The Superfood Compounds Athletes Need

Do you ever get tired of reading yet-another headline about "The 10 Best Super Sports Foods," only be instructed to buy exotic fruits, ancient grains, and other unusual items? Do runners really need chia, spelt, and quinoa? Is there anything wrong with old-fashioned peanut butter, broccoli and brown rice?

Powerful nutrients are found in standard foods that are readily available at a reasonable cost. You know, oranges, bananas, berries, oatmeal, almonds, hummus, low-fat yogurt, brown rice and tuna—basic, wholesome foods recommended by the government's MyPlate. Are those foods exotic? No. But do they still do a great job of offering super nutrition? Yes.

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To add to the confusion about exotic sports foods, the sports food industry touts their list of engineered super sports supplements. Ads lead you to believe you really need to buy these products to support your athletic performance.

The question arises: Are there special nutrients or components of food that can really help runners to go faster, higher or stronger? If so, can they be consumed in the form of whole foods or do we actually need special commercial supplements?

At a 2014 meeting of Professionals in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport, exercise researchers from around the globe discussed that topic. Here's a summary of their answers to the following thought-provoking questions.

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Is there a difference between consuming pre-exercise caffeine in the form of pills, gels or coffee?

Regardless of the source of caffeine (pill, gel, coffee), it is a popular way to enhance athletic performance. Take note: High doses of caffeine (2.5 to 4 milligrams/pound body weight; 6 to 9 milligrams/kilogram) are no better than the amount runners typically consume (1.5 milligrams/pound; 3 milligrams/kilogram). Hence, drinking an extra cup of coffee is unlikely to be advantageous, particularly when consumed later in the day before an afternoon workout and ends up interfering with sleep.

Do tart (Montmorency) cherries offer any benefits to sports performance? If so, what's the best way to consume them?

Tart cherries (and many other deeply colored fruits and veggies) are rich in health-protective antioxidants and polyphenols. Tart cherries can reduce inflammation, enhance post-exercise recovery, repair muscles, reduce muscle soreness, and improve sleep. Runners who are training hard, doing double workouts, or traveling through time zones would be wise to enjoy generous portions. Yet, to get the recommended dose of cherries that researchers use to elicit benefits, you would need to eat 90 to 110 cherries twice a day for seven days pre-event. Most runners prefer to swig a shot of cherry juice concentrate instead!

What about food polyphenols such as quercetin and resveratrol?

Polyphenols are colorful plant compounds that are linked with good health when they are consumed in whole foods. Yet, polyphenol supplements, such as quercetin or resveratrol, do not offer the same positive anti-oxidant or anti-inflammatory benefits. An explanation might be that once in the colon, where most polyphenols go, parts leak into the bloodstream during heavy exercise. These smaller compounds create the anti-inflammatory effect. Athletes who routinely eat colorful fruits during endurance training offer their gut the opportunity to distribute good health.

More: Guide to Phytochemicals

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