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Forget about getting an endurance boost from what’s in your fridge as researchers have found that you would need to eat 100 apples in a single day to experience the effects.
This leaves you with trying dietary supplements, which can get a little scary. Many over the counter varieties are not regulated, so purity and concentration vary by manufacturer. The key is to be smart about integrating new science into your sport and be skeptical, because research around natural endurance enhancers can get complicated.
Here is a look at seven compounds that claim to help you run farther, cycle longer, and lift more weight.
Nitrates have a bad rap as a cancer causing compounds hiding in cured meats, like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs. But an even bigger source of nitrates comes from vegetables like red beetroot, lettuce, celery, and spinach. Super foods that can actually reduce cancer risk. The reason for this good/bad is that Carcinogens form when nitrates react with compounds found in meat protein, but when nitrates mix with vitamin C and other antioxidants found in veggies, they are far less likely to be harmful.
Scientists have been studying the effects of beetroot juice on athletic endurance for several years. Their research suggests that when the nitrate in beetroot juice converts to nitric oxide in your body, it causes blood vessels to dilate, thus lowering blood pressure, increasing blood flow, and reducing the amount of oxygen required by muscles during exercise, which makes physical activity feel less exhausting.
After drinking beetroot juice, study participants were able to cycle for an average of 11.25 minutes, 92 seconds (16%) longer than they could after drinking a placebo beverage.
Researchers conclude this could translate into 2% reductions in race times for enduranceathletes, but the real benefit of beetroot juice comes from the immune support it provides. It’s a very potent antioxidant, rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, and fiber. It helps in cell membrane repair and prevents breakdown more than it helps with increased speed and endurance. It can get pricey. A half dozen 16.9-ounce bottles can set you back close to $40, or roughly $7 for each 500 ml serving.
Quercetin is an antioxidant found in fruits and vegetables, particularly concentrated in the skins of red apples, red onions, berries, and grapes. It is also available in supplement form. Science suggests that quercetin may increase energy-producing mitochondria in muscle and brain cells, boosting mental and physical endurance during exercise.
Researchers found that quercetin supplements helped healthy, active people improve endurance without athletic training.. Those who drank 1,000 mg of quercetin daily demonstrated a 13% increase in endurance and a 4% improvement in VO2 max. (the maximum amount of oxygen the body can take up, a typical measure of physical fitness.) In my book ‘Get Fit Stay Fit’ there are formulas to help calculate your VO2 max.
Quercetin may not be the magic bullet for your next marathon. You’d need to eat 100 apples or guzzle three cans of FRS Healthy Energy, a quercetin-containing sports drink, to reach 1,000 mg. But don’t dismiss apple skins and red onions just yet, as they offer serious protection at the cellular level. When you reach a higher VO2 max, you have a higher accumulation of free radicals in your bodies because of the increased volume of oxygen you’re taking in, and powerful antioxidants like quercetin scavenge free radicals, which can damage cell membranes.
Resveratrol is a cousin to quecetin and is found in grape skins and red wine, and becomes more concentrated as grapes ferment during the wine making process. Another potent antioxidant, researchers have linked resveratrol to improvements in longevity, fat-burning, and athletic endurance.
resveratrol improved aerobic capacity in mice. Rodents that received up to 400 mg of resveratrol per kilogram of body weight (a similar dose in humans is equivalent to 100 glasses of red wine) ran twice as far on a treadmill as mice that weren’t supplemented. Researchers attributed the endurance boost to resveratrol’s ability to boost energy producing mitochondria in muscle cells.
Before knocking back a few extra drinks the night before your race, consider this: So far, resveratrol studies largely have been limited to mice, and scientists are just now starting to test the supplement’s effects on humans. Picking red wine over hard alcohol has its health benefits, like potentially lowering bad cholesterol and fighting belly fat, while no such research exists on hard alcohol. Endurance athletes should drink in moderation. Alcohol is very dehydrating and not the type of sugars you are looking for when it comes to performance. Eating complex carbohydrates, like whole grain bread, brown rice, and oatmeal, are better sugar sources for runners and cyclists.
