Performance foods

June 30 2015

You don’t have to take supplements for better sports performance – just foods proven to give you energy, muscle and alertness. Sports nutritionist Gabrielle Maston highlights them.

milk copy Milk

If you’re looking for extreme muscle growth from your training, don’t underestimate the importance of drinking milk. Scientists now know that building muscle is not just as simple as eating protein.

Whole proteins such as meat, egg and chicken also enhance muscle protein synthesis — but milk does this function better because of the amount of leucine found within milk.

Leucine is a branched chain amino acid, one of the nine amino acids that needs to be obtained from our diet. Leucine plays a vital role in protein synthesis by “switching on” the genes for muscle growth and repair after exercise, helping you to build more muscle and recover faster.

Whey protein derived from milk has been shown to be the best performance enhancer in power–based sports such as power lifting, sprinting and bodybuilding.

This is because its concentration of leucine is the highest among all other protein sources — 14 percent compared to only 8 percent in meat based protein. Drinking 600ml of skim milk pre and post training is all that you need to get 2.5g of leucine, which is enough to get the muscle building benefits.

Interestingly, emerging research has also shown leucine to be highly beneficial for endurance athletes too. In endurance–based sports like marathons, protein stores are used as an alternative fuel source.

Although not ideal, it’s still a significant way athletes can have a competitive edge over others, especially when carbohydrate intake is limited during a race.


157105067 High GI carbohydrates such as honey are the most beneficial during a long distance endurance event, and immediately post resistance–training sessions.

During long duration, cardio-based training such as running, honey replenishes blood glucose levels quickly, allowing you to recover faster and exercise for longer. Post training it helps to replenish glycogen carbohydrate muscle stores, so they’re ready to fuel the next training session.

Similarly, if your goal is to build muscle, consuming honey post strength training helps to elevate insulin levels. This puts the body into an anabolic (building) state.

In an anabolic phase, for the best results, keep muscles saturated with glucose for improved muscle recovery and growth. Follow the honey with a low GI meal like pasta, basmati rice, wholegrain bread or sweet potato after two hours.

180779036 Wholegrain pasta

This low GI carbohydrate is great for endurance based sports and body builders. Contrary to popular belief, muscles need carbohydrates to grow.

Without carbs to fuel day–to–day activities, the body will start to eat away at its muscle protein stores if your carb stores are depleted.

Both endurance cardio trainers and body builders looking for performance gains should have a hearty meal of low GI carbs 1– 2 hours pre training and 2 hours post to ensure the muscles are adequately fueled and ready to perform at their best for the next training set.


tuna The omega-3 fats in oily fish like tuna have a whole range of applications to general health, exercise and in sports. It has been shown to decrease the risk of depression, heart disease and cholesterol.

In the training arena, it enhances weight loss by allowing the body to burn fat more efficiently, and it reduces metabolic stress and fatigue, which aids in recovery from training. In a number of studies, it has also been shown to reduce reaction time in precision–based sports such as basketball and soccer.

Fats are absorbed at night, so it’s best to take your fish oil just before heading to bed or have fish for dinner. To get the dose right, aim for 1g of omega-3 per 20kg of body weight.

coffee Caffeine

Caffeine is one of the most widely used supplements both on and off the sporting field. It improves mental acuity and alertness. Think about why everyone drinks coffee in the work place: it’s to wake up for the day, stay alert and to concentrate.

In precision based or long duration sports where mental fatigue may set in, this is where caffeine comes in handy. Caffeine has several actions on the body. It affects the skeletal muscle, in that it increases fat breakdown. This causes fat to become available for use as fuel during exercise.

Caffeine also affects the central nervous system. It reduces the perception of effort and it also helps working muscles to recruit more motor units. This means it makes the exercise feel easier, even though it actually isn’t. As you can imagine this is quite useful if the exercise you’re doing is quite painful.

Often pain can be a barrier to increased performance and effort. Have a cup of coffee before training sessions to help with performance and delay fatigue. Have no more than 1–2 cups per day for health reasons.

Beetroot juice

164066366 Nitrates are chemical substances in food that have a relaxing effect on smooth muscle cells. They help to dilate blood vessels and allow more blood flow. This allows increased oxygen to muscles during exercise, reducing lactic acid production and in turn, reducing fatigue. In conjunction with this, athletes have shown improved breathing capacity during exercise.

Beetroot has the highest concentrations of nitrate compared to any other vegetable. It takes from 70–500ml of beetroot juice to have the desired effect, and beets must be non-organic.

Nitrates are actually made by the plant from soil fertilisers. Organic beets will have a lower concentration of nitrates. Take the juice two hours pre training or competition as its affects have a two hour delay in the system.

Careful timing of these high performance functional foods around training and competition may be just what you need to take your performance to the next level. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!