I’m not entirely comfortable with the term “superfood.” It implies that certain foods have miraculous or supernatural properties, which is not true. It’s also unfair to the many natural, whole foods that don’t get the “superfood” label. In my opinion, there’s something super about every natural, whole food—even potatoes!
Nevertheless, there are particular foods that I notice time and time again in the diets of elite runners, and these foods really do deserve the label of “Superfoods for Runners.” Some of them are proven performance enhancers while others simply offer a convenient and tasty way to meet the special nutritional needs of endurance athletes. Here are my top ten.
Fish is proven to improve the functioning of the brain and the cardiovascular system, both of which are critical to endurance performance. Albacore tuna is a great source of the essential fatty acids that are responsible for these benefits and it has the added benefits of being popular, easy to find, and relatively inexpensive.
A 2014 study conducted by Chinese and American researchers found that daily consumption of whole almonds by trained cyclists and triathletes improved performance by 8.4 percent. This effect was attributed to the high concentration of antioxidants in almonds.
Beets are rich in dietary nitrates, which work as natural vasodilators in the body. Studies have shown that consuming beet juice before exercise increases blood flow and enhances performance.
Coffee has a whole host of health benefits. It is proven to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, depression, liver disease, skin cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
These benefits come in part from coffee’s high concentration of antioxidants and in part from its caffeine content. Caffeine is also proven to enhance endurance performance by reducing perceived exertion. That’s right: it literally makes exercise feel easier!
Life is no fun without dessert. But some desserts are healthier than others. The healthiest of all is dark chocolate, which improves heart health. And believe it or not, people who eat dark chocolate frequently actually tend to be slightly thinner than those who eat it less often!
It can be difficult to get all of the carbohydrate you need as a runner without eating grains. Quinoa, an increasingly popular grain from South America, offers a whopping
54 grams of carbs per half-cup serving. But it also contains a lot more protein, unsaturated fat, and antioxidants than most other grains.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, spinach is the fifth-most nutrient-dense food on the planet. So why am I talking about spinach here instead of the four foods (beet greens, chard, Chinese cabbage, and watercress) that came in ahead of it? Because spinach tastes better and is more familiar to most people. Plus, it’s incredibly versatile: Eat in raw in salads, cooked as a side dish, or blend it into a fruit smoothie and drink it.
Like quinoa, sweet potato is a high-carb food that helps runners meet their energy needs but is also packed with other goodies. One serving offers 27 grams of carbohydrate, more than double the amount of vitamin A as you need in a day, the super antioxidant beta-carotene, and a variety of other phytonutrients.
Tart cherries contain special compounds that function as natural anti-inflammatories in the body. That’s a good thing for runners, who experience mild inflammation after every run as a result of muscle damage incurred during the workout. These compounds are especially concentrated in tart cherry juice, which is proven to help runners recover faster between runs.
In one study, recreational runners were given either cherry juice or a placebo for five days before running a marathon. Afterward, The runners who’d gotten the cherry juice exhibited less muscle damage and lower levels of inflammation. They also recovered their muscle strength significantly quicker.
An important part of getting race ready is getting down to your ideal racing weight. Yogurt can help you do that. According to a large study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, yogurt is the single most slimming food in the American diet. They found that people who eat yogurt most frequently gain the least weight throughout their adulthood. The slimming effect of yogurt has been linked to the bacteria it contains, known as probiotics. These bacteria affect the digestive bacteria that live in the human gut in ways that inhibit the storage of body fat. These same bacteria make yogurt more digestible for people who are lactose intolerant and therefore can’t consume other dairy products such as milk.