A mild central nervous system stimulant found in coffee, tea, yerba mate,soft drinks, andchocolate, caffeine keeps you awake and wards off fatigue. These everyday benefits could extend to sports performance, lowering one’s perception of intensity or difficulty and allowing athletes to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer period of time. Caffeine causes free fatty acids to be released from your liver, which are then converted to usableenergy, enhancing aerobic performance.
Studies on caffeine and endurance during time trial performances concluded that when taken in significant quantities (roughly 200 to 400 mg for a 150-pound person—a 5-ounce cup of coffee typically has between 80 and 115 mg of caffeine) before or during athletic activity, caffeine can boost stamina by3.2%. Abstaining from caffeine for at least a week prior to an athletic event provides the greatest chance of optimizing its ergogenic effect.
Compared with the rest of the endurance enhancers, caffeine is probably your best bet. It’s the only compound that has been shown to be an ergogenic aid and is currently allowed [in quantities less than 12 mg per liter of urine] by the International Olympic Committee. Still, caffeine isn’t for everyone especially on race day. Aside from giving you the jitters or an upset stomach, caffeine is a diuretic, which can lead to dehydration if you drink more than 5 cups and don’t replace fluids fast enough on a hot day.
Honey is a mixture of sugars, primarily fructose and glucose, and water. While processed honey is stripped of many vitamins, amino acids, and enzymes, raw honey maintains many of the nutrients found in the hive. Honey may be a good carbohydrate source for endurance athletes because it breaks down and raises blood sugar more slowly than many other sugars.
Studies compared the effects of raw honey to those of other sugars and commercial sports gels and found that honey raised blood sugar only slightly, performing on par with commercial sports gels.
In another study, those that consumed a honey sweetened recovery drink sustained blood sugar 2 hours after exercise.
In another study, cyclists found that honey increased their power and speed in 10 minute intervals during a simulated 40 mile race but sugar dextrose worked equally well.
While study results aren’t shocking, Honey has great properties [as an antioxidant and an antimicrobial], but to say it’s going to increase performance over other sugars is a claim that is going to benefit those who sell raw honey.
Asian ginseng, or pantax ginseng, may be purchased as root powder in supplement form or found in energy drinks as an extract. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng is classified as an adaptogen, an herb that is believed to increase resistance to stress and fatigue.
Studies on Asian ginseng have produced mixed results. Ginseng supplements may enhance athletic performance if taken long enough (more than 8 weeks) and in sufficient doses (at least 2,000 mg per day) with untrained athletes and those older than 40 experiencing the best benefits.
Although most researchers conclude that ginseng is generally safe for consumption, herbal supplements should always be taken under the supervision of a health care provider. People need to understand that many medications are derived from plants, so even though we call [herbal supplements] natural, they can have very harmful effects on your body when consumed in high doses or in combination with other medications. In particular, ginseng should not be combined with heart, blood pressure, blood thinning, or diabetes medications or along with certain antidepressants.
Spirulina, a blue-green algae available in powder, flake, and tablet form, is very high in protein, which researchers suggest could enhance muscular strength and athletic endurance.
Given its mix of protein, amino acids, and vitamin B12, spirulina is an excellent dietary supplement for vegetarians, where 60 to 70% of the plant’s structure is composed of protein. It can benefit you with an immune enhancing effect, but not a muscular or strength enhancing effect, the supplement may help you get sick less often, but that you shouldn’t start taking spirulina and expect to run or cycle longer.
Foods that Fuel
It’s no secret that long, grueling workouts by runners, cyclists, swimmers, and tri athletes take a toll on the body. Endurance athletes can suffer up to 200 times the free radical damage of regular athletes. Many athletes do not know which foods and supplements to consume to fight the damage and recover faster?
Research shows that the combinations of antioxidants in whole fruits and vegetables are more effective than isolated nutrients at neutralizing free radicals. Here are the best whole foods for endurance athletes, plus the supplements that aid antioxidant performance and recovery.
