If you are training for an endurance sports event, when it comes to nutrition you probably think about starchy carbs for energy first, followed by protein for recovery and muscle repair. But how much thought do you give to the amount and type of vegetables and fruit that you consume each day? These foods also provide carbohydrates for energy, and are an excellent source of phyto-nutrients, vitamins and minerals, particularly anti-oxidants such as vitamins C and A, the latter in the form of beta-carotene which gives the orange and dark green colour of many fruit and vegetables. While it is no longer recommended to consume high dose, synthetic antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C and vitamin E after exercise, as this has been shown in studies to have an adverse effect on the training adaptation process (see my blog here for more on this), the more moderate amount of natural anti-oxidants found in fruit and vegetables are regarded as beneficial for recovery. Aim for four to five portions of vegetables each day, together with two or three of fruit. Just “5 a day” is insufficient for an endurance athlete.
Here are my ten favourite vegetables and fruit for people training for endurance events.
- Sweet Potato: a complex carbohydrate which provides a more sustained source of energy than white potato. Sweet potato is also one of the best sources of beta carotene, the plant form of vitamin A, which is required for a healthy immune system. Try baked with cottage cheese as a post-training lunch, or bake wedges to eat with chicken or steak for an evening meal in place of chips.
- Peppers: Red, orange and yellow peppers contain a higher amount of vitamin C than most other vegetables, but are lower in sugar than fruit. This makes them a good choice for those in heavy training who need extra vitamin C, as intense exercise depletes the immune system. Eat in an omelette for a post-training lunch or light supper, use to make grilled kebabs with chicken or lamb, or include in a stir-fry with turkey, noodles, mange tout and pak choi.
- Broccoli: this vegetable is packed with a variety of vitamins and minerals. Athletes can especially benefit from its anti-oxidant vitamins C and E, its bone-building vitamin K, its iron content to help energy production and its high folic acid content, which is needed for a wide range of body functions, including maintenance of the nervous system and production of red blood cells. It also contains the immune-strengthening compound indole-3 carbinole. Best served lightly steamed alongside a protein food like chicken or salmon.
- Carrots: these a very good source of beta carotene, also contain Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, potassium, iron, copper, and manganese and have just 41kcal per 100g. Carrots are highly portable, so make a great snack. Try cutting two large carrots into batons and dipping into 100g of hummus or guacamole, as an alternative to tortilla chips. Carrots can be boiled or steamed, but also work well in a stir-fry, a stew or as part of a tray of baked vegetables. Just drizzle with olive oil and bake in an oven for 30 minutes at moderate heat, alongside courgettes, onions, tomatoes and aubergine.
- Cauliflower: another vegetable that can be eaten cooked or raw, cauliflower is, along with broccoli, a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, a good source of nutrients required for efficient detoxification. An 80g serving also provides 77% of your daily vitamin C requirement. Steaming broccoli and cauliflower together makes a good accompaniment for a meat or fish dish. Add some turmeric to provide additional anti-inflammatory benefits as part of your post-training meal. If you are looking to go “low carb” on certain days or for a period time, you can make ‘cauliflower rice’ instead of higher carb rice by breaking the florets down in a blender, then stir frying with various spices. Try adding peppers, onion and cashews or almonds for an extra nutritional boost.
- Bananas: these make a perfect pre-training food as they contain a large amount of carbohydrate which is quickly released into the bloodstream as the glucose that you need to fuel your training session. They are also a good source of potassium, which helps to regulate muscle contraction and prevent muscle cramping. You can also use bananas as a post-training food, alongside some protein, as they help replace potassium lost in sweat. Blended frozen banana, 15g protein powder and 250ml milk makes a great post-training smoothie.
- Berries: these are lower in sugar than most other fruits. They are also packed with a particularly potent type of anti-oxidant called proanthocyanidins, which combats free radical damage and may help to stave off post-run muscle soreness by playing a role in reducing inflammation. Berries are also high in vitamin C. Eat a handful with low fat Greek yogurt and oats for an ideal post-training breakfast or blend 50g of fresh or frozen berries with 250ml milk and 15g protein powder for a home-made recovery drink.
- Apples: these are a good source of soluble fibre, which help to support your digestive health, and also contain an anti-inflammatory substance called quercetin. Eat as a mid-morning snack with a piece of cheddar cheese, grated into Bircher muesli for breakfast or as apple puree with Greek yogurt as a post-training snack or evening dessert.
- Pineapple: this fruit is a source of bromelain, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it good to include in a post-training snack, eg with yogurt. It’s also good to include in your diet if you are injured or have hay fever. Bromelain is a plant-based digestive enzyme which may be helpful for people who do not produce sufficient digestive enzymes naturally (it is usually found in a digestive enzyme nutritional supplement). Pineapple is relatively high in sugar, and dried pineapple can be an effective source of carbs during long training sessions.
- Apricots: these are a good source of beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A) and vitamin C, as well as a wide range of other anti-oxidant substances like catechins which are known to be anti-inflammatory. Dried apricots are a useful source of iron, especially for vegetarians. They also contain a good amount of fibre and eating them may help to resolve constipation. Add chopped apricots to muesli or porridge, fold them into pancake batter or include in Middle Eastern style chickpea stews and couscous.
How many of these vegetables and fruit do you include in your diet each week? Why not challenge yourself to increase that number….
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