As anyone familiar with my philosophies will know, if there is one thing I like to stress when it comes to health and fitness, it is this: all the workouts in the world won’t help you if your diet is no good.
Essentially, when it comes to our health, the negatives will always wipe out the positives. That is to say, an hour on the treadmill is absolutely pointless if you’re following it up with a huge pasta dinner or snacking on soda, crisps, and candy. If you are going to do that, you may as well not even bother with the workout in the first place.
And let’s be clear that we are not just talking about weight gain and appearance. As important as that is for many of us, the real problem with poor eating is that you put yourself at risk for serious disease.
But I’m getting off topic. Today’s theme is actually a lot more fun, so let me steer back towards it. Essentially, what I wanted to do is look at five energy-boosting foods that you fitness freaks need to be aware of when it comes to understanding the impact of nutrition on your workouts.
And when I’m done with the list, I’m going to talk about diet and it’s role in the bigger picture of athletic performance, highlighting a case study of the world’s current number one tennis player, Novak Djokovic.
I told you this article was a fun one. So without further ado, let’s get to the list.
We’ll start with an absolute staple of the pre-workout diet: bananas. Packed full of potassium and easily digestible carbohydrates, bananas are your best friend – particularly if you are hitting the gym for a hard session of cardio.
The potassium in bananas aids both nerve and muscle function, helping to cut down on the dreaded cardio cramps. What’s more, as the body doesn’t store potassium for very long, a banana around 30 minutes before a workout is the perfect way to keep nutrient levels high throughout.
The potassium in bananas aids both nerve and muscle function, helping to cut down on the dreaded cardio cramps.
Now just a word of caution: I am not a huge fan of bananas in the everyday diet. Before a workout, great – but no more than one. Outside of a workout, no more than half a banana a day. Why? Because bananas are for me just a bit too high in fructose, and a medium-sized one will deliver 20 grams of carbs. While that will give you a quick, short-term energy boost, it makes sense for a workout but not much else.
If you are looking for an instant pre-workout pick-me-up, almond butter will set you up. Not only is it quite tasty, but it’s also jam-packed with vital vitamins and nutrients – including Vitamin E, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and calcium. A great way to eat almond butter is to spread it on a few sticks of fresh celery.
Pistachio and berry mix
Now I could have listed these two foods separately here as they are both great pre-workout snacks. However, I find combining the two is the best way to get results. According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, berries – with their anti-inflammatory properties – help reduce the potential for muscle damage during exercise while also helping to aid muscle recovery. The pistachios, on the other hand, are high in fiber which slows digestion and provides a fantastic, long-lasting energy source. A very neat workout combo indeed.
Fruit and vegetable juice (particularly beetroot)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know all about the wonders of juicing. And celebrity endorsements and fad-diets aside, it truly is an excellent way to give yourself a boost before exercise. Blitzing a combo of fruits and vegetables such as berries, citrus fruit, spinach, carrots, and kiwis gives the body a great hit of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants – which combine to boost energy levels and reduce the risk of muscle damage.
And one vegetable that deserves special mention is beetroot. As well as being rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants, beetroot is also packed with nitrates which, when converted to nitric oxide in the body, helps to increase blood flow to the muscles.
As for keeping this all easy, I am partial to the NutriBullet, which is a great device for getting your juices prepared quickly (plus they are super simple to clean).
I’m sure anyone with even a passing interest in fitness and nutrition knows all about the benefits of eggs – we’ve all seen Rocky after all. Well, it turns out that the Italian Stallion was onto something because eggs offer a perfect punch of pre-workout protein.
Aside from packing a hit of protein in their own right, eggs are also chock-full of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein within the body, and can aid with cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and recovery time.
Case Study: The impact of diet on the performance of Novak Djokovic
So onto our case study, which is all about getting an idea of how a healthy diet – day in and day out – can have a tremendous impact on overall athletic performance. While there are endless examples of athletes have made drastic changes to their diets and seeing almost instant results, one story, in particular, stands out of late – that of multi-Grand Slam winning tennis player Novak Djokovic.
For years Djokovic, despite his obvious sporting ability, had struggled to go the distance against the top players. By 2009, when he was forced to retire from the Australian Open quarter-final with heat exhaustion, Djokovic had withdrawn from four of his 17 Grand Slam appearances – a number unrivalled among his peers. His appearance at the same tournament the following year didn’t go much better either. However, it was then that his fortunes would change.
Watching that Australian Open match at his home in Cyprus was nutritionist Dr. Igor Cetojevic who – having seen Djokovic get sick and struggle to breathe as he conceded a two sets to one lead – instinctively knew that the Serbian’s troubles stemmed from his diet. So, he got in touch, arranged to meet, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cetojevic’s advice was a simple list of do’s and don’ts. Do eat a diet high in vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils. Don’t go anywhere near grains, wheat, gluten, sugar or dairy. Now that advice may be similar to some, as it is based on the Paleo principles that I believe is at the foundation of a healthy body in general, but how many of us make the link between Paleo and supreme athletic performance?
Because it would be hard for us to simply gloss over the incredible result of this change in Djokovic’s diet. His achievements since indeed speak for themselves: five Australian Open championships, three Wimbledon titles, two US opens and one French Open. This means he added 11 more Grand Slam titles to the sole Australian Open title victory he had prior to changing his diet.
No doubt this is also the story of tennis player “coming into his own” after 20+ years of very disciplined training, but there is no denying that dietary changes have given Djokovic the boost he needed to become the champion he was destined to be.
Cetojevic’s advice was a simple list of do’s and don’ts. Do eat a diet high in vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils. Don’t go anywhere near grains, wheat, gluten, sugar or dairy.
The bigger health picture
The reason diet is often overlooked when we talk about fitness is that many people believe that as long as we are getting plenty of exercise, it doesn’t really matter what we eat. Again I want to state emphatically that this could not be further from the truth. There are countless books that make reference to this point, and one that I in particular like to recommend is The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Loren Cordain, Ph.D. and champion of the Paleo Diet in general.
Let’s be very clear: Fitness on its own has little to do with weight management. While burning calories is a key part of an intense workout, you won’t really be able to burn more than you are taking in with a poor diet, and weight management aside, the grains and sugars and processed foods (especially those with trans fats in them) will literally distort the natural shape of your body.
So if you are to take anything out of this article, it should be this: While energy-boosting foods are a fun concept, these must be part of a broader healthy diet that sees you eating responsibly at least 90% of the time. Because for you and me this is about much more than appearance or athletic performance, this is about your overall health, and doing what is needed to ensure you have the greatest chance of staying disease-free throughout your life.