Are you eating the foods you should be for energy, recovery, and fitness?
Suppose you could only stock your kitchen with 10 foods. As a runner, which foods should you choose?
If you asked a dozen sports nutritionists to answer this question, you would almost certainly get a dozen different lists. But they would have some overlap, and share general similarities despite their specific differences. All of them would contain vegetables and fruits rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as well as lean protein sources, good sources of healthy fats, and of course foods packed with the quality carbohydrates your muscles need to fuel workouts.
Here’s my list of the 10 best foods for runners.
Wild salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are sorely deficient in the average American’s diet. Omega-3 fats boost heart health by creating more elastic blood vessels and improve nervous system functioning. These benefits go beyond general health to affect exercise performance. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that fish oil supplementation increased heart stroke volume (or the amount of blood the heart pumps with each contraction) and cardiac output (or the total amount of blood pumped by the heart) during low- to moderate-intensity exercise. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Cherries are the most antioxidant-rich fruit on earth. They contain particularly large concentrations of a type of antioxidants called anthocyanins. Antioxidants provide a host of health benefits ranging from maintaining healthy blood vessels to prevention of cancerous tumor growth. They’re also good for athletic performance. In one study, the addition of cherry juice to the diet of competitive rowers significantly reduced the amount of strength loss and muscle soreness they experienced after a strength test designed to cause muscle damage compared to a group of fellow rowers who received a placebo instead. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Kale is a member of the cabbage family. It contains high levels of vitamins A, B6, C and K, as well as iron and calcium, and is one of the most antioxidant-rich vegetables. NutritionData.com gives kale a maximum five-star rating in the category of optimum health. Kale also has strong anti-inflammatory properties. Low-grade inflammation resulting from exercise-induced muscle damage is a daily nuisance for many runners and can become a chronic issue in some cases. Maintaining a diet that’s high in anti-inflammatory foods reduces the risk of this problem. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
With its balance of fast-acting carbohydrates and proteins, skim milk is the ideal post-exercise muscle recovery “food” for runners. Research has shown that muscle glycogen stores are replenished and muscle tissues are repaired fastest when carbs and proteins are consumed together after the completion of a workout. A study by researchers at Indiana University found that chocolate-flavored skim milk outperformed a popular recovery supplement when consumed after exercise. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Bananas are among the best pre-workout and pre-race foods for runners. Bananas are almost all carbohydrate. A large banana contains more than 30 grams of carbohydrate, just 1 gram of protein, and no fat whatsoever. Bananas are also extremely high in potassium (400 mg), which is lost in sweat during exercise. Their softness and light taste make them easy to consume even with pre-race nerves, and their natural “wrapper” makes them handy for eating on the road. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Soy is a bona fide superfood. First, it’s incredibly versatile. You can enjoy it as edamame (steamed young soybeans), tofu, soymilk, and as the protein source in everything from soy burgers to some varieties of frozen burritos and energy bars. On top of that, soy provides a number of proven health benefits. Soy is clinically proven to lower cholesterol, reduce negative symptoms of menopause, and help prevent osteoporosis. It is also an excellent source of a type of antioxidants called phytoestrogens. On top of all that, soy is a great source of post-exercise protein to promote muscle recovery. Researchers at the Ohio State University recently published a study showing that soy protein is as effective as whey protein in promoting muscle growth in response to training. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Sports nutritionists recommend that runners get approximately 60 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrate to maximize workout performance. The average runner gets less than 50 percent of his or her calories from carbs. Starting your day with a high-carb breakfast is a great way to boost your overall carbohydrate intake. Old-fashioned oatmeal provides a whopping 27 grams of carbohydrate per 1/2-cup serving. What’s more, old-fashioned oatmeal is a high-fiber, low-glycemic index food, so the energy it provides is long-lasting. A Penn State study found that men were able to exercise significantly longer after a breakfast of old-fashioned oatmeal than after a high glycemic index breakfast of puffed rice. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Green tea is on its way toward becoming the beverage of choice among runners, and with good reason. Green tea contains a high concentration of a class of antioxidants called catechins. A couple of Japanese studies showed that green tea extract supplementation increased endurance in mice. It appears that it worked by increasing the muscles’ capacity for fat burning during exercise by reducing the activity of free radicals that inhibit fat metabolism.
As yet, there have been no human studies showing an ergogenic effect of green tea extract supplementation. However, in a recent human study from the University of Birmingham, England, acute supplementation with green tea extract increased fat burning during moderate-intensity exercise by 17 percent. These results suggest a strong possibility that green tea extract could delay fatigue during prolonged moderate-intensity efforts.
Other studies have shown that green tea reduces free radical damage to muscle tissue during exercise. And the caffeine in green tea is also beneficial for runners. (Green tea has 25-30 mg caffeine per 8-oz serving, compared to 120-170 mg in coffee.) Caffeine has been shown to boost performance in races of every distance by stimulating the nervous system and reducing perceived exertion. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
All of a sudden tomatoes are best known as the vegetable (technically a fruit) that contains the antioxidant lycopene. While lycopene certainly is a beneficial nutrient, whose consumption is associated with reduced risk of macular degeneration and certain types of cancer, it is only one of countless healthy phytonutrients contained in tomatoes. Tomatoes are also a great source of many vitamins and minerals that are helpful to runners, including vitamin B6. A recent study found that laboratory animals fed a vitamin B6-deficient diet were not able to store as much muscle glycogen. Another great thing about tomatoes is that they add a lot of flavor to a wide variety of dishes and meals without adding many calories (there are just 27 calories in a cup of cherry tomatoes). Thus, tomatoes contribute to a diet that is both lean and satisfying and keeps you at your optimal race weight without feeling deprived. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
Pasta is one of the most carbohydrate-dense foods, making it a great food to eat before big workouts and races, when you want to maximize muscle glycogen stores, and after big workouts, when you want to replenish those stores. But whole-wheat pasta is a better choice than pasta made with refined wheat flour. One cup of cooked whole-wheat spaghetti provides six grams of fiber, which promotes satiety and digestive health. Whole-wheat past is also a longer-lasting energy source than regular pasta. Photo: www.shutterstock.com