I love to see athletes take their nutrition seriously. Smart training, coupled with a commitment to rest and recovery, plus stellar nutrition, makes for one "unbreakable human" (to quote Steph Gaudreau). Although everyone talks about protein, there are a few underutilized nutrients I think are equally important to include in a well-rounded, performance-based diet.
Here are five nutrients to include in your daily eats to support athletic performance and recovery:
1) Collagen/Gelatin - support gut integrity, which can lead to improved digestion, absorption, and utilization of nutrients. But the biggest boon for athletes is the way collagen and gelatin support joint integrity and connective tissue. Good sources include homemade bone broth, supplements like those from Vital Proteins, and my favorite -- slow-cooked meat on the bone.
2) Iron - a key player in the transport of oxygen through the blood, which directly impacts aerobic fitness and muscle performance. Women of menstruating age should pay attention to their iron intake, as it can impact energy levels if depleted. Good sources include red meat and cooked dark leafies.
3) Vitamin C - necessary for the body's synthesis of collagen, but also a powerful antioxidant. Exercise is a controlled form of oxidative stress that, with proper recovery practices, ultimately leads to greater strength and improved performance. Vitamin C - and other antioxidants, like the potent phytonutrients found in many fruits and vegetables - work to clear oxidative damage and negate the detrimental effects. Good sources include citrus fruits and green bell peppers.
4) Carbohydrate - 'cause you're gonna need glycogen, my friend. Even the lowest of the low-carbers refuel with starches when they're engaged in training. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrate (in the liver) that is utilized by muscles during intense exercise or long, endurance-type work. Plus, adequate carbohydrate intake can help with recovery and can go a long way in particular toward helping women engaged in intense athletic training to keep hormones happy. My favorite sources include sweet potatoes, yams, white potatoes, plantains, rice and yuca.
5) Protein - the macronutrient everyone likes to talk about when it comes to athletic performance. Amino acids (building blocks of protein) are the foundational substrate for an enormous number of body tissues, coded for by our genetic sequence. Whether or not you're hitting the weights hard at the gym, everyone should aim to get adequate amounts of high quality dietary protein, but for athletes constantly engaged in breaking down and building up muscle, this is of special importance for increasing lean body mass, building strength, recovering from training (as well as wounds, surgery, etc), and maintaining a robust immune system. The best sources are complete, animal-based proteins like meats, fish, poultry and eggs, while some plant foods can offer amino acids to supplement a well-rounded, complete protein-based diet. Supplements and protein powders should be of the highest quality you can afford and, if used at all, used only when whole foods refueling isn't available or appropriate.
The fun thing about all of these nutrients is that they are all found in abundance in real, whole foods. No need to go out and buy powders and pills!
One of my favorite post-workout meals combines all of the nutrients mentioned above -- leftover roast chicken (collagen/gelatin, iron, protein), steamed kale with olive oil and lime juice (iron, vitamin C), and steamed/pan-fried plantains (carbs!). Comment below with your favorite iteration of the post-workout meal, whether or not you use up all of the nutrients I mentioned.