Olympic Nutrition: 5 Foods to Enhance Athletic Performance


During the bitter cold winter this year, there is at least one thing to look forward to – The Winter Olympics!  Watching the Olympians may just inspire you to get off the couch and hit the gym or, better yet, step off the treadmill and hit the slopes! If you consider yourself an athlete, here are a few natural tools that could take your performance to the next level. Keep in mind, the recommendations outlined below are for those who spend at least 1 hour or more per workout doing vigorous physical activity. The suggestions won’t do much good, and could even be counterproductive for gym goers looking to merely shed a few pounds or focus on wellness. After all, these are added calories!   

Five functional foods that can enhance your athletic performance.

Beet Juice

Beets, like all fruits and vegetables, have antioxidants, fiber, and are rich in vitamins and minerals.  Recent research suggests that beets may also help improve athletic performance.  How so?  Beets are an excellent source of nitrates, which stimulates the production of nitric oxide.  Nitric oxide, also known as nitrogen monoxide, is a gas that widens blood vessels, increasing blood flow and oxygen to the skeletal muscles.  This leads to increased endurance and heightened strength.  If you want to give beets a try, world renowned sports dietitian Nancy Clark recommends 200 to 500 mL (6 to 16 oz) of beet juice or 75 mL (2.5 oz) of concentrated beet juice approximately two to three hours before an event.  You can opt for a cup of baked beets or other nitrate-rich foods such as spinach, arugula, or rhubarb.

Watermelon Juice

As our Bushwick Nutrition explored back in July 2013, watermelon contains a compound, L-citrulline that is a critical component of our new friend nitric oxide.  Similar to beet juice, watermelon juice can boost performance and relieve post workout soreness.  Research suggests that athletes can benefit from half a liter of watermelon juice post event and event training.  Watermelon is also, as the name suggests, about 90% water and lower in sugar than most juices- so it’s great for rehydrating. You can also count on a healthy dose of Vitamin A and C and even some potassium in your serving of watermelon juice. 

Dried Fruit: Prunes, Figs, Plums, or Other

Dried fruit is an oldie but a goodie.  It has been known to be an athlete’s trusted key  to a quick energy boost. Did you know that early Olympic athletes were given figs as a training food? Dried fruit keeps fresh in basically any condition so you can take it with you on long runs or keep in your gym bag for a quick snack after a workout. It’s critical to provide the body with a serving of easily digestible carbs to replenish one’s energy stores. Dried fruit provides a burst of calories but unlike processed sugary sports gels, you benefit from fiber and naturally occurring antioxidants. If you like bars over bags of dried fruit, you can try the KIND fruit and nut bar. They have no artificial ingredients and the nuts provide protein  - it’s a win win. If fiber bothers you, make sure to eat prunes and dried fruit only after your workout, or try lower fiber alternatives such as dried mango, orange slices, or apples.  

Sodium Bicarbonate

Does anyone remember this from their high school chemistry class?  Sodium bicarbonate acts as a buffer of lactic acid, the compound that makes your muscles burn while exercising.  Sodium bicarbonate can slow down the build up of lactic acid in the blood leading to improved performance in high intensity interval training (HITT) lasting about one to three minutes. You can find sodium bicarbonate in a capsule form just read the ingredient list to make sure there are few ingredients and none that you cannot pronounce.  

Chia Seeds

Touted as one of the “it” foods of 2013, chia seeds are a super natural food. The seeds contain nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids (healthy fats), antioxidants, protein, iron, and can absorb up to 10 times their weight in water, which make them great for hydration! In Mexico, both the Aztecs (fiercest warriors) and the Tarahumara Indians (barefoot marathoners of their time), used chia seeds as a staple in their diet. NFL players have also been known to use them for their intense training! Chia seeds are great for energy and a healthy digestion. Just be forewarned that when combined in water, as the recipe below entails, they get a little gelatinous, not necessarily a bad thing but be ready for some texture.

Chia Lemonade

  • ¼ cup of freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice (~ 2)
  • ¼ cup maple syrup grade B or Agave nectar
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds

Directions: Combine lemon juice, sweetener, and water in a large pitcher. Once well combined, add chia seeds and let mixture sit for at least 30 minutes, so the chia seeds plump up. Serve and enjoy!

Serves 5 cups. Per cup: 80 calories, 3 grams of protein.

Intensive physical activity is very demanding on the body.  To make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to maximize your performance and decrease recovery time while keeping your body healthy, contact me and set up your 10-minute complimentary phone session! 

Co-Written by Debi Zvi, RD, CDN Debi Zvi RD, CDN and Alanna Cabrero, MS, RD, CDN nutrition@nyhrc.com. Photographed by Alanna Cabrero

Edited by Tamara Cabrero

Originally posted on NYHRC Tumblr