When it comes to sports nutrition, the natural approach is best.
There’s no doubt that sports drinks and energy gels offer a quick and convenient way to get fuel to your muscles before and after exercise. This said, a recent survey by the National Hydration Council found that a staggering 11 million Britons guzzle sports drinks at their desks instead of using them properly, in conjunction with intense exercise.
When it comes to sports nutrition, new research from the US says natural foods, such as bananas and watercress, are as beneficial, and much better for your health if you’re exercising regularly and at a moderate level. ‘It’s always better from a performance point of view to eat “real” food first and then use supplements if you need them,’ says health and performance nutritionist Matt Lovell (sportsnutritionvlog.com).
Unless you’re training hard for an endurance event or exercising for longer than 90 minutes at a time, drinking carbohydrate drinks may be self-defeating. ‘Depending on what’s been added to them or taken away, sports drinks are only useful to a degree,’ says Lovell. Not only can sports drinks and supplements be expensive if you’re buying them regularly, but their high sugar or artificial sweetener content can be bad news for your teeth and cause blood sugar fluctuations. ‘Real, unprocessed and organic food can provide so many more nutritional benefits than a drink or tablet can offer,’ says Lovell. Natural foods contain fibre, vitamins and minerals that can’t be replicated in a sports drink. It’s time to start fuelling your body with natural goodness.
The humble banana is a sports nutrition powerhouse. In a recent study by Appalachian State University in the US, bananas were just as effective as a carbohydrate sports drink for boosting cyclists’ performance. What sets bananas apart though is that they’re packed with antioxidants, fibre, potassium and vitamin B6, which is used by your body to convert proteins and carbohydrates into energy. Bananas also contain a healthier blend of sugars compared to sports drinks, which is more beneficial for the body. Potassium in bananas stimulates electrical impulses in your muscles to boost your performance, while sodium works with potassium to give you a post-sweat electrolyte boost. Their easily digestible simple sugars provide energy fast, so eat one 30-40 minutes before exercise. Plus, they come in their own packaging – what’s not to love?
We love beetroot because it’s pink – simple. But according to new research, it’s the ideal pre-run drink or snack. A study by St Louis University, US, found that eating beetroot causes blood nitrate levels to rise enough to rejuvenate sluggish muscles and improve exercise performance. Nitrate widens blood vessels which, in turn, improves oxygen supply to your muscles and reduces blood pressure. As a result, participants in the study were able to run for longer and faster than a group who’d snacked on cranberries. In a separate study at the University of Exeter, cyclists’ endurance was increased by 19 per cent after drinking beetroot juice an hour before exercising. ‘Blood nitrate levels peak two to three hours after drinking beetroot juice, so time your training sessions accordingly,’ says Lovell.
Watercress could minimise the stress caused to your body after a tough workout. This peppery salad leaf is packed with antioxidants, scoring highly on the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scale. Research by Edinburgh Napier University recently found that watercress can help restore energy levels and help combat the natural stress caused to our bodies by exercise. People who ate watercress two hours before a workout experienced less cellular damage after exercise. ‘To get the benefits, you’d need to eat an 85g portion of watercress (the size of small bag) every day you work out,’ says Lovell.
Not only is it refreshing and great for fat burning, drinking green tea can give you more energy and calm your nerves before a big race. It contains antioxidants, polyphenols (active plant nutrients) and catechins, which can help increase 24-hour energy expenditure and fat oxidation, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Green tea raises levels of the chemicals dopamine and GABA in the brain, which have both a calming and focusing effect. Green tea is one of only a few natural substances that can do this, says Lovell, which makes it an important part of an athlete’s diet.
Aim to get a wide range of antioxidants in your diet to help you stay healthy and fit, says Lovell. Luckily for us this means dark chocolate is firmly on the menu, as it scores very highly on the ORAC scoreboard (it contains five and half times the antioxidants in blueberries, per 100g). The bioactive compounds tyramine and phenylethylamine found in chocolate can provide you with an energy boost for an intense exercise session, while epicatechin, another chemical found in chocolate, was found to help increase fitness levels and muscle growth in mice at a faster rate than if they exercised without the chemical. Dark chocolate (70 per cent+ cocoa), or preferably cocoa nibs, contains fewer calories and more antioxidants than milk chocolate.