The Best Foods to Eat to Improve Your Endurance

Optimizing nutrition and the best foods for endurance sports performance

As an athlete we’re always looking at some of the best ways to gain the upper hand on our opposition. We’ll check websites, forums and others' accounts before deciding whether trail shoes or fell shoes will be our best option for a race and even spend hundreds lowering the weight of our bicycle with the view to getting the optimum performance but these are often contributor factors. What matters most is our body and how it performs.

Diet has always been an important factor for an athlete, although for endurance sports our body has to rely increasingly on the nutrients and fuels we have put into our body in the hours, days and weeks before a competition, as well as ensuring we can accomplish in training what we aim to do come race day. Nutrition won't necessarily turn you from a plodder into a contender without the hard work in training but it can give you a great step up in your performances and improve your important recovery.

Below we focus on a selection of some of the best foods you can consider to improve your endurance. It may be that many are already a key part of your diet already but we hope we can introduce a few new options to help maximize performance through natural means. We’re always looking for your feedback too so if you find anything that’s not on the list please feel free to leave a message in the comments section.

Team Jelly Fitness at Tough Mudder Midlands 2014. The right nutrition is key to fuel endurance performance whether you're an elite athlete or simply competing with yourself
Team Jelly Fitness at Tough Mudder Midlands 2014. The right nutrition is key to fuel endurance performance whether you're an elite athlete or simply competing with yourself | Source

How can the glycaemic index affect your performance

If you're looking at sustained endurance performance being away of the glycaemic index (GI) of much of the food you eat could be a contributory factor towards your success.

The GI is a measure of how immediately a food has an effect on your blood sugar levels. A score of 100 is the maximal available value and is the equivalent to eating 50g of glucose and watching the spike of your blood sugars and how long it takes for your body to return to the pre-test level.

Below is a table of factors which has been adapted from the excellent Complete guide to sports nutrition by Anita Bean (4th ed, 2003) which is a fantastic, easy to read book that would assist any athlete or exerciser. From the elite to the young developing athlete.

Factors influencing the glycaemic index value of foods

Factor
Effect
Food examples
Particle size
During processing particle size can be reduced which allows our digestive enzymes easier access to the starches within a food. Smaller particle size= Higher GI value
Breakfast cereals (such as Corn Flakes) have a higher GI than porridge oats and muesli.
Starch gelatinization
The more swollen with water (starch gelatinization) a food is the bigger it's sufface area for enzymes to react with leading to faster digestion and rises in blood sugar. This causes a higher GI value.
Foods cooked in water such as carrots and broccoli will raise their GI value
Ratio of amylose to amylopectin
Starch has two forms. Amylose is a long straight molecule which enzymes have difficulty breaking down and amylopectin, which is a branched molecule with a bigger surface area for enzymes to access. Founds with more amylopectin tend to have a higher GI value.
Amylose rich foods= Include legumes such as Black-eyed peas, lentils, black, and kidney beans which have a lower GI
Fat levels in foods
Fat in foods can slow down the rate of tomach emptying to lower the rate of digestion and reduce GI of foods
Adding butter or cheese to baked potato will lower the GI of the meal when compared to simple jacket potato.
Sugars in food
Sugars like sucrose have to be broken down into glucose molecules. Sucrose breaks down initially to fructose and glucose, whilst the fructose must still be broken down in the liver into usable glucose for the body. These reactions required lead to a lower GI in foods.
Cakes and biscuits
Soluble fibre in a food
Fibre slows digestion through enhanced viscosity of food to lower it's GI
Porridge oats and lentils are high in fibre
Protein content
Causes a slower rise in blood sugar by slowing stomach emptying and restriction of carbohydrate digestion
Eating meats with rice or potatoes lowers the meal's GI value
Adapted from Bean (2003)

Endurance athletes should know the power of the banana

Grab a banana for energy before and during or to refuel glycogen stores after events or training. The original endurance superfood
Grab a banana for energy before and during or to refuel glycogen stores after events or training. The original endurance superfood | Source

Banana- The original endurance superfood

Athletes have known that bananas are a great food for years. You'll see plenty of road cyclists heading out for a long training ride with a banana peeping out of one of their jersey pockets and they're often seen at feeding stations on long distance running events. We know they are a great form of energy to fuel our performance.

Banana's for lean energy

Whilst being virtually free from fat and cholesterol, banana's are relatively high on the carbohydrates needed to fuel our performance. The carbohydrates come in simple form (glucose) and more more complex forms (fructose and sucrose) which have to be broken down by the body before it can be used for energy. This means the exerciser will get an initial hit of sugar that they may crave if their blood sugars begin to dip during an event, as well as longer-term, slow releasing forms of carbohydrate for endurance performance.

