible osteoporosis,” she explains. Calcium from whole foods is absorbed and metabolized slower than from supplements, allowing our bodies to utilize the mineral as an electrolyte and improve bone mineral density. Like red beets, leafy greens are also high in nitrates.