Jan. 22, 2014 at 3:47 PM ET
These tubers are a healthier alternative to their kin, the white potato, delivering a host of vitamins and minerals such as beta-carotene, vitamin C and manganese as well as disease-preventing dietary fiber. What makes them the perfect food for an athlete? "Starchy carbs like sweet potatoes eaten in combination with lean protein after a workout, act as a catalyst for protein to enter muscle tissue and begin the repair/rebuild process. Sweet potatoes are hypoallergenic and the preferred source of post-workout carbohydrates for many athletes, bodybuilders and regular exercisers who want to keep their energy stores up and body fat down," says Katy Jercich, strength and conditioning specialist and head health coach at STUDIOMIX in San Francisco and owner of IN STRENGTH, a Bay Area health consulting business. Steam or bake a small or medium sweet potato to eat after your next workout.
This fat has a high amount of "medium-chained" fats that make it easily digestible (compared to other dietary fats) providing a readily available source of energy in the body. "Coconut oil naturally increases metabolism, allowing for more energy to be burned by the body and boosts athletic performance. It also promotes healthy thyroid function and removes pancreatic stress—all translating to a more active you," says Jercich. Add a few tablespoons to your smoothie pre-workout.
They are a rich source of potassium, an electrolyte your body needs but loses during exercise. In a study performed at Appalachian State University, bananas were found to be just as helpful in fueling cyclists during intense exercise as were carbohydrate sports drinks. It's also great for preventing muscle fatigue. Opt for a banana instead of an energy bar before your next workout—it’s a nutrient-dense and natural option.
Eggs, especially if both yolk and white are consumed, can be an excellent whole-food choice to provide micronutrients and protein. Dietary protein is important because it provides our bodies with amino acids, which can help build muscles and nourish the body. Ravi Machado, certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor based in Burlingame, Calif. says, "Eat a few soft or hard-boiled eggs with some carbohydrates within a 45-minute window of working out to help offset the cortisol response and prevent muscle breakdown."
Fish is another healthy protein that can be eaten after exercising to prevent catabolism (muscle breakdown). Fresh, wild fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids—"good" fats that have been shown to help the body fight off inflammation. Many athletes are prone to inflammatory conditions as a result of over-training, leading to sore muscles and possible injuries. By eating more salmon and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids, you can help prevent or decrease inflammation and pain.
Are you a non-fish eater? Walnuts are another way of getting heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Good fats are necessary and vital to achieve optimal fitness and health. According to Udo Erasmus in Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, healthy fats can help with "energy production, healing of tissue injuries, sprains and bruises" while unhealthy fats "can interfere with health and slow down athletic performance." The choice is yours. Try adding a handful of walnuts to your home-made trail mix before heading outdoors.
This nutrient-dense food is great in moderation. It provides amino acids and protein to help with post-exercise recovery and beef is chock full of iron, which provides the body energy. "Beef from grass-fed cattle have much higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than conventionally-raised cattle and gives you a boost in shedding body fat and building lean muscle," says Jercich. Your best bet: 4-6 ounces of grass-fed beef post workout.
If you’re someone who finds water boring, give coconut water a try. It only has a mild coconut flavor and is a natural source of electrolytes. Many electrolyte and sports drinks on the market are full of refined sugars that can contribute to weight gain and diabetes. Machado says, "Coconut water is the ideal beverage to consume before and during exercise because less volume of liquid is needed to provide the beneficial minerals, therefore alleviating the feeling of fullness or bloating that other beverages may cause, interfering with optimal exercise performance." Avoid the unnecessary calories and opt for 6-8 ounces of unsweetened coconut water to replenish.
This fruit provides healthy doses of fat that an active body will utilize as fuel to power through a grueling day or workout. It’s also rich in vitamin C, fiber, vitamin K, folic acid and B6. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and can support the adrenal glands, which can be overworked during times of stress. While B vitamins are responsible for many functions in body, they are most often thought of as the 'stress and energy' vitamins. Your body goes through a lot of stress during a workout, so this is kind of the magic fruit. Before your work out, have half an avocado mashed with some lemon juice and sea salt.
Is this really a surprise? Olive oil is constantly praised for its health-promoting properties—increasing healthy cholesterol levels, fighting free-radical damage, protecting the blood vessels. "For some elite athletes who are pushing themselves to the limit and needing to consume a large amount of calories daily to keep up with the energy expended, adding a few tablespoons of pure, extra virgin olive oil to food that’s already been cooked can be a healthy way to add nutrient-dense calories and good fats to a meal," says Machado.
A powdered green tea from Japan, matcha is actually better than regular types of green tea. It contains five times the amount of the amino acid l-theanine, which promotes a relaxed, yet focused mental state. Although matcha contains caffeine (like all green teas), there is enough l-theanine to cut the jitters. The result: Intense focus and high energy without the nervous ticks. Though coffee may have some health benefits, green tea has more antioxidants to help fend off disease and protect against oxidative stress. Whisk half a teaspoon into 6-8 ounces of hot water for tea or in steamed milk for a latte.
A fruit native to Central and South America, acai is high in antioxidants and a good source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, which are important for staving off disease. "Acai berries will help sustain the body during times of exercise, providing a natural sugar source. It’s a good alternative to consuming sugary sports gels that are processed and lacking in vitamins and minerals," says Machado. An hour before exercise, blend 3.5 ounces frozen acai pulp, a banana and a small amount of hemp protein for a smoothie that will fuel the body for any sport .
This powerhouse of vitamin K, C, calcium, manganese and dietary fiber should be a staple in every active person’s diet. "Kale is a great superfood to eat if you are active and athletic due to its high antioxidant levels, which can help increase blood oxygen levels, thus increasing physical stamina," says Machado. Try to eat more antioxidant-rich foods such as kale to enhance your athletic performance—one cup with any meal will do the trick.
A portable, tasty snack that provides antioxidants to minimize inflammation. What’s not to like? Consider raisins a healthy carbohydrate option that will provide energy for a longer, harder workout. Add a handful to your trail mix or just eat plain before you hit the gym.
This source of protein can provide all the necessary amino acids your body needs to rebuild muscle and tissues after exercising. A vegetarian-friendly protein source, cottage cheese also contains other nutrients that can help support an active lifestyle: calcium, tryptophan, vitamin B12 and selenium. Enjoy a cup post workout for best results.
"Often times I’ll see clients who skip a meal before working out with the thought that they will burn more fat. The issue with this is that many times these same clients will experience a lack of energy, dizziness or even nausea during the workout, hindering their ability to take their workout to the next level, which may be needed to achieve their desired health goals. Even a simple snack such as an apricot pre-workout will provide some essential nutrients and quick-digesting fuel to prevent these symptoms," say Machado.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.