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Can Nutrition Really Enhance Performance?

The word superfood gets thrown around a lot, but are there really some foods that can help you perform better than others? We are going to look at the various foods that are touted to enhance performance and if they are really worth considering for athletes.

Beets and Spinach for Blood Flow

Spinach and beets.Beets and spinach contain high amounts of nitric oxide, a compound some studies have found to increase blood flow and improve vascular function (Keller et al., 2020). Just six days of dietary nitrate supplementation using half a liter of beetroot juice per day was found to improve athlete tolerance of high intensity intervals during a 10K cycling time trial (Cermak et al., 2012). Improvements in exercise efficiency have been found even just 2.5 hours after beetroot juice consumption, meaning that athletes can reap the benefits almost immediately without a complicated ingestion protocol.

Athletes may see better results from consuming beetroot juice over whole beets, as this will concentrate the amount of nitric oxide and may provide a high enough dose to see performance benefits. In order to get an adequate amount to see performance benefits, athletes would need to consume 200-300 grams of beets or spinach, which is about three times a regular serving! Juicing these foods will make it much easier for athletes to take advantage of any possible performance benefits.

Tart Cherry Juice for Sleep

While it doesn’t directly affect performance, tart cherry juice has recently been touted for improving sleep quality and duration. Athletes may be especially interested in this to support recovery, especially during periods of high training load when it can be difficult to fall asleep.

While the studies are small and evidence is tenuous (Losso et al., 2018; Pigeon et al., 2010), the current body of evidence suggests that consuming 240 mL of tart cherry juice 1-2 hours before going to sleep can improve sleep efficiency, meaning time spent in slow wave sleep and REM stage sleep. There is a special interest in use of tart cherry juice for perimenopausal women whose sleep may be negatively affected.


Coconut Water for Hydration

Popular opinion will tell you that coconut water is a superior hydration option when compared to plain water or sports drinks. However, research has suggested few, if any, benefits to hydrating with coconut water (Chaubey et al., 2017), with some studies also finding that coconut water actually increased gastrointestinal bloating, discomfort, and distress when compared to a standard sports drink (Kalman et al., 2012). If you like coconut water, there is no harm in using it to rehydrate post exercise, but if you prefer regular water or sports drinks, these will work just as well. Based on the research, it is NOT recommended to hydrate using coconut water before training due to the potential for gastrointestinal distress.


Watermelon Juice for Recovery

The citrulline in watermelon is a precursor to arginine, a substrate used to create nitric oxide (remember, this is the reason beets can help blood flow!). It is also found to reduce oxidative stress in muscle tissue.

Researchers have found that consuming 500 mL of watermelon juice 1-2 hours before training can reduce muscle soreness and resting heart rate following workout, thereby potentially shortening the time it takes for athletes to recover (Tarazona-Díaz et al., 2013). Watermelon juice can also be an excellent way to get easy-to-digest carbohydrates prior to training, but if you tend to be sensitive to high-fructose foods, make sure to test this out on a lower-stakes workout to make sure it does not cause GI distress.


Protein Powder for Muscle Gain

When it comes to protein powder, the debate rages on—to supplement or not to supplement protein? Ideally, athletes should rely on food first when it comes to protein intake. There is no additional benefit to ingesting protein in synthetic forms (e.g., protein powder) that you cannot get from eating protein-rich foods. Additionally, supplements always carry a risk of being contaminated with banned substances, so optimizing your nutrition can be an excellent alternative. For more information on protein consumption, you can check out our article here.

In general, it’s important to remember that the research around the performance benefits of foods is ongoing and the conclusions may evolve over time. And as always with performance-enhancing and recovery tactics, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.


Cermak, N. M., Gibala, M. J., & Loon, L. J. C. van. (2012). Nitrate Supplementation’s Improvement of 10-km Time-Trial Performance in Trained Cyclists. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 22(1), 64–71. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.22.1.64

Chaubey, A., Sharma, M., & Bhatnagar, B. (2017). Comparitive Study on Coconut Water, Carbohydrate Electrolyte Sports Drink and Sodium Enriched Coconut Drink on Measures of Hydration and Physical Performance in Athletes. IOSR Journal of Sports and Physical Education, 04, 46–51. https://doi.org/10.9790/6737-04034651

Kalman, D. S., Feldman, S., Krieger, D. R., & Bloomer, R. J. (2012). Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-9-1

Keller, R. M., Beaver, L., Prater, M. C., & Hord, N. G. (2020). Dietary Nitrate and Nitrite Concentrations in Food Patterns and Dietary Supplements. Nutrition Today, 55(5), 218–226. https://doi.org/10.1097/NT.0000000000000253

Losso, J. N., Finley, J. W., Karki, N., Liu, A. G., Prudente, A., Tipton, R., Yu, Y., & Greenway, F. L. (2018). Pilot Study of the Tart Cherry Juice for the Treatment of Insomnia and Investigation of Mechanisms. American Journal of Therapeutics, 25(2), e194. https://doi.org/10.1097/MJT.0000000000000584

Pigeon, W. R., Carr, M., Gorman, C., & Perlis, M. L. (2010). Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia: A Pilot Study. Journal of Medicinal Food, 13(3), 579–583. https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2009.0096

Tarazona-Díaz, M. P., Alacid, F., Carrasco, M., Martínez, I., & Aguayo, E. (2013). Watermelon Juice: Potential Functional Drink for Sore Muscle Relief in Athletes. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 61(31), 7522–7528. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf400964r

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