The glycaemic index values of ripe bananas is 51 which classes them as low GI however if you're looking to ensure your banana is even lower on the scale choose to eat them when they have a small amount of green to indicate they're under-ripe and the glycaemic index can drop as low as 41 which will provide a great source of longer term energy for your endurance performance. If you're looking to lower that value further you could turn them into a smoothie with some good quality whey protein powder which will further lower the GI value.

Banana is high in potassium to enhance muscle endurance

We all know the value of electrolytes in ensuring our body is able to maintain exercising despite the onset of fatigue and for protecting us against muscle cramps. Banana is a great source of the potassium our cell membranes require for the metabolism of carbohydrate to fuel our performances. Once potassium levels drops, fatigue becomes apparent with reductions in strength and capable workload for an athlete.

Banana's can have a benefit before and after our performance. The potassium in our cells is also responsible in part for re-building damaged muscles through the process of protein synthesis from the amino acids we take in as foods to ensure we can recover to train and compete.

Improve endurance and your creatine synthesis for repeated hard efforts with Beet Juice

Beet juice has been shown to be an effective way of enhancing your performance during endurance events. Bailey et al (2010) subjected test subjects to 6 days of beet juice supplementation and then completed a series of low- and high-intensity knee extensor exercises in the prone position on the last three days. Beetroot juice more than doubled plasma nitrite concentration and reduced the oxygen cost and rate of phosphocreatine breakdown during low- and high-intensity exercise. Lansley et al (2011) also found that during 4km cycling time trials beetroot juice have have a significant effect on power output. (292 vs. 279 watts)

It is suggested that the best effects of beet juice are in events up to 30 minutes in length where a degree of muscular endurance is required.

Beet juice is proven to enhance cycling time trial power output

Beet juice is proven to enhance cycling performance in events up to 30 minutes making it excellent for 10 mile time trial events
Beet juice is proven to enhance cycling performance in events up to 30 minutes making it excellent for 10 mile time trial events | Source

Cherries are also great for recovery

If you're looking further at foods to help you recover and train or race stronger as a result cherries are another food to ensure you're getting plenty of within your diet. studies have shown that regular consumption of cherries and their juice juice may accelerate post-workout recovery, increase potential overall training capacity and subsequently enhance event performance through reducing muscle pain.

In an investigation into muscle damage and cherries, Howatson et al (2010) subjected runners to 5 days of drinking cherry juice pre race and a subsequent 2 days post race. When compared to a placebo. They found that cherry juice appears to be an effective dietary supplement to aid recovery following strenuous exercise. The cherry juice was shown to increase anti-oxidative capacity, reduce inflammation and lipid peroxidation. Subsequently aiding the recovery of muscular function.

Chia seeds are an endurance athlete's superfood

There are many benefits to endurance performance of Chia seeds including hydration and their high level of anti-oxidants
There are many benefits to endurance performance of Chia seeds including hydration and their high level of anti-oxidants | Source

Chia Seeds- Enhanced hydration and anti-oxidants

The humble chia seed is big in sports nutrition circles right now although the Tarahumara Indians have been harnessing their power for their endurance way of life for many years and these seeds helped the march of the Aztec armies. It's name in Aztec even translates as "Strength".

Chia seeds are 20% protein and although expensive to use as a protein source for recovery and muscle building processes they're extremely easy to add into a daily bowl of porridge or fruit smoothie

One of the key properties of Chia seeds for endurance athletes is their high level of anti-oxidants to combat the oxidative stress of regular endurance exercise. As well as offering immune support to ensure you can train consistently and recover adequately for the challenges that lie ahead for you.

Chia seeds are also reported to enhance our body endurance and hydration. These little seeds are hydrophillic in nature and can absorb up to 10 times their own weight in water. When immersed in water, chia seeds form a gelitinous substance which assists the body during activity through hydration and electrolyte retention to enhance sporting performance.

If you've ever tucked into a Chia Charge Flapjack you'll also know that sports nutrition should taste this good all the time too.

Chilli Peppers help to supercharge your immune system

Chilli Peppers are high in vitamin C to help supercharge your immune system for less risk of illness
Chilli Peppers are high in vitamin C to help supercharge your immune system for less risk of illness | Source

Breathe Better with Hot Chilli Pepper

Red, green, jalapeno or Scotch Bonnet, hot chilli peppers can boost your immunity with their high levels of vitamin C to prevent colds and flu symptoms as well as offering enhanced digestive function, immune deficiency, as well as protecting your eyes and skin . Vitamin C has been proven to reduce shortness of breath and wheezing after exercise in Asthma sufferers (Nordqvist, 2013).

