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The Health Benefits of Spinach for Endurance Athletes

Updated on January 11, 2015
CyclingFitness profile image

Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

A cup of spinach could benefit your health and sporting performance

Spinach could be your super food in a bid to improve health and maximise your endurance sports performance
Spinach could be your super food in a bid to improve health and maximise your endurance sports performance | Source

Spinach can help your endurance performance

As an endurance athlete we’re always looking for natural ergogenic aids to our performance which are readily available at a supermarket and are reasonably priced. When it’s in season you can pick up a good sized bag for around a pound although it is a year round crop so should often be on the fresh produce aisle. If you’re not so lucky to call at the wrong time of day you can often find it tinned too.

It’s taste can be a little bitter for some with it’s metallic elements but if you’re not happy eating it on its own you can add chopped spinach into soups, omelettes and stews to reduce it’s harshness and enhance your meals.

Spinach Nutrition- 100g (3.5 oz) gives you

97 KJ (23 Calories)
3.6 g
0.4 g
2.2 g
0.4 g
2.9 g
Low fat, and low in carbohydrate- Spinach is a healthy addition to an athlete's diet

What Happens When Popeye Eats Spinach?

Spinach is a member of the chenopodiaceae family

Spinach is part of the chenopodiaceae family which isalso known as goosefoot. The goosefoot family also includes beets, chards and quinoa. Typically there are three types of spinach available: savoy, semi-savoy and the smooth leaf variety.

While it won’t quite have the effect on your performance as it did for Popeye, the nutritional benefits of spinach are significant. A selection of the health benefits of spinach for endurance athletes are detailed below.

Health benefit 1- Spinach is high in Iron

As endurance athletes we know our blood is exceptionally important to us. It's responsible for the carriage of oxygen to our working muscles. Oxygen is transported in our bloodstream from the lungs to our working muscles for energy production through a reaction with haemoglobin within our red blood cells. The key to this action is the Iron (Haem) element of our red blood cells.

Whilst Iron is important to an athlete if suffering from Iron Deficiency Anemia they can notice a marked decrease in endurance performance in terms of their work capacity and a reduced VO2max although with sensible supplementation this can be reversed. The problem with Iron is that it is actually toxic to the body in high amounts and therefore the athlete tendency to overdoes in an attempt to enhance levels for a subsequent ergogenic edge will likely be of danger to the body and can lead to the deadly condition hemochromatosis where the body has absorbed too much Iron.

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Thai Style Spinach Soup

This Thai style spinach soup offers a healthy blend of spinach, sweet potato and chili for and endurance boost
This Thai style spinach soup offers a healthy blend of spinach, sweet potato and chili for and endurance boost

Health Benefit 2- Spinach enhances Nitric Oxide Levels in the body

Spinach enhances Nitric Oxide Levels in the body

Spinach is a nitric oxide dense super food. Nitic Oxide helps to increase blood flow and subsequent oxygenation of our skeletal muscles which are responsible for the contracts during exercise. Enhanced blood flood to these working muscles should mean that our body will be able to work aerobically for longer before the onset of lactic acid and subsequently improve endurance. Many athletes will supplement their diet with products to enhance Nitric Oxide levels but spinach, kale and beetroot are great sources of this endurance boosting molecule as shown by a study by Cermak, Gibal and van Loon (2012) which showed that a 6 day period of Nitric Oxide supplementation using beetroot juice lead to enhanced 10 km cycling time-trial performances.

Nitric Oxide can help enhance efficiency of mitochondria
Nitric Oxide can help enhance efficiency of mitochondria | Source

3. Spinach enhances muscle mitochondria efficiency

A 2011 study by Larsen et al also found that when consuming inorganic nitrates such as those found in spinach exercises will consume less oxygen whilst performing endurance exercise, The study established this positive effect was as a result of increased efficiency of the mitochondria within our cells. Whilst the researchers did not signify that you should be eating a plate of spinach everyday to enhance performance, the study did highlight the potential health and endurance benefits of leafy green vegetables like spinach as part of a balanced diet.

4. Spinach is high in glycoglycerolipids

Whilst you may never have heard of glycoglycerolipids, which are the main fat-related molecules found within the membranes of light-sensitive organs in most plants. Glycoglycerolipids are key in the process for photosynthesis within plans and research has shown that their high presence in foods like spinach can help protect the lining of the digestive tract from damage. Shiota et al (2010) found that the subsequent anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects from the glycoglycerolipids in spinach may be useful for prevention mucosal injury and other inflammatory diseases.

It can also be inferred that the anti-inflammatory effects can have a positive effect on the gastro-intestinal tract of athletes for who increased stress is placed due to an enhanced calorific need when compared to the general population.

Spinach (pictured with chopped mushrooms) is high in glycoglycerolipids which have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects on the body
Spinach (pictured with chopped mushrooms) is high in glycoglycerolipids which have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects on the body

5. Spinach is high in Vitamin K for enhanced bone health

As athletes and individuals or bones are important to us as the levers around which our muscles power our performance. Spinach is fantastic for bone health through containing 888.48 mcg per 180 g cup (or 493.60 mcg / 100 g) of Vitamin K. Only Kale can top this value per 100 g.

Vitamin K1 is vital to our bone health as it helps to prevent the excessive activation of osteoclasts, which have a catabolic effect on bone cells. In addition bacteria in our intestinal tract help to convert vitamin K1 into vitamin K2, to activate osteocalcin, Osteocalcin helps of body by developing levels of calcium deposits inside the bone for additional strength.

Vitamin and Mineral Values per 100g Spinach

Nutrient Value
Vitamin A
9377 IU
Vitamin C
28.1 mg
Vitamin E
2.03 mg
Vitamin K
482.9 µg
194 µg
0.724 mg
Pantothenic acid
0.065 mg
0.195 mg
0.189 mg
0.078 mg
99 mg
0.13 mg
2.71 mg
79 mg
0.897 mg
0.53 mg
79 mg
558 mg
Source- USDA National Nutrient database

6. Spinach can limit the long-term damage of oxidative stress

The oxidative stresses caused through excesses of partially reduced molecular oxygen from chemical reactions. Sadly that oxidative stress from exercise is considered a major contributor to the impairment both endothelial function and the development of atherosclerotic lesions. (Steinberg et al, 1989). It has also been shown that acute bouts of exercise can increase the markers of LDL oxidation and subsequently high volumes of energy expenditure may advance the progression of atherogenesis through increases in free radical production, oxidative stress and LDL oxidation.

Spinach has been shown to have properties associated with decreased risk of several blood vessel-related problems, including atherosclerosis and high blood pressure through it's high content of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), and manganese. As well as Spinach being a good source of the anti-oxidants zinc and selenium.

7. Spinach can help you train more consistently through better immunity

Spinach is also high in vitamin A with a single cup providing up to 337% of the RDA of vitamin A. Vitamin A has a role in strengthening and protection of the entry parts to the body for food and oxygen. Vitamin A can have a positive immunity effect on our mucous membranes, respiratory, urinary and intestinal tracts, as well as being a key component of our lymphocytes (White Blood Cells responsible for fighting infection).

8. Hours out in the cold, wind and rain can affect your skin

Any endurance athlete, whether they're a cyclist, runner or cross-country skier has to enjoy being outside, however the weather can have a detrimental effect on our skin. From the premature aging effects of excessive sunlight to the roughness of cold winter conditions to our face. The weather subjects us to abuse often as bad as the physical torture we choose to put our body through.

Spinach contains high levels of Vitamin B which can provide some protection for your skin from the sun's harmful rays. It's not a natural sunblock but we all need as much natural assistance as possible and should still consider wearing sun protection year-round.

The content of Vitamin A and folate can also help lead to a clearer complexion through alleviating the appearance of acne and dark circles under the eyes whilst the large number of nutrients found in spinach can benefit dry skin by helping create a clearer, more radiant nat

Being rich in vitamin K and folate, spinach gives you a clear complexion by minimizing acne, bruising on the skin and dark circles. The bounty of vitamin and minerals in this vegetable give you quick relief from dry itchy skin, thus providing you with a more radiant complexion.


Naomi M. Cermak, Martin J. Gibala, and Luc J.C. van Loon, “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

Filip J. Larsen, Tomas A. Schiffer, Sara Borniquel, Kent Sahlin, Björn Ekblom, Jon O. Lundberg, Eddie Weitzberg. Dietary Inorganic Nitrate Improves Mitochondrial Efficiency in Humans. Cell Metabolism, 2011; 13 (2): 149-159

James L. Weinstein, MS, RD. Training Peaks: Iron and the endurance athlete.

Shiota A1, Hada T, Baba T, Sato M, Yamanaka-Okumura H, Yamamoto H, Taketani Y, Takeda E., Protective effects of glycoglycerolipids extracted from spinach on 5-fluorouracil induced intestinal mucosal injury. J Med Invest. 2010 Aug;57(3-4):314-20.

Steinberg D, Parthasarathy S, Carew THE, Khoo JC, Witztum JL. Beyond cholesterol. Modifications of low-density lipoprotein that increase its atherogenicity. N Engl J Med 1989; 320:915-924.


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    • CyclingFitness profile imageAUTHOR

      Liam Hallam 

      4 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Good luck with your chemo tirelesstraveler. a healthy diet with help give your body some strength and allow it to do its job. Spinach is exceptionally nutrient rich so i'd think it will help your body as part of a balanced diet but its always best to check diet requirements from your medical team.

      All the best. Liam

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      4 years ago from California

      Mushrooms and spinach have been foods I have craved the last few days. I am sure spinach and other green leafy veggies are helping my body to stay healthy during chemo.

    • CyclingFitness profile imageAUTHOR

      Liam Hallam 

      4 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Thanks AliciaC, Definitely something to add to everyone's diet (not just athletic types) I've really focuseed on the sporting benefits here but for the general population it has some amazing benefits. Thanks for commenting. Liam

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing this information. I knew that spinach was nutritious, but I learned some new things from your hub. It sounds like spinach should be a part of everyone's diet!


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