They’re the media darlings of the antioxidant craze, and with good reason. Research has attributed cancer, stroke, and heart disease prevention, as well as brain health; anti-aging; and anti-inflammatory effects, to these little blue berries. Whenever possible, choose wild blueberries , usually in the frozen fruit section.
Several other berries may also provide benefits, for athletes, and you should consume the darker berries, such as pomegranate, acai, raspberries, and goji berries.
Walnuts are king of nuts in terms of total antioxidants, and they’re also rich in vitamin E, fiber, and minerals. But while nutrient dense, nuts are also calorie dense and more than a handful can turn a healthy snack into a diet-busting meal. For the average person, no more than 2 servings which is about 14 walnuts, roughly one handful
Too many nuts can also disrupt the balance of essential fatty acids in your diet. Walnuts have an unfavorable omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids ratio. A higher proportion of omega-6 promotes cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, while higher omega-3 consumption has the opposite effect. So treat nuts as a snack, not a meal.
For athletes, colorful beta carotene-rich foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes, and peaches provide micronutrients as well as a healthy form of carbohydrate fuel. The bright red-orange gac fruit has 10 times more beta carotene than any of these other foods, but it’s difficult to find.
Scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C isn’t a concern for most. Still, it’s vital to ensure you get recommended levels of the vitamin, as C is the primary water-soluble antioxidant in your body and is involved in processes including bone formation, free radical scavenging, and building other important antioxidants. Also known as “ascorbic acid,” it is only found in plant foods. Oranges and lemons famously cured scurvy and are known for their levels of the vitamin, but raw red peppers actually rank at the top for C content. Other surprising foods ahead of citrus on the list are parsley and broccoli.
To preserve the nutrients in the peppers, eat them raw, steamed, or very lightly cooked.
Chia seeds (yes, the same ones used on Chia Pets) are an ancient American staple known as “running food” to Aztec and Mayan cultures. The tiny, tasteless seeds recently got a nod , as the primary fuel of the mysterious Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who run barefoot across miles of deadly canyons. Their unique nutrient profile makes chia seeds a great choice for endurance athletes. One tablespoon contains 6 g carbs, 6 g protein, 6 g fiber, and a very high level of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, making them a nutrient-rich energy source.
Whey powder can play an important role in helping your body synthesize a lesser known antioxidant, glutathione.
Glutathione is your body’s master antioxidant and it has many immune boosting functions such as maintaining blood levels of other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. Since supplementing with glutathione isn’t effective, healthy levels depend on eating a variety of plant and animal foods.
Research has shown that isolated antioxidant supplements such as lycopene pills don’t give the same benefits as the whole foods they come from. Whole food supplements such as juices and extracts can be a convenient way to get powerful doses of real antioxidants.
Acai berries, by nature of their large seeds, are difficult to eat in their natural state. However, minimally processed frozen pulps for smoothies and juice extracts are widely available and deliver a unique flavor. Look for antioxidant extracts and juices without sugar or other low-cost additives such as apple and grape juices.
Whole foods promote health better than isolated antioxidant supplements. Eat a lot of high-quality real foods, which will contain a variety of antioxidants. However, there may be a time and place for the right kind of antioxidant supplement.
If you’re shopping for an antioxidant supplement, you should ideally be looking for all these ingredients: vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherols), vitamin A (carotenes), polyphenols, selenium, lutein and lycopene, and a high overall ORAC score.
Certain animal foods can help round out your antioxidant profile. Cold-water fish such as salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, shown to reduce inflammation and the risk of the major chronic diseases: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. One concern is the high level of PCBs found in a majority of farmed salmon , which could negate some of the benefits of the antioxidants. Look for wild Alaskan salmon, which have lower levels of contaminants as well as higher levels of omega-3s.
Dark Leafy Greens
Many athletes, don’t have a hard time eating potatoes, tomatoes, fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetable oil, and meat all good antioxidant sources. But most of them have relatively few greens in their diet. Dark leafy greens (think kale, collards, Swiss chard, even broccoli, but not lettuces) contain a bounty of micronutrients such as minerals, omega-3s, and antioxidants such as lutein.
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