Add more chilli peppers to your diet to really help supercharge your immune system through the stresses of training in all environments- particularly if you suffer from Asthma.

Love your chilli peppers? This you could tackle the hotwing challenge?

Best anti-oxidant sources for endurance athletes

Source
Source
Source
Cherries
Chia Seeds
Kale
Chilli Peppers
Cherries
Spinach
Spinach
Tomatoes
 
A selection of foods ideal for athletes to promote recovery and immunity due to their anti-oxidant levels

Chilli goodness straight from the fridge or cupboard

Chillies can be a hassle to prepare and therefore a great way to add them to your foods is the chopped chilli jars that you can pick up at most supermarkets. Whilst fresh fruits and veg are preferential, jars of chopped chillis mean you can simply add a spoonful quickly to spice up soups, pasta sauces or add a little more heat to dishes with ease.

If you'd prefer to add whole chillies to your meals, head to your local Asian supermarket in pick up a bag of sun dried dried chillies. These are great to throw into a crock pot or stew whilst costing a fraction of the price of fresh chilli peppers.

The high quality protein in eggs can feed your recovery and muscle growth

Eggs for endurance. Eggs are packed with high BV protein for muscle growth and repair
Eggs for endurance. Eggs are packed with high BV protein for muscle growth and repair | Source

Eggs are great for recovery. An egg-cellent source of high quality protein

We all know the importance of protein in our diet for muscle growth and repair. Eggs are rich in protein and an awesome food when eaten in moderation by endurance athletes. They contain the highest recognized protein quality in any food. An egg has a bioavailability value Bioloogical value- BV) of 100 which means it contains both this indispensable amino acids (IAAs) and dispensable amino acids (DAAs) required for our bodily needs. This is only trumped by artificial Whey protein supplements which can vary in BV between 106-159. Why protein is created from curdled milk and is separated from the curd (mainly casein protein which has a BV of around 80).

Eggs are not just a one-nutrient wonder. They're also packed full of vitamins, minerals, Omega 3 fats and those antioxidants again. Best of all a tray of eggs is usually a very cheap source of excellent quality protein and they can quickly be made into nutritious meals.

The only real downsides of eggs are that they do contain a moderately high level of fats and factors which raise cholesterol. These are found within the yolk and by mixing up cooking with the whole egg and the egg white you're able to limit these factors.

Use the caffeine in green tea to accelerate your performance

Green tea could be a great performance catalyst. It contains moderate levels of the stimulant caffeine which is shown to enhance exercise to exhaustion and increase the oxidisation of fat stores to save our glycogen stores during exercise. (Venables et al, 2008)

Green tea is also high in the polyphol catechins Epicatechin (EC), Epigallocatechin (ECG) and Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which are powerful antioxidants which have powerful cancer fighting qualities whilst also protecting against the risk of heart disease.

Green tea extract has also been shown to have a mildly thermogenic effect which can be of benefit to athletes looking for effective weight loss supplement on top of diet and exercise which makes it a very interesting supplement to anyone in sports where weight is a critical factor such as boxing or even cyclists and triathletes where excessive body mass can be a hindrance in certain scenarios.

Eat your greens. Kale has enormous benefits

Another food rich in anti-oxidants is kale. A member of the cabbage family, Kale is a superfood that has recently become popular for it's fantastic anti-inflammatory effects thanks to high levels of vitamins: A, K, B6 although the reality is it's been part of our diet for generations. It also contains carotenoids and flavonoids, two potent antioxidants that protect our cells from free radicals which cause oxidative stress making it a great food to protect against the stresses of training year round.

Kale is also high in iron content to help develop strong red blood cells. It's also packed with more calcium per serving than milk to help protect our bones from the stresses and strains we place upon them.

Grab a pint of milk to enhance post-exercise recovery

When you've finished training or competition do you usually head for the watercooler? Or pull out a ready made up protein shaker from your gym bag?

Why not consider a natural, nutrient-dense recovery drink in the form of milk. Roy (2008) found traditional bovine milk to be an effective post-resistance exercise drink which bought about favorable acute alterations in protein metabolism for athletes. Consuming a drink of milk has been shown to raise the bodily rate of protein synthesis and lead to enhancements in muscle hypertrophy when combined with the resistance training many of us partake in.

Would you swap your protein shake for a pint of milk?

Would you consider swapping your regular protein shake for milk?

  • Yes- It's cheaper and just as effective
  • I'd consider using it on occasions (Protein runs out or need for protein on the move)
  • No thank you- I'll stick to my protein shake
  • No, I'm lactose intolerant so it doesn't work for me
See results without voting

Start your day with porridge oats or have them for a snack

If you're looking for a great source of complex carbohydrates, soluble fiber and protein with a low GI then porridge could be a good option. It's also rich in vital anti-oxidants and minerals which in combination can help fuel both performance and recovery.

For an extra anti-oxidant kick throw in a handful of berries for a little extra taste and make your porridge with skimmed (0%) milk for iot's addition protein and recover benefits.

A warming bowl is also great prior to winter training sessions to give your body some motivation.

Whether you're an elite or a weekend warrior correct nutrition can aid performance
Whether you're an elite or a weekend warrior correct nutrition can aid performance | Source

Switch from White to Sweet Potato for slower release carbohydrate

In a society that's going increasingly low carb, as athletes we value our fuel for performance. The humble potato starts to get ignored when the dieters start in January and for those of us intent on improved performance we would be better served by making the switch to sweet potato for some of our energy needs.

For day-to-day eating and the occasional fries with a meal, sweet potato's have more potential to aid our performance. They have a significantly lower glycaemic-index value due to a higher level of fibre than white potato's and like many orange colored vegetables are high in the potent anti-oxidant beta-carotene which can help aid our recovery.

Popeye loved his spinach- But it's better suited to endurance benefits

If you're looking to maximise your endurance performance you should be eating plenty of spinach. Whilst it won't give you muscles like Popeye it has the potential to give your muscles a boost in short to mid-length events just like beet juice as it's a nitric oxide dense superfood.

By supplementing your body with nitric oxide you can enhance shorter distance cycling time-trial event performances. (Cermak, Gibal and van Loon, 2012).

In a separate study. Larsen et al (2011) also found that when consuming inorganic nitrates like those found in spinach can lead to less oxygen consumption during endurance exercise.Increased mitochondria efficiency was highlighted as the reason for this giving your more reason to cook with foods like spinach, kale and beetroot to improve event performance.

Spinach makes a great addition to sauces and stews. It's even great in omlettes and panckaes too.

Spinach works well as a filling for pancakes

Spinach is a great filler for everything from panckaes (pictured) to sandwiches, pies and stews for added goodness.
Spinach is a great filler for everything from panckaes (pictured) to sandwiches, pies and stews for added goodness. | Source

Tomatoes are great for your immune system

If you're looking to further maximise your immunity whilst minimizing your risks of colds and flu symptoms you should be getting plenty of tomatoes in your diet. Whether you're lunching on homemade tomato soup or love Italian style pasta sauces the quercetin found abundantly in tomatoes quercetin has been seen to significantly decrease the risk to your health. It won't supercharge you to ensure you can consistently train hard But with a properly structured endurance training program the effects of quercetin mean that you should be able to train more consistently.

What are your favorite foods to enhance sports performance?

An athletes diet has to have plenty of color and variety to get the nutrients required to enahnce performance. The days of bodybuilders simply eating chicken and rice for the energy and protein requirement should now be long gone as we switch on to the benefits of whole foods rather than chemical supplements engineered for specific purposes. It's fully possible to be a successful athlete if you follow the right nutritional plan.What foods are a big part of your diet and why? We would love to know in the comments at the bottom of the page as well as your feedback.

References

Bailey SJ, Fulford J, Vanhatalo A, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation enhances muscle contractile efficiency during knee-extensor exercise in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2010;109(1):135-148.

Bean, (2003) The complete guide to sports nutrition. 4th ed. A & C Black, London

Brown., B. D., Milk: the new sports drink? A Review. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2008; 5: 15

Cermak, N. M., Gibala, M. J., van Loon, L. J. C., Nitrate Supplementation’s Improvement of 10-km Time-Trial Performance in Trained Cyclists, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 22 (2012):64-71

Larsen, F. J., Schiffer, t. A., Borniquel, S. S., Sahlin, K., Ekblom, B., Lundberg, J. O., and Weitzberg. E., Dietary Inorganic Nitrate Improves Mitochondrial Efficiency in Humans. Cell Metabolism, 2011; 13 (2): 149-159

Howatson. G.,McHugh, M. P.,Hill, J. A., Brouner J. P., Jewell, A. P., Van Someren, K. A., Shave, K. E., and Howatson, S. A., Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scandinavian journal of medicine and science in sports. 2010 20(6) 843-852.

Lansley KE, Winyard PG, Bailey SJ, et al. Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2011;43(6):1125-1131.

Nordqvist, J. (2013, June 13). Vitamin C Reduces Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (Asthma) Symptoms. Medical News Today: Health News. Retrieved January 16th, 2015, from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/2

Venables MC, Hulston CJ, Cox HR, Jeukendrup AE. (2008) Green tea extract ingestion, fat oxidation, and glucose tolerance in healthy humans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mar;87(3):778-84

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