I’d guess many of you are bored of hearing about superfoods by now. They’re enjoying a real boom here in the London and the UK right now, though it feels to me like they’re often used as some kind of pardon for the lifestyle and nutritional sins of modern life. You can get all the nutrients you need from a quality, balanced diet, but if you’re chasing peak performance and weight management then the nutrient-density of these superfoods suddenly becomes much more beneficial. As endurance athletes we also have some nutritional requirements over and above a less active person. I could probably write a series of entries on this theme so, while this is far from an exhaustive list, here, in no particular order, are a handful of favourites that I include in my regular diet.
Chocolate is a superfood? Well, kind of, yes. Cacao is the raw unprocessed beans from the pod of the cocoa plant. There’s a distinction between cacao and cocoa, which is a processed product of cacao, often sweetened. Cocoa can offer most of the benefits but the heating process can reduce the nutrient quality. Cacao packed full of antioxidants and flavonoids that boost your immune system and metabolism. It’s been shown to help control blood pressure and brain function. The amino acids in cacao are a boost to muscle repair and it also contains minerals like magnesium and zinc, which athletes require in much higher doses. That improves sleep quality, which can have a dramatic impact on your training and recovery. This is so important that I’ve taken ZMA (zinc & magnesium aspartate) supplements every night since 2010. I’ll be carrying ZMA tablets during the race too.
You can add raw cacao powder to smoothies, nibble on whole cacao beans as a snack, throw cacao nibs into a salad, as a savoury seasoning on other foods or even treat yourself to some chocolate. If it’s 70% cocoa or higher it’ll be high quality and free from all the nasties that pad out milk chocolate. In his excellent book Racing Weight author Matt Fitzgerald actively encourages consumption of 2 squares of good quality 70%+ dark chocolate. The great thing about dark chocolate is it also triggers those endorphins that raise your mood. If you want to take this to extremes I’d recommend the restaurant Rabot 1745 in London’s Borough Market, where every dish is made with cacao. The white chocolate mash has none of the superfood benefits I’ve mentioned but it’s damn tasty.
Ginger is one of those ingredients whose benefits have been known for centuries and used to treat all manner of ills. It has great anti-inflammatory properties which helps with muscle soreness and speeds up recovery times. For athletes this is a massive advantage. Hannah Grant (head chef for the Tinkoff cycling team) recommends 20g of raw ginger as a daily maintenance dose for heavy-training cyclists. That leaps to 100g if a rider is trying to treat a specific case of inflammation. Her suggestion is to process raw ginger into concentrated shots, but I prefer to grate it into ‘gingerbread’ flavoured smoothies. As with cacao and most other foods, the nutrient quality is compromised when you heat ginger, so you’ll get the most benefit from it if you can find a way to eat it raw.
In 2009 Olga and I climbed the 6,128m Stok Kangri in the Himalayas, in the days before I knew much about acclimatisation. While Olga had been touring Kashmir for a month and was well adapted to life at 3,000m, I flew in to join her for the climb just two days before. Instead of resting to acclimatise I took the chance to cycle on the ‘highest road in the world’ at 5,359m, like an idiot. We then launched straight into the four day climb, making it to 4,500m before altitude sickness (AMS) struck me with severe headaches and stole my appetite. By the third day I was weak, nauseous, suffering with debilitating headaches and couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. During the summit attempt on day four I don’t think my heart rate ever dropped below 165bpm. Takpa, the amazing guide who led us up the mountain, plied me with massive amounts of garlic and ginger broth, known by locals to combat altitude sickness. It was only a combination of stubbornness and Takpa’s ginger home-brew that got me to the summit.
In 2009 a study uncovered the endurance boosting properties of beetroot and over the next few years more research confirmed the benefits and beetroot juice quickly gained popularity in the diets of pro riders. Mark Cavendish famously coined the phrase ‘pissing rainbows’ with a tweet in 2011.
“Doesn’t matter how often it happens, taking a pee the day after drinking beetroot juice will always freak you out!!”
It’s all down to nitrates, which are the precursor to Nitric Oxide. That has the effect of widening blood vessels and improving the body’s oxygen efficiency. The effect is only marginal but it’s been shown to allow endurance athletes to maintain their output for 2-3% longer, which is often bigger than the margin of victory. Yet again, cooking diminishes the availability of the nitrates so raw is best. You can also find high nitrate concentrations in celery, bok choi, spinach, rocket and radishes, but the quantities you need to consume mean that concentrated beetroot juice is the most common way. I find them challenging though, despite loving the taste of beetroot, so I mix the juice into my smoothies leading up to a big event and add lots of cooked beetroot to my regular diet.
“The banana is a design masterpiece: nature’s own electrolyte-rich energy gel, complete with a biodegradable wrapper.”
