As a participant in endurance sports, training hard and needing to recover quickly before your next workout, you need to get as much nutrition as you can out of the food that you eat. I’m not just talking about calories or grams of carbohydrate or high quality protein, but also about vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and other substances found in foods that have been shown to be helpful for maintaining and optimising good health. A phrase that I like to describe this is “nutrient density”. It’s different from “energy density”, which is purely about the amount of calories (and therefore fuel) in a meal. Nutrient density is about quality as well as quantity.
It can be hard to eat enough food to meet your nutrition needs when you are in a heavy training phase, particularly when you are training twice (or more) in a day, and need to recover quickly. This is where making your own smoothies can be a useful strategy for providing you with the nutrients that you need in a form that is easy and quick to digest and absorb. Commercially available smoothies are generally fruit only, perhaps with some added yogurt, and I would not recommend these as a regular part of your training diet, although they can be convenient occasionally. Recovery drinks from sports nutrition companies, which generally combine sugars and protein powders with perhaps some added synthetic vitamins and minerals, certainly have a place, particularly when you are away from home at the end of a long run or ride. But a home-made smoothie goes beyond a recovery drink. By combining a number of natural ingredients with a quality protein powder, you can really add some ‘nutrient density’ to your diet and create a ‘mini meal’ which also helps you to meet your energy needs.
Smoothies are best made at home, where you have access to a blender or food processor, and drunk immediately. However, you can also make them up to 24 hours before drinking them if you keep them refrigerated, eg at work, and shake well before drinking. Ideally keep a stick blender at work and whizz your smoothie again before drinking.
These are the base ingredients that I would include in any smoothie:
- 1-2 portions of fruit, eg banana, handful of berries, handful of grapes, melon, apple or pear slices, nectarine or peach chunks, segments of orange, grapefruit or tangerine, slices of kiwi fruit, mango or papaya, chunks of pineapple. A portion is approximately 80g. If you only have 1 portion, try to have about 40g of two different fruits to increase the nutrient content. Using frozen fruit works well to give you an ice cold smoothie.
- Scoop of natural or flavoured protein powder, enough to provide 15-20g of protein, which research suggests is the optimal serving for muscle recovery. Buy a protein powder that is free from artificial ingredients or sweeteners if possible. Natural flavours, eg cocoa powder or vanilla essence, are OK, although you can also add your own to a plain protein powder. I would suggest that Stevia is the best form of sweetener in a commercial protein powder. Whey protein isolate provides the highest bio-availability (ie amount of protein that can be used in the body) but if you are unable to tolerate dairy or are vegan, rice or pea protein powders would be good alternatives.
- Nuts or nut butter: these will help to provide a range of minerals and also essential fatty acids and some additional protein. Plus they provide flavour! I like to use almonds, cashew nuts, pecans or macadamia nuts. The portion size is 20-30g, or 1-2 tsp of nut butter (choose a brand that has no added sugars, just crushed nuts and a little salt).
- Some form of milk: this can be cow’s milk (eg semi-skimmed), or a plant alternative like rice milk, almond milk or diluted coconut milk (try the Koko brand if you are in the UK – http://www.kokodairyfree.com/). 125ml of milk is enough to make about 300ml of smoothie. Add water if you want a longer or more dilute drink.
I’m also a big fan of adding vegetables to smoothies to boost their nutrient content. It’s a great way of getting more greens in your diet, for example. Any green leaves can be added, eg kale, baby spinach, chard or rocket (arugula). Another great vegetable ingredients are particularly useful if you are looking to increase your carb content, is raw sweet potato. Peel half a potato and cut into chunks before adding to the blender. A lovely ingredient which helps to create a really rich, creamy smoothie is half an avocado (ok, I know it’s a fruit, not a vegetable). This has the benefit of adding magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin E and monounsaturated fat to your smoothie, as well as increasing the calorie content.
Another calorie booster is adding a tablespoon of raw coconut butter or two tablespoons of desiccated coconut. The type of saturated fat in coconut (medium chain triglycerides) is used by the body for energy rather than stored fat, and is a useful food for athletes. You could also add a couple of tablespoons of Greek Yogurt.
Lastly you could add a source of omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil, hempseed oil or flaxseed oil. You can also use pumpkinseeds, ground flaxseed or chia seeds.
I hope this has given you some ideas for home-made smoothies. Just throw the ingredients together in a large blender or food processor and blitz on the smoothie setting or for about 2 minutes.
Here are a couple of sample smoothie recipes for you:
- Blend half a frozen banana and 30g of frozen berries, with 20g of whey protein isolate powder (or non-dairy alternative), 1 tsp of cashew nut butter, and 125ml of semi-skimmed milk or non-dairy alternative. Add water to dilute as needed.
- Blend half a raw sweet potato, handful of baby spinach and half an apple, with 20g of protein powder, a tsp of cocoa powder, 30g of raw almonds and 125ml of almond milk. Add water to dilute as needed
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk