Improving Athletic Performance with Plants
About 3 years ago, I decided to do my first half-marathon race (1st picture). I trained hard, I ate plant based, but I didn't really understand the important role nutrition actually played in endurance training. Toward the end of the race, I found myself struggling hard, and barely crossed the finish line before my legs gave out. Recovery was long and painful, but for some reason, pain and all, I couldn't wait to run my next race.
Last June I decided to sign up for the hardest half-marathon in the country (2nd picture). In the months leading up to the race, I was swamped at work. I had almost no training runs in, but I was committed to completing this race, even if I had to walk it. I happened to be researching human physiology and the biochemical and microbial effects certain foods had on our body. About 2 weeks prior to the race, I realized my only shot at getting through this race was controlling the one thing I could control at that time; what I ate.
I compiled a list of some of the foods I ate to help me make it through:
1. High Altitude:
The race began at 10,000 ft altitude and peaked at 13,200 ft, then completed with a run back down the mountain to 10,000 ft. In higher altitudes, the percentage of oxygen is exactly the same, but your body reacts to it as if its not getting enough. The reason being, oxygen molecules are spread further apart in higher altitudes. So the goal is to concentrate oxygen molecules in the blood as well as stay hydrated.
- I attempted this effect by increasing my water intake from 1 gallon to about 1.5 gallons of water, as well as consuming foods high in natural nitrates. Plant nitrates turn into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide relaxes the lining of our blood vessels, causing them to dilate, allowing more oxygen rich blood to flow to muscles.
2. Reducing Oxidative Stress:
Oxidative stress and free radicals are produced from various external factors such as exercise, stress, and foods and products we consume. Free radicals are basically rogue cells that are supercharged, flying around hitting everything in its path cousin cell mutations. They are implicated in just about every disease that exists and they have been directly linked to aging as they build up in our body. In the short term, they can cause fatigue, aches and pains, and low endurance threshold. The key to combating this is consuming enough antioxidant rich foods to douse the free radicals.
- The brighter the food and the longer it takes to turn brown when exposed to oxygen (oxidation), the more potent in antioxidants it is. I consumed roasted sweet potatoes, purple potatoes, herbs like oregano, black rice, spinach, beets and arugula. I stayed away from heavier plant foods that I normally consume in abundance, like beans, and swaped them out for foods like chia seeds that are high in fiber and antioxidants and also hold onto hydration. As well as spirulina, which has the highest per weight protein content of any food in the world. About 60% protein with all essential amino acids. It is also one of the most potent antioxidants in the world. Other foods I used to combat inflammation and free radical damage are moringa, maca, turmeric and blackberries. My night before the race meal went from being pasta and pizza to a large spinach and arugula salad with an apple cider vinegar dressing, a baked sweet potato, 2 beets and 1/2 cup of herbed black rice.
3. Increasing Oxygen Rich Blood Flow to Muscles
Keeping oxygen rich blood flowing to your muscles during a work out or training is monumentally beneficial to your performance. Foods high in natural nitrates date blood vessels, allowing more oxygen rich blood to flow.
- Foods that are ideal before training are beets, arugula, swiss chard, cilantro, and basil. Apple cider vinegar is high in acetic acid, which also has a dilating effect on the lining of our blood vessels. Beets are particularly high in nitrates and are also very high in antioxidants. Because beets are so potent in nitrates, I decided to also use them as my fuel for during the race. after consuming a beet, the increase in oxygen rich blood flow lasts about 75 minutes. So I packed 3 vinegar fermented beets in a baggie (added benefit of vinegar), and set an alarm on my phone to go off every 60 minutes, reminding me to take a few bites of one of my beets. This would ensure that I had an even and consistent flow of oxygen rich blood to my muscles throughout the 5 hour race. Beets replaced my race goos and chews.
4. Increasing Energy and Stamina
I incorpoarted foods high in natural adaptogens like chaga mushrooms, maca, and hemp seeds in the 3 days preceding the race, to boost my energy. I also made a brazil nut butter to eat on my sprouted grain bagel. Brazil nuts are high in selenium content. This is a natural testosterone booster, and aids well in regulating oxidative stress as well as enhancing performance. I grated fresh turmeric on my salads and also drank a juice high in turmeric 2 hours prior to the race. Turmeric has a number of important benefits, but it aids well in recovery as well as cell protection from free radicals.
As a result of my efforts, I survived the race and my recovery time went from 1 month to an astounding 1 week.
I hope this helps, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments! If you're looking for some recipes that incorporate some of these ingredients, check out the recipe section of our blog, or head to our menu for meals that incorpoarte all of these foods without the hassle.
Happy eating and running!