5 Plant Foods to Enhance Your Athletic Performance

By Jackson Long, MS

Maybe you’re an athlete wanting to make nutrition a more intentional part of your toolbox. Or perhaps you’re inspired to try plant-based eating after watching the recent documentary The Game Changers and learning about the plethora of potential benefits, from long-term health improvements to environmental sustainability and animal welfare to enhanced athletic performance.

But it can be hard to figure out which foods to eat regularly and why, and how to incorporate them into your daily meals. As a long-time plant-based endurance athlete and sports nutritionist, I’ve compiled some of my favorite plant-based foods that athletes should eat almost every day, whether you’re totally vegan or omnivorous:

SWEET POTATOES

All hail the mighty sweet potato! Athletes require a steady supply of quality carbohydrates to fuel training and racing and aid in the recovery process. Instead of sugary sports drinks, energy bars and nutritionally poor white rice or pasta, try refueling with sweet potatoes.

An excellent source of complex carbohydrates needed for exercise, they are also packaged with vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene (in the yellow/orange varieties) and anthocyanins (in the purple varieties), super-nutritious phytochemicals that help reduce post-workout inflammation.

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of fiber, which is my favorite plant-based nutrient for a variety of reasons. Plus, they’re super versatile: You can bake them whole, make oven-baked fries, chop and roast them, then put them in burritos or salads or even as a sweet breakfast with cinnamon and maple syrup — the possibilities are endless.

BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES

This one is a bit of an acquired taste and not necessarily something most people think to include in their regular diets. But in my opinion, it’s the healthiest sweetener around. With more and more of us cutting refined sugar but still in search of some sweetness (I have a huge sweet tooth!), molasses is a fantastic option.

A by-product of processing sugarcane (a whole plant) into sugar, molasses is rich in minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, all critical for athletes, particularly plant-based ones. I add about a tablespoon to my daily oats and Sunday morning pancakes and put a little bit in smoothies.

ARUGULA, AKA ROCKET LETTUCE

A number of recent studies have found beet juice can improve cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes by increasing efficiency, which improves performance and increases time to exhaustion.You may have heard about drinking beet juice to increase your endurance capacity. The secret ingredient? Naturally occuring nitrates, which your body converts to nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates your blood vessels, increasing blood flow capacity and oxygen efficiency — basically rocket fuel for the endurance athlete.

But before you chug a glass of beet juice: Arugula, or rocket, has a higher dietary nitrate content by weight than beets at about 250 milligrams of nitrates per 100 grams. Arugula is part of the cruciferous vegetable family, which also includes kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, that contains a compound called sulforaphane that may have potential for inhibiting cancer cells, according to promising research. I have an arugula addiction and very regularly eat it plain out of the bag because I just love the flavor. But it’s a great base for salads, topping for pizza, and a delicious addition to rice bowls.

TOFU

Protein is, of course, important for athletes, and getting enough is a legitimate concern for athletes wanting to make the switch to a plant-based diet. Athletes generally require 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day on the upper range, so you do want to think about eating a nice variety of protein-rich foods spread throughout the day, particularly after intense exercise. Someone my size (around 70 kilograms) needs about 100 grams of protein per day, or around 33 grams at each meal.

Tofu, and soy foods in general, which come from soybeans (a legume), are considered high-quality plant protein because of the spread and amount of amino acids. For example, one of my favorite brands of tofu contains 42 grams of protein in a block, which I’ll eat in one meal easily.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to give you “man boobs” or breast cancer or drastically change your estrogen levels. Soy contains phytoestrogen, meaning plant estrogen, which has a very different effect in the body than mammalian estrogen, and has actually been shown extensively to protect against breast cancer.

Tofu is great marinated overnight in soy sauce, garlic and ginger. then stir fried or in a sandwich, salads, burritos, or scrambles. Look for the extra firm kind and always buy organic.

All kinds of beans and legumes are great sources of protein. Black beans, pintos, garbanzos, lentils, kidney beans—go crazy with them but build up slowly. Don’t slam a plate full of black beans right before a workout or you’ll be very, very sorry (I speak from experience). Legumes also come packaged with fiber, iron, manganese and other nutrients. For example, a half cup of uncooked red lentils contains 7 milligrams of iron, 23 grams of protein, and 10 grams of fiber.

BERRIES

Berries are some of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet, and are fantastic for recovery because of their high antioxidant content, which helps combat the oxidative damage and inflammation that occurs during exercise and have been shown in the lab to be very effective against muscle soreness and enhancing recovery. They also taste delicious and provide a superior source of carbohydrates. I love blueberries and raspberries! I usually buy my berries locally in season or frozen because they cost much less than their fresh counterparts, and go great in smoothies, pancakes, and oatmeal.

So there it is. A little inspiration to try something new and to level up your lifestyle. Whether you’re vegan or omnivorous, if you can eat these five foods regularly, you’ll be well on your way to athletic excellence while also minimizing your impact on the planet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jackson Long is a sports nutritionist specializing in plant-based nutrition for athletes. Jackson holds a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Physiology and a master’s degree in Applied Nutrition. A lifelong endurance athlete, he also coaches the SVSEF Nordic team and hosts the sports nutrition and lifestyle-focused podcast, In The Flow.

Learn more at intheflownutrition.com.