Performance ingredients can speed up oxygen distribution, muscle development, recovery times, sprint power, energy creation and even decision-making. The key to tapping into this record-busting larder is to know which foods really will make you faster
The evidence keeps on coming that the essence of beetroot is not only a super source of faster oxygen delivery but it also boosts an athlete’s thinking too. Researchers from the University of Exeter have found that drinking high-nitrate beetroot juice improves sprint performance and improves decision-making time by an incremental but important 3% faster after drinking 140mls of beetroot supplement, according to a report in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
“To improve your ability to repeat movements at high speed, try supplementing with beta-alanine and creatine,” suggests Kearney. Creatine is a naturally occurring mixture of amino acids, found in meat and fish. “The best source of creatine is wild game such as venison – which is also leaner with fewer calories and less saturated fat than other red meats. Turkey and chicken breast both have high sources of beta-alanine and for vegetarians roasted soybeans are great, with three grams of beta-alanine in just one cupful (200g).”
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and a strong cup (double espresso) can speed up the body’s metabolism – having the effect of increasing calorie burn in the process. But research suggests it raises muscle recovery and energy replenishment. A team from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia found that endurance cyclists who ingested caffeine (8mg per kg of body weight) with carbs had 66% more glycogen in their muscles four hours after finishing intense exercise, compared to consuming carbs alone. “If you have 66% more fuel for the next day’s training or competition, there’s no question you will go farther or faster,” said Dr John Hawley, the study’s senior author.
Research in The Scandinavian J o u rnal of Medicine & Science in Sports , highlights how the commonly acknowledged bad boy of nutrition – salt – can work wonders for athletes when used wisely. Athletes given salt capsules as part of their in-race feeding during triathlons finished an average of 26 minutes faster than those whose sports drinks was spiked with a non-salty placebo.
There’s good reason as to why recovery shakes feature in the kit bags of athletes the world over and isn’t solely down to clever marketing and stylish shakers. “By consuming the right ratio of carbs, protein and amino acids post exercise, ideally within 30-40 minutes of finishing, you’re hitting the optimum time for muscle repair and recovery with the ideal mix of nutrients,” says Kearney. Shakes speed up the process as they’re available instantly and digested rapidly.
“Iron from food sources or supplementation also increases aerobic capacity,” says Kearney. “Especially if there’s a deficiency which needs to be corrected.” Endurance athletes are at greater risk of suffering with low iron levels, but before supplementing take a look at ways of adding iron to your diet. It’s often because of the focus on carb loading that high-quality protein – a main source of iron for many – gets overlooked. Look to key sources such as roast venison, sardines in tomato sauce, grilled rump steak and roast lamb to raise your iron levels.
Capsaicin – the compound that makes taking out your contact lenses after chopping chillies an extreme sport – has also been shown to speed up the body’s metabolic processes, with benefits for extreme athletes performing in colder climes. A report from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology shows how chilli peppers, can increase thermogenesis, the process by which cells convert energy into heat, speeding up an increase in body temperature and thus calorie burning.
With stodge-like implications and a “slow-digesting” reputation you’d be forgiven for thinking that high fibre breakfast cereals such as wholegrains or rye would be out of place in a feature on “faster” foods. But the make-up of these healthy breakfast cereals can significantly speed up weight loss. Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences have shown how wholegrain foods are key to increasing levels of satiety (feeling full) and so reducing hunger, curbing snacking and contributing to weight management
Can’t stomach strong coffee? That’s really no problem if you’re fearful of losing out on the quick-thinking benefits of caffeine because some types of tea can deliver exactly the same results. “Caffeine can help improve focus and speed of thought, and decrease the perception of fatigue,” says Kearney. “But black coffee before exercise can cause gut issues so if you are prone to this you may want to try green tea or a caffeine supplement instead.”
It’s the Omega-3 fats in oily fish that have a variety of fast-acting positive effects for the body and mind of an athlete. These fats can improve muscle function and rapidly decrease post-exercise inflammation in the body. Salmon is an excellent source of the fats, protein and vitamins that speed up muscle repair and make the membranes of brain cells more supple – optimising thought processing power.
Bananas aren’t just loaded with easily digestible carbohydrates for rapid refuelling. “They’re also packed with potassium, which aids nerve and muscle function,” says Kearney. However, the body doesn’t store potassium for very long and since it’s a nutrient lost through sweat but crucial to staving off cramp, a fast-acting, swiftly broken down replacement is vital for long distance athletes. We give you then, exhibit A: nature’s power bar, the banana.
Blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are all antioxidant bulging superfoods for runners and riders – whilst blackcurrants in particular can provide a major boost for an athlete’s PB. Researchers in New Zealand for the University of Chichester found that for a group of male cyclists blackcurrants – in concentrated form – helped improve a 16.1km time trial performance by up to 8.6% and boosted fat oxidation by 27% when cycling at 65% VO2max.
Speed up your recovery from illness and create a more resilient defence to disease by taking on good bacteria in the form of probiotics found in yogurts. Studies reveal that daily probiotic intake for an athlete is linked to fewer days off training with cold and flu symptoms. The good bacteria helps the body’s own mucous membranes resist bugs whilst the protein within yoghurt strengthens immunity too.
EXPERT: GLENN KEARNEY Etixx sports head nutritionist has supported athletes from the New Zealand All Blacks to the 2012 Team GB Athletics Team. etixxsports.com