Move over sports drinks, supplements and special powders designed to boost performance during activities such as bicycle riding. There are a couple of ordinary foods that research shows can boost nutrition and athletic performance and do so less expensively and more deliciously than test tube-made supplements.
Bananas. Grab a banana rather than a Gatorade sports drink when you go bicycling. That’s what Dr. David Niemann, director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University in North Carolina recommend based on research published in 2012. In the study, scientists recruited 14 highly trained or elite cyclists, all men between the ages of 18 and 45. All rode regularly, ate a diet containing a moderate amount of carbohydrates and didn’t take vitamin-mineral or herbal supplements.
The cyclists were asked to complete two 50-mile timed rides, one while consuming Gatorade and the second ride three weeks later fueled with bananas plus water before and during the ride.
The researchers served each cyclist based on a specific number of grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 150-pound cyclist ate the equivalent of three medium bananas or drank two 20-ounce bottles of Gatorade for each hour cycled.
Results revealed that bananas were just as effective as Gatorade in aiding performance as well as keeping physiological measures such as changes in blood sugar, oxidative stress on the body and exercise-induced indicators of inflammation at bay.
What bananas add to the fuel mix that the sports beverage lacks is magnesium, vitamin B6, vitamin C and even heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, cup for cup, bananas also supply more muscle-friendly potassium and less sodium than Gatorade.
So the next time you go cycling, grab a banana and a bottle of water.
Watermelon. If you haven’t been cycling for a while and want to lessen the risk of sore muscles, add watermelon to your pre-exercise meal.
Researchers in Spain, who published their findings in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, discovered that when seven athletic men cycled for 11 minutes on stationary bicycles, alternating between intense and slow pedaling, the ones who drank two 8-ounce cups of watermelon juice had essentially no muscle pain the next day. No pain makes it easier to go out and exercise the next day.
To make the watermelon juice, the lead researcher and her team purchased 10 seedless watermelon from the local market and juiced the fruit. They pasteurized some and left the rest unpasteurized.
While pasteurization can kill potentially harmful bacteria, the researchers found that this process can also reduce the amount of the amino acid L-citrulline in the juice. It is the L-citrulline, via its ability to boost nitric oxide production, that increased blood flow and nutrients to muscles to help reduce soreness.
If you prefer the whole fruit, six cups of watermelon cut in chunks is about equal to two 8-ounce cups of juice.
Tart Cherries. Another beverage that can offer gulps of benefits for athletes is tart cherry juice. Tart or Montmorency cherries are traditionally used to make juices rather than eaten out of hand.
Researchers from the UK’s Northumbria University gave half of a group of 16 well-trained cyclists 1 ounce of tart cherry juice concentrate mixed with water twice daily for seven days. On days five through seven, all of the participants undertook periods of high-intensity cycling designed to duplicate a three-day race.
Results of this study, published in the 2014 journal “Nutrients”, showed that the tart-cherry-drinking cyclists fared much better than their placebo-drinking counterparts in terms of faster recovery times, less sore muscles and lower levels in the blood of substances that cause disease-producing inflammation and metabolic stress.
The Michigan-based Cherry Marketing Institute, which is helping publicize this and similar studies, suggests athletes drink a 10-ounce glass of tart cherry juice before workouts and an additional 10-ounce glass within 30 minutes after a workout.
Alternately, you can blend about 100 dried tart cherries into each 10-ounce equivalent serving of a smoothie.
Be sure to include bananas, watermelon or tart cherry juice the next time you pack your cycling backpack or gym bag.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.