We can agree eating a diet focused on whole-food macronutrients as the foundation is paramount. No magic supplement can replace the importance and benefits of this dietary foundation. However, when it comes to a high-performance lifestyle, people looking to do more also need to go above and beyond a generally healthy diet by adding phytonutrients to their diets. The right nutrition extras will help you boost your mental and physical performance.
If you’re looking to target a specific performance goal — better gut health, increased mileage, improved body composition, control hormones, etc. — some specific foods and compounds can help get the job done.
READ MORE > THE CASE FOR USING PHYTONUTRIENTS TO FUEL YOUR TRAINING
Here are some dietary additions that can boost performance goals:
GOAL: BUILD ENDURANCE
Why: This blue-green algae is more than a wellness ‘woo-woo’ superfood. It’s loaded with phytonutrients that can benefit athletic endurance by preventing fatigue. Limited research suggests the antioxidant powers can lead to postponed time to exhaustion during all-out exercise. Try adding a pinch to your pre-exercise latte or smoothie.
GOAL: BOOST ENERGY
TRY: COENZYME Q10
Why: CoQ10 is a compound essential for mitochondrial function and generating energy by producing ATP; both things vital to energized performances. Your body produces this compound naturally, but age, restrictive diets and heavy training could put you at risk meaning you need to get this from an outside source. Supplements are most effective, as foods like soy, spinach and organ meat only contain small amounts.
GOAL: BURN FAT
TRY: GREEN TEA
Why: Known as one of the healthiest beverages, green tea, like matcha, has been linked to positively impacting a number of health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and obesity. Most important for athletes is the potential for green tea to stimulate and improve metabolic flexibility — the ability for the body to switch between using carbohydrates and fat as energy. Research is mixed, and mostly in mice, but there is evidence suggesting chronic consumption (even without caffeine) can increase fat oxidation by 20%.
GOAL: BETTER FOCUS
Why: This nutrient is essential for the brain to send messages to cells throughout the body and might be a key to staying focused during endurance training. While most adults get an adequate amount from food sources — like egg yolks, muscle meats, fish, peas and wheat germ — endurance training depletes stores and pregnancy increases needs.
GOAL: BUILD BODY MASS
Why: This is an essential amino acid (meaning your body doesn’t make it; you have to eat it) that helps your body build and maintain muscle mass. Compared to other aminos, leucine has been shown to be rapidly digested and, therefore, an efficient way for athletes to stimulate muscle synthesis. Great food sources include tofu, eggs, beef and tuna.
GOAL: FAST RECOVERY
Why: If you’re only taking in coffee before workouts, you’re not getting the full benefits. Caffeine has been shown to increase rapid refueling of muscle glycogen. To reap the benefits, consume caffeine along with carbohydrates within an hour of finishing your training.
GOAL: REDUCE PMS
TRY: DARK CHOCOLATE
Why: Many women find the discomforts of their monthly cycles interfere with their ability to train. Relaxation might be your best bet, but not everyone wants to sit this time out. Dark chocolate might offer an indulgence that reduces stress and alleviates PMS symptoms. This is likely due to the magnesium and iron content.
GOAL: STRONG GUT
Why: Oats have a high amount of beta-glucan fiber which is a resistant starch known to act as a prebiotic. Prebiotics help feed probiotics and are therefore essential in feeding good gut bacteria. For athletes who have inconsistent bowel movements and ‘sensitive stomachs’, improving healthy gut environments should be a goal. Consuming porridge bowls, overnight oats or oat bars is beneficial. If those options seem too heavy, using oat milk could supply the beta-glucan needed to boost gut strength and resilience.
Why: This is a natural sports drink of water, lime, chia seeds and agave that has been consumed by the Tarahumara, a tribe of extreme endurance runners in Mexico. Chia seeds absorb water well; they have the ability to swell to more than 10 times their size if soaked in H2O, which can leave you well-hydrated if you need to complete training without having access to water throughout the session.
GOAL: REDUCE INFLAMMATION
TRY: OLIVE OIL
Why: If you’ve swapped this classic for a trendier ghee or coconut oil, it’s time to swap back. There’s a reason olive oil is a key in the Mediterranean diet.
GOAL: BETTER INTERVALS
Why: Your body can produce its own supply of this non-essential amino acid or get it from animal proteins, however, athletic bodies might have higher demands than the body can supply without supplementation. Vegetarian athletes are especially at risk of not producing enough to meet needs. There is evidence beta-alanine can improve high-intensity training bouts by limiting muscle acidosis. One study showed a 19% improvement in HIIT and another showed improvements in 10K runs with beta-alanine supplementation.
Keep in mind, these are not magic pills or fast tracks to success; these are only potentially beneficial additions to a diet that meets your basic needs.
Originally published August 2020, updated June 2022
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