An obvious one, but as it’s one of the foods I eat every single day I couldn’t leave it out. The banana is a design masterpiece: nature’s own electrolyte-rich energy gel, complete with a biodegradable wrapper. You’ll often see tennis players munching down on a banana between games, or spot the little yellow boomerangs poking out of the pockets of long-distance cyclists. They’re rich in potassium, which is one of the minerals you lose in sweat that can lead to dehydration. Potassium has also been shown to improve heart health. As an extra bonus it also boosts serotonin levels, which improves mood and sleep quality.
The versatile spice has been shown to improve cholesterol, regulate blood-sugar levels and work as an anti-inflammatory. Cinnamon is loaded with anti-oxidants and is even being studied as an aid in cancer prevention. I also happen to really love the flavour of cinnamon, so I’m often using it in smoothies and oatmeal. It combines well with ginger to give a big spiced punch of anti-inflammatory goodness. Ground cinnamon is fine but for flavour and aroma you can’t beat freshly grating cinnamon sticks.
This little Mayan seed seems to be enjoying the spotlight at the moment but I think it’s here to stay. The unassuming chia seed is one of the most nutrient dense foods in the world: omega-3 oils, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, really high levels of fibre and all eight essential amino acids. It absorbs 30 times its weight in fluid which helps to regulate carbohydrate conversion and give you a sustained release of energy. It has no carbs itself though, being all (healthy) fat, protein and fibre. Its profile is so strong that in his best-selling book ultra-runner Christopher McDougall wrote:
“In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone.”
The seeds have a very subtle nutty taste and can be sprinkled on salads, soups and anything that would benefit from some crunch. You can add them to cakes and breads. I like to add a teaspoon of chia seed powder to thinner smoothies. You can also make a chia gel by combining 1 part chia seeds to 7 parts fluid. Being so absorbent they soak up a concentrated hit of flavour, but the gel texture is quite unusual and you’ll either love it or hate it.
Nuts in general are a great foodstuff, but almonds take the crown by being the most nutrient dense of the lot. They’re high in good fats, protein and fibre while also being packed with vitamins and nutrients. The high protein content keeps you feeling fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to binge on snacks.
Eating a small handful of raw almonds a day has been shown to improve weight loss, reduce body fat levels and lower blood pressure. Pure almond butter, without any sweeteners or other additives, is a great thing to bulk out smoothies. A teaspoon of almond butter can also help to stave off hunger if you need a quick fix before meal times. One of the best uses of almonds is almond milk, which is just like regular cows milk but at a fraction of the calories (13 kcal per 100ml). That’s a huge difference if you’re working hard to manage your weight. It’s around twice the price of cows milk, but it’s so good that it feels like a premium worth paying for.
Also known as linseed, flaxseeds are a rich source of omega-3 oils, specifically alpha-linolic-acid (ALA). They’re yet another natural anti-inflammatory and support many of the processes of cellular recovery that you need after training. Flaxseed reduces cholesterol, aids digestion and helps to regulate insulin sensitivity, which maintains balanced blood-sugar levels. Flaxseed oil is easy to drizzle over dressings and other dishes, but the oil can quickly lose its nutrient quality. Ground flaxseed can last a little longer but still only a couple of months. I prefer whole seeds, which can be stored in an airtight container for up to a year before they lose their value. Sprinkle on salads, mix into granola or use to coat homemade energy balls.
Coconut is high in healthy medium chain triglyceride (MCT) fats which means it’s easily absorbed by the body for use as fuel and bypasses the normal process for being stored as fat. Through a heavy marketing campaign coconut water has become fashionable as a recovery drink on account of it’s high electrolyte content, but this is a bit misleading. We lose potassium and sodium in our sweat but while coconut water is rich in potassium it has very little sodium. Research has shown that an imbalance can be just as damaging as a deficit, so I’d caution against relying on coconut water as a source of electrolytes.
It does have a raft of nutrients that help boost the immune system. It’s hard to distinguish between cause and correlation but studies have also shown that people eating coconut oil tend to have lower body fat than those who don’t. Coconut oil is actually a solid substance that only becomes liquid above 24°C but yet has a very high smoke point, which means it’s easy to use for frying in place of olive oil, which burns at a very low temperature. The coconut flavour is also very subtle and isn’t noticeable if you use it for frying.
“I won’t lie, it tastes like death.”
This is the poster child for superfoods in the media. I won’t lie, it tastes like death, but luckily it’s so nutrient dense that you can use it in quantities that are invisible to the palate. A handful of kale (or spinach, or parsley) typically goes into any smoothie I make and I promise you simply can’t taste its presence. What you do get though is one of the highest concentrations of anti-oxidants available. These anti-oxidants mop up carcinogens in the body and help to reduce the risk of cancer and other illness. Kale is high in magnesium and helps to manage lactic acid levels too.