The food we eat fuels our activity and allows us to recover. That’s why the elite athletes who dominate their sports for years are as dedicated to their diets as they are to their training.
We know that proteins help us build and repair muscles, carbohydrates provide a quick source of fuel for intense training, and fats balance our hormones and help us better absorb certain vitamins.
But nutrition extends beyond those macronutrients. Subcategories within them, like probiotics, phytonutrients and enzymes, can have specific and profound impacts on our ability to train hard, recover and stay healthy.
In some studies, these nutrients have even been shown to improve performance and reduce muscle soreness caused by hard training. Here are some additional ways they can benefit you and the food sources where you can find them.
Probiotics are live microorganisms found in foods like yogurt, keffir, cheese, kimchi and sauerkraut, to name a few. These foods confer a variety of beneficial health benefits, and the microorganisms are considered “good” bacteria.
Having diversity and ample amounts of “good” bacteria in our gut impacts our digestion of macronutrients and strengthens our immune system defenses. A study in which athletes were given probiotics over the course of 12 weeks found a reduction in the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections.
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This is beneficial for athletes, because hard training can temporarily suppress their immune systems in the hours after training, leaving them more vulnerable to infections.
A separate study found that combining probiotics with casein protein was helpful in speeding recovery and reducing muscle damage—both of which help maintain athletic performance.
Phytonutrients are chemical compounds found in plants that have protective benefits against threats likes germs, fungi and bugs. Food sources of phytonutrients include fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Among the benefits for athletes that can be derived from phytonutrients are increased recovery of peak muscle strength and reduced muscle soreness. One study found that supplementing with a blueberry smoothie prior to training accelerated the recovery of peak isometric strength. Isometric contractions recruit more force than other types of contraction, and they are most prominent during stopping/planting motions in sports, which is where many injuries occur.
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Another study, this one of tart cherries, found that short-term administration of them was beneficial for attenuating muscle soreness and reducing signs of muscle catabolism. Reduced soreness and increased recovery of strength are beneficial effects for athletes, since they allow you to train harder and more frequently.
Enzymes are biological catalysts that can speed up chemical reactions; they play a role in several reactions in the body, including the breakdown of food. Enzymes like papain (found in papaya) and bromelain (found in pineapples) have many health benefits.
A study of systematic enzyme therapy before eccentric exercise found that enzyme administration resulted in higher maximal concentric strength and lowered signs of inflammatory biomarkers. Concentric contractions are those in which the muscle shortens, as are used when pushing a sled or performing an Olympic lift.
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