Boost Your Performance! 3 Vegan Foods that Really Work

Watermelon slices on the wooden table

You’ve probably heard certain foods and drinks can boost athletic performance.

Coffee, for example, makes you run faster, and tart cherries reduce inflammation.

Researchers are finding that what you eat can actually boost cardiovascular efficiency, hasten recovery time, and increase immunity against common exercise-induced illnesses.

And the best part? Many of the best foods are vegan, cheap, and easily found at your local grocery store.

As a cardiovascular nurse, health coach, and endurance athlete, I love digging through literature on health and nutrition, and research on three of these performance-enhancing foods recently caught my eye.

So I teamed up with my podcast co-host, Jackson, to break down what you need to know to boost your performance with food.

3 Foods to Boost Athletic Performance

Below are three performance-enhancing foods that when incorporated into your daily routine, can lead to stronger racing and faster recovery. And what runner doesn’t want that?

Let’s start with one of my personal favorites:

1. Beets

Not to state the obvious, but oxygen is important during exercise. As we breathe, our blood carries the oxygen throughout our bodies to working muscles that helps us run, ride, or lift heavy things.

Limit the oxygen, and you limit your exercise performance.

But reduce the physiological oxygen “cost” — or how quickly your body uses oxygen — by improving cardiovascular function, and you perform better with the same level of effort.

So how can you reduce your oxygen cost?

Studies show an inexpensive root vegetable — the one commonly credited with making your pee turn red — can help.

Beets contain high levels of nitrates, which help dilate our arteries and improve overall cardiovascular function, thus allowing for more oxygen delivery to our cells.

A recent study found that a group of cyclists regularly drinking beet juice could perform an exercise task with 19% less oxygen as compared to the placebo group.

How to Use It: Drink one to two glasses of raw beet juice 45 minutes to an hour before a workout. No juicer? We recommend Skoop’s Ignite Performance Beet Blend for a powdered version, or adding three whole cooked beets — which will provide the same benefits — to a salad or stir fry.

2. Nutritional Yeast

Moderate exercise is known to strengthen immune function, even reducing sick days by up to 25 to 50%.

Unfortunately, anyone who’s run a marathon or ultra will know that participation in sustained, high-intensity exercise can do the opposite. Instead of strengthening, the stress on your body can impair immune function and increase the rate of upper respiratory infections.

When faced with a weakened immune system, you could just wolf down packets of Emergen-C and hope for the best, or you could turn to the cheesy-ish powder you’ve probably thrown on salads.

According to a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, nutritional yeast can protect against exercise induced dip in immunity.

As expected, the study found that cyclists who endured a high-intensity bout of exercise showed a corresponding decrease in circulating white blood cells.

But when the same athletes added just ¾ of a teaspoon of nutritional yeast per day to their diets and were tested again, they actually showed better immune function after the test than when they started.

So does better immune function actually translate to less illness in athletes?

You bet it does. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that marathon runners who took roughly a spoonful of nutritional yeast per day were able to cut their rates of upper respiratory tract infections in half.

And a nice little bonus: those same runners also reported feeling less confusion, fatigue, tension, and anger; and more vigor and energy.

How to Use It: Add 3/4 of a teaspoon of