What Foods Actually Enhance Athletic Performance?

We live in a culture of fad diets, superfoods, and quick fixes for all of our bodily ails. With misinformation and modern old wives’ tales spreading faster than ever before, its important more than ever for athletes and endurance runners to prioritize not only a quality intake of food but a quality intake of information.

What foods are actually going to benefit your body and your athletic performance? Can food really make that big of a difference? Here’s what you need to know about athletic nutrition.

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3 Key Facts About Food and Athletic Performance

1) Good nutrition is essential to peak athletic performance.

This has long been studied and established by healthcare and nutrition professionals. If you have a solid, nutrient-rich diet, you will be able to perform every task better, exercise and feats of athleticism included. Nutrients from whole foods are more effective than any supplement and can do everything from fight inflammation and support muscle growth and strength to help with immunity and recovery—not to mention support our supply of daily energy.

Macro and micronutrients alike all work together, along with vitamins and minerals, to keep our body functioning smoothly and regularly and promote cell turnover. What we eat fuels what we do, and what we do can keep us healthier in the long-term.

2) Athletic nutrition is varied, but not that different for an average healthy person.

Athletes often make the mistake of over-estimating how many more calories they need than the average person, particularly when it comes to something like carbs. This is because we often overestimate how many calories our activities burn. Your nutritional needs will vary, but it depends on things like the sport you’re playing, how long you exercise and how often, and so on. Even then, every individual is different.

For example, while no one should exercise on an empty stomach, each person will perform better eating different amounts at different lengths of time beforehand.

Essentially, while we all fall into a same basic nutritional template, we do have individual body chemistry and needs that need to be taken into account. This is why it’s also wise to speak to a physician before starting new diets or new exercise routines! They can help you find a custom-fit diet that works for you and for the exercises you plan to do.

3) Your nutritional plan should promote long-term health, not short-term gains.

Lastly, avoid nutritional plans that focus on the short-term. You might see results from fad diets, be it keto, paleo, or what have you, but you have to ask yourself whether or not it is a sustainable lifestyle for you, incorporating whole foods, and meeting your nutritional and athletic needs. You can tailor some diets to do this for you, but that can often feel like squeezing a square peg into a round hole.

Remember, you want a diet that is a long-term lifestyle change. Something that will make you healthy in the long term: not a diet that will whip you into shape in six months, or something to help you lose that extra weight you’ve been carrying. Prioritize your health and the rest will follow.

4 Nutrient-Packed Foods that Actually Impact Athletic Performance

1) Blueberries

Blueberries are one of the pioneers of “superfoods,” namely because they are so packed with antioxidants—the highest in any fruit. The carbohydrates you get from blueberries are mostly fiber. Plus, the high vitamin C content will help your post-workout recovery.

They might get in your teeth, but they’re a great snack by themselves, in your smoothie, or with yogurt.

2) Chia Seeds

For a few decades, chia seeds seemed to be used only for growing green hair on ceramic cartoon characters. In the modern age, we’re waking up to the real benefit of this tiny little seed. Full of protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and a whopping 42% of your recommended daily value of fiber, chia seeds are a great add-on to salads, cereals, and smoothies. Chia seed pudding is an easy-to-make breakfast with your favorite milk and a little honey. Add matcha powder for an extra antioxidant boost, or eat it with fresh fruit and nuts. If you’re sleeping on the mighty chia seed, you’re missing out.

3) Salmon

Not all fish are created equal. If you’re looking for a nutrient-packed fish, salmon wins, hands down. It’s a lean, mean, omega-3 fatty acid machine. Brain food at its finest. For the athlete, salmon makes for an ideal post-recovery dinner. Nutritionally speaking, salmon is going to reduce inflammation, promote tissue regrowth, and help with muscle recovery.

4) Beets

Beets are one of those foods that I think just about everyone turned their nose up at as a kid. The nitrates in beets get a lot of nutritionists excited, though. For athletes, the consumption of beets and beet juice helps to reduce the amount of oxygen intake needed while also increasing endurance. In short, you don't get worn out as quickly. It just might need to be your new breakfast drink, if only because beet juice promotes circulatory and heart health. Beets are a win for everyone, no matter how active you are.

When it comes to nutrition, we tend to over-complicate things. What matters are not fancy diets or complex equations. Eat whole foods and follow calories in, calories out. Consult a physician and a nutritionist who can help you navigate your unique dietary needs.

If you do that, it will all come into focus.

What's your favorite "health" food? Share how it fuels your workout in the comments.