Some people think that nutrition for athletes must involve engineered foods, such as energy bars, protein shakes, carbohydrate gels and sports drinks. But really, the most powerful foods are the ones your grandparents ate! Add these six foods to your grocery list to provide your body with quality fuel to recover quickly, adapt to difficult training and compete at your best.
1. Chocolate Milk contains protein, carbohydrates, fluid and electrolytes. Athletes use these four nutrients during intense exercise and must replenish them with a recovery meal or snack. Drinking chocolate milk after exercise results in decreased muscle damage and more power in your next exercise session—compared to consuming only carbohydrate. Regular milk and soy milk may have similar benefits.
- Professional athletes such as Carmelo Anthony and Apolo Ohno recover by consuming chocolate milk after a hard workout.
2. Tart Cherries are a great source of antioxidants. Many athletes eat dried cherries or drink cherry juice to decrease muscle damage and soreness after exercise. Research conducted at the University of Vermont showed that consumption of tart cherry juice before and after weightlifting significantly reduced symptoms of muscle damage. Another study showed that runners who drank cherry juice twice a day for seven days before and during the day of a long-distance relay had much less muscle pain after the race.
- Bonus! Tart cherries contain melatonin, which helps regulate the body's sleep patterns.
3. Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. In general, Americans do not get enough of these two nutrients. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation and have a profound effect on brain health. New research indicates that consuming omega-3 fatty acids may affect brain function during exercise and concussion recovery. Salmon also contains vitamin D, which promotes bone health, muscle and immune function. These two nutrients reduce exercise-related inflammation, so salmon should be part of any injury recovery diet.
- Combine canned salmon, fresh dill, plain yogurt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Spread on whole wheat crackers or use as a veggie dip.
4. Almonds are a good source of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that can shield cells from damage. One ounce, or 23 almonds, contains 35 percent of your daily vitamin E needs, six grams of protein, three grams of fiber and nine grams of healthy monounsaturated fat.
- Pack a pair! Mix almonds with dried cherries for a healthy snack to go.
5. Oatmeal makes a fantastic breakfast for athletes. It is a whole grain that provides complex carbohydrates and B vitamins. Oats are also full of fiber, which keeps you feeling full through morning classes. Get creative with oatmeal by adding bananas and peanut butter, canned pumpkin with cinnamon and honey, or dried fruit with nuts.
- Blend versatile oats into smoothies, sprinkle them on yogurt, or mix them into burgers.
6. Low-Fat Greek Yogurt is a great source of protein, calcium and probiotics. One serving of Greek yogurt contains roughly 13-20 grams of protein. Calcium supports healthy bones and plays a role in muscle contraction. Probiotics are "friendly bacteria" that help our body fight disease. Look for the low-fat version, because traditional Greek Yogurt can be high in saturated fat.
- Try dipping fruit into vanilla Greek yogurt, or use plain Greek yogurt on baked potatoes or tacos instead of sour cream.
Nutrition for athletes is a game-changer. The difference between winning and losing often comes down to the way athletes take care of their bodies. Put these "super foods" into your meals and snacks to keep your body working like a well-oiled machine.
1. Connolly, D.A., McHugh, M.P., Padilla-Zakour, O.I., Carlson, L., & Sayers, S.P. (2006). "Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage." British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40, 679-683
2. Kuehl, K.S., Perrier, E.T., Elliot, D.L., and Chesnutt, J.C. (2010). "Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7: 17-22.
Katie Knappenberger, RD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master’s degree in nutrition, with a concentration in sports dietetics, from the University of Utah and her bachelor’s degree in athletic training from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is a member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association and the Sports Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter (@KatieRdATC) for sports nutrition tips and cutting-edge research updates.