It's no secret that the long, grueling workouts endured by runners, cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes take a toll on the body. Endurance athletes can suffer up to 200 times the free radical damage of regular folks. But how many of them 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 10 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 North American natives. Whenever possible, choose wild blueberries (usually in the frozen fruit section); they're botanically distinct and came in at the top of the list in a 2008 Cornell University study of the antioxidant capabilities of 25 commonly consumed fruits and berries.
Tip: Several of the less-studied berries may also provide benefits. "For our athletes, we recommend the darker berries, such as pomegranate, acai, blueberries, raspberries, and goji berries," says Ben Greenfield, an Ironman triathlete and coach based in Spokane, WA and Coeur D' Alene, ID.
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, I don't recommend much more than 2 servings [i.e., 14 walnuts--roughly one handful]," says triathlete trainer Greenfield.
Too many nuts can also disrupt the balance of essential fatty acids in your diet. "The calorie density doesn't bother me as much as the unfavorable omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids ratio in nuts," says Greenfield. Studies show 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.
Some of the worst (and most confusing) news about antioxidants is a group of studies that showed that the antioxidant beta carotene increased lung cancer rates. However, the studies were conducted using high doses of antioxidant supplements, not whole foods, and the lung cancer victims were largely smokers, not normal healthy individuals. 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. (Video: Eat to fuel your half-marathon)
Tip: The bright red-orange gac fruit has 10 times more beta carotene than any of these other foods, but it's difficult to find outside Southeast Asia.
Scurvy (a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C) isn't a concern for most modern landlubbers. Still, it's vital to ensure you get recommended levels of the vitamin, as C is the primary water-soluble antioxidant in the 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.
Tip: 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 in the paean to running Born to Run, 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.
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Hey, wait a second. That's not a brightly colored fruit or vegetable!
No, but whey powder can play an important role in helping the body synthesize a lesser-known antioxidant, glutathione.
"Glutathione is the 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," says Brian St. Pierre, CSCS, a nutritionist at BSP Training and Nutrition. Since supplementing with glutathione isn't effective, healthy levels depend on eating a variety of plant and animal foods. St. Pierre says one limiting factor is the relatively rare amino acid cysteine, which happens to be in great supply in whey protein.
While research has shown that isolated antioxidant supplements such as lycopene pills don't confer 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 and their production in the Amazon, are difficult to eat in their natural state. However, minimally processed frozen pulps for smoothies and juice extracts are widely available in the United States and deliver a unique flavor. Look for antioxidant extracts and juices without sugar or other low-cost additives such as apple and grape juices. (Search: Belly flattening smoothies)
Research and common sense overwhelmingly suggest that whole foods promote health better than isolated antioxidant supplements. Because the research on antioxidants is still new, St. Pierre says, "My advice would be to eat a lot of high-quality real food, which will contain a plethora of antioxidants, and have aided the health of humans throughout history." However, there may be a time and place for the right kind of antioxidant supplement.
Greenfield recommends a "full-spectrum" supplement such as LivingFuel SuperBerry for hardcore athletes stressing their bodies to the point where it becomes difficult for them to eat enough fruits and vegetables to get enough antioxidants. "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," he says.
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 sold in the United States, which could negate some of the benefits of the antioxidants. To play it safe, look for wild Alaskan salmon, which have lower levels of contaminants as well as higher levels of omega-3s.
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"If I analyze the diet of one of my athletes, they're usually not having 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," says triathlete trainer Greenfield, who has his charges aim to consume greens 3 to 5 times a day, often in smoothies for convenience. 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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