You already know about carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Known collectively as macronutrients, they’re crucial to sports nutrition and making the most of any workout (not to mention staying alive). Generally speaking, carbs and fat provide fuel, and protein provides the building blocks you need to recover and build muscle.
But nutrients also play an important role in metabolism, helping the body get energy when required and where required, says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, CLT.
Translation? Make sure you make a variety nutrients part of your sports nutrition plan, so you can keep energy flags at bay while deriving a host of other benefits from exercise. Here are the top performers.
13 Nutrients You Need for Optimal Sports Nutrition, Performance, and Recovery
The nutrients below have particular advantages in terms of supercharging energy, speeding muscle recovery, and keeping immune function humming. The payoff? A strong, healthy body that looks as good as it feels.
B VITAMINS AND CHOLINE
What they do: Promote muscle performance and recovery, boost energy and endurance
Vitamins B2 (a.k.a. riboflavin), B6, and B12 help your body convert nutrients into energy, transport oxygen throughout your body, and maintain your red blood cell count, which aids muscle function. So they’re crucial to a hardcore workout regimen.
“Most Americans get plenty, as it’s found in meat, chicken, and turkey,” says Dr. Catherine Mikus, Ph.D., senior scientist of scientific affairs at OpenFit. “A vitamin B deficiency can lead to problems, but getting more than you need doesn’t help you in any way, and there isn’t any evidence that athletes have higher requirements.”
Found in many of the same foods as the B vitamins, choline provides different benefits. It’s important for brain health, cell development, muscle function, and endurance, and there’s mounting research suggesting that many people aren’t getting enough of the micronutrient, according to Mikus.
How to get them: Meat eaters can get enough Bs via servings (about 3 ounces) of salmon or other fatty fish, beef, or turkey. Eggs and dairy should be the focus of vegetarians, who along with vegans can also eat fortified cereals, soy milk and nutritional yeast for their B fix. Other sources of vitamin B2 include walnuts, sunflower seeds, bananas, and lentils. Foods containing B6 include fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and whole grains. Choline comes from whole eggs, meat, and chickpeas, among other sources.
You’ll want to note, however, that your body can’t absorb a lot of vitamin B at once, so split up your daily consumption into a few meals or snacks. Most people get as much as they need from a reasonably healthy diet, according to Mikus, who notes that overloading on B vitamins offers no benefit.
What they do: Reduce inflammation, prevent cell damage
According to Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., antioxidants are an important but under-appreciated group of nutrients. She notes that carotenoids, vitamins C and E, and selenium are ideal for workout recovery in particular. Vitamin E helps specifically with blood production and protection of the body’s cells.
“Both antioxidants and phytonutrients help mitigate the harsh impact of exercise, including oxidation and inflammation,” Hever explains.
More research is needed regarding vitamin C’s role in exercise performance and recovery, Dr. Mikus says, however, because study results have been mixed.
“Like most essential vitamins and minerals, there isn’t much scientific evidence to suggest that supplemental vitamin C will aid exercise performance or recovery in a person who is not deficient,” she says. “In fact, some studies have suggested that supplemental vitamin C may interfere with favorable adaptations to exercise training.”
How to get them: Seeds and nuts are good sources of vitamin E, citrus fruits and bell peppers provide plenty of vitamin C, and organ meats and seafood offer healthy amounts of selenium.
Phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, are active components of plants (“phyto” is derived from the Greek word for plant), fruits and vegetables that help protect them from disease, predators, and other threats. Some have been shown in published studies to offer health benefits or aid in exercise performance or recovery, according to Dr. Mikus.
Anthocyanins (tart cherry)
What they do: Aid strength recovery, improve aerobic performance
A tart cherry juice blend reduced loss of strength and muscle pain due to intense exercise during a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Tart cherry juice also improved strength recovery after intense exercise, a 2011 study suggested.
Supplements could be beneficial too. According to a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, 23 avid male strength trainers reduced their post-workout muscle soreness with tart cherry supplementation. Additionally, endurance runners showed improved performance and reduced exercise-induced inflammation after brief supplementation with Montmorency tart cherry powder, according to a study in the same journal published the following year.
How to get it: Exercisers might benefit from 480 mg a day of tart cherry extract, two tart cherry juice shots of around 300 ml a day or two 30 ml servings of tart cherry juice concentrate, Dr. Mikus says.
What they do: Improve aerobic and muscle performance, increase endurance
A 2013 study found that beetroot juice containing inorganic nitrate lowered blood pressure and helped runners use less oxygen to maintain moderate exercise levels. In addition, the runners didn’t reach exhaustion as fast as subjects who drank a placebo beverage. Dietary nitrate delayed fatigue in active subjects during intense workouts, a 2013 study concluded.
Another study, of patients with heart failure in 2015, found that beetroot juice enhanced muscle power. The findings have yet to be extrapolated to a larger population, but the results are encouraging.
How to get it: Leafy greens, beetroot juice, supplements
*It’s important to note that the nitrates that occur naturally in foods like green leafy vegetables, celery, and beetroot are different from the widely vilified nitrate salts commonly used as preservatives in processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and deli meat.
What it does: Reduced exercise-induced inflammation, eases muscle soreness
Curcumin, the most active compound in the spice turmeric, is a potent anti-inflammatory that appears to help mitigate muscle damage due to exercise, Hever says.
Subjects experienced less limb pain, and muscle damage and inflammation appeared to be reduced through supplementation with curcumin in a 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In addition, a 2015 study suggests curcumin supplementation might reduce muscle soreness and shows promise as an aid to muscle recovery.
How to get it: Supplements or in turmeric.
What it does: Improves aerobic performance
Onions and apples aren’t exactly sports nutrition A-listers, but research suggests that quercetin, a phytochemical contained in each, can lower inflammation and oxidative stress, as one 2009 study of cyclists found. And untrained male runners experienced “small but significant” improvements in a 12-minute treadmill time trial, a 2010 study of quercetin concluded. A review of research published in 2013, however, said that quercetin has been shown to improve endurance exercise by 2–3 percent.
How to get it: Apples and onions or supplements
What they do: Improve post-workout strength recovery, ease muscle soreness
High in antioxidants and polyphenols, pomegranate juice might yield significant improvement in recovery after eccentric exercise (when the muscle lengthens rather than shortening during contraction; think of the part of a bicep curl when you’re lowering the weight), according to a 2011 study.
Subjects reported less elbow soreness after resistance training when supplementing with large-ish (500 ml) amounts of pomegranate juice, wrote the authors of the paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Pomegranate extract also significantly improved strength recovery two to three days after eccentric exercise, suggests research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in 2010.
How to get it: Pomegranate juice or supplements
Rather than think of these nutrients and phytochemicals as quick fixes, Angelone cautions you to think of them as boosters to an already healthy diet.
“Some of these substances can minimize the oxidation which occurs with exercise, and others can lessen inflammation,” says Angelone. “In addition, they can play a role in performance, but only if a basic foundation of good nutrition is there.”