by Rachael Link, MS, RD
It’s no secret that hitting the gym is important when it comes to gaining muscle mass and improving performance. But if you’re not paying attention to what you’re putting on your plate, it can be nearly impossible to make any progress, even with the most rigorous gym routine. While filling up on junk and ultra-processed foods can definitely hinder your performance, including a few of the best pre-workout foods in your diet can help amp up fat burning and support muscle growth.
In fact, mounting research has found that certain foods may actually enhance energy production, improve stamina and boost strength to help give your workout a serious upgrade. So which foods should you include in your preworkout routine and why? Keep reading to learn more about the best foods for athletes and how they can fit seamlessly into a well-balanced diet.
8 Best Pre-Workout Foods
Whether you’re looking to enhance endurance or amp up athletic performance, beets are one of the best foods for athletes out there. Beets and beetroot juice are both loaded with nitrates, which can help improve the ability of the mitochondria to synthesize energy in the cells.
There’s been extensive research on the performance-boosting benefits of beets, with studies showing that consuming beets and beetroot juice not only improves athletic performance but also extends time to exhaustion and decreases oxygen consumption in athletes as well. (1, 2, 3)
Beets can be enjoyed raw, roasted or even pickled. They make a great addition to salads and smoothies alike, providing a bright and vibrant hue and supplying a surge of nutrients to just about any dish.
Revered for its range of potent health-promoting properties, this type of medicinal mushroom may also be effective at increasing energy levels and speeding up muscle recovery to help take your workout to the next level.
Cordyceps are considered an “energizing adaptogen” and are said to increase strength, alleviate muscle aches and support improved stamina. They may also increase energy levels, thanks to the presence of a compound called adenosine. This nucleic acid is used to produce ATP, which is used as the primary source of energy in the body. Cordyceps also top the charts as one of the best foods for athletes due to their antioxidant content. The antioxidants found in cordyceps can help reduce free radical formation to promote muscle recovery between workouts. (4)
Although most often consumed in powdered form, cordyceps can also be found whole or dried at health food stores and online retailers alike. They can be used to make broth, tea or soup or even added to smoothies to bump up the potential health benefits.
3. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil stands out as one of the healthiest fats, and for good reason. It’s high in medium-chain triglycerides, which can be easily broken down and utilized by the body for a quick burst of energy.
Interestingly, one study actually found that supplementing with coconut oil for just two weeks managed to cut down on the body’s dependence on carbs for energy production. It also helped decrease lactate production during exercise, which could help fight fatigue and muscle aches after hitting the gym. (5)
Use coconut oil in place of other types of fat in your favorite recipes or add it to your coffee, tea or smoothies to add a hearty dose of healthy fats to your diet.
Snacking on your favorite berry varieties like strawberries, goji berries and blueberries can skyrocket energy levels and help propel you through your workout. Rich in easily-digested glucose, berries are one of the best preworkout foods available because they deliver a hearty dose of glucose to your cells to provide fuel for your muscles.
What’s more is that they’re also jam-packed with antioxidants, which can aid in cellular regeneration, help heal muscle tissues and speed up recovery time post-workout.
Select organic berries whenever possible and enjoy them on their own for a satisfying sweet treat or in recipes like desserts or drinks to increase the antioxidant content and nutritional value.
5. Coconut Water
Also known as “nature’s sports drink,” coconut water is a gym bag staple and is a preworkout food definitely worth stocking up on. It’s rich in many of the electrolytes that your body loses during an intense workout and can help keep your body replenished and healthy to boost both performance and recovery.
Plus, it’s also a great alternative to sugary sports drinks, which often pack in extra chemicals and added ingredients that you’re better off without. It’s also low in calories, so sipping on a bit of coconut water post-exercise won’t hold you back or hinder your fitness goals.
Coconut water makes a delicious drink as is, but can also be combined with other beverages such as sparkling water or lemon juice for a bit of extra flavor. You can also add a splash to your post-workout smoothie in place of water for a natural alternative to your sports drink.
6. High-Quality Protein
After a vigorous workout, getting in a serving of high-quality protein is an absolute must. Protein foods provide the amino acids that your muscles need to regenerate and recover and are a key component when it comes to building muscle and burning fat. For optimal results, squeeze in a serving of protein directly after training to maximize muscle growth.
Bone broth, grass-fed beef, organic poultry lentils, eggs and wild-caught salmon are a few of the best sources of high-quality protein that you may want to consider adding to your diet. If you decide to opt for a protein supplement such as whey protein, be sure to select a high-quality, organic products free of added chemicals and artificial sweeteners.
7. Chia Seeds
Tiny but packed with nutrition, chia seeds were once considered a superfood by Aztec warriors looking to enhance energy levels and strength. These seeds strike the perfect balance of healthy fats, proteins and carbohydrates, making them one of the best foods for athletes and one of the top preworkout snacks available.
One study out of the University of Alabama tested the effects of carb loading with either a sports drink or chia seeds. They found that using a mix of both chia seeds and a sports drink was equally as effective at improving performance compared with using a sports drink alone. (6) Using a combination of chia seeds and sports drinks for carb loading can help increase fiber intake, reduce sugar consumption and provide a host of essential nutrients.
Chia seeds make a great addition to snacks like yogurt or oatmeal and can help enhance both the texture and taste. Chia seeds can also be sprinkled on top of salads or used in delicious desserts like chia pudding.
Credited as the secret behind Popeye’s bulging biceps, it should come as no surprise that spinach is one of the best foods for athletes. Spinach is rich in dietary nitrates, which can kick up energy levels by supporting mitochondrial function in the cells. (7)
Not only that, but spinach also contains a concentrated amount of antioxidants to block free radical formation and help muscles heal faster. It’s also high in many essential nutrients, including several vitamins and minerals that are often lost during exercise. In particular, spinach is a good source of vitamin C, potassium, iron, manganese and folate. (8)
Choose organic spinach and use it in your salads or try steaming or sautéing it for an easy side dish. You can also add a handful or two of spinach to your next green smoothie and combine with your choice of fruits and other superfoods to sneak in a few extra servings.
There are plenty of healthy and delicious ways to enjoy your favorite performance-boosting ingredients. Need a little extra inspiration? Here are a few easy recipes that incorporate some of the best foods for athletes to help get you started:
While including a few servings of these nutritious foods can definitely have a big impact on physical performance, they should be combined with a balanced diet rich in other fruits, vegetables and healthy fats and proteins to get the most bang for your buck. Not only does this ensure that you’re getting a wide range of nutrients, but it can also fill in any gaps in your diet that may be hindering your progress.
Additionally, be sure to stay well-hydrated and maintain a healthy lifestyle to help maximize your progress and performance. Minimizing stress levels, giving up unhealthy habits and setting a regular sleep schedule can make a world of difference in both your fitness goals and your overall health.
What you eat can have a major impact on your athletic performance and can either hinder or enhance your progress.
Certain foods have been shown to help improve endurance and muscle recovery. Other foods provide important nutrients that can be beneficial to athletes.
Foods like beets, cordyceps, coconut oil, berries, coconut water, high-quality protein, chia seeds and spinach are some of the best foods for athletes available.
Enjoy these foods as part of a well-rounded diet and healthy lifestyle to maximize the effectiveness of your workouts and improve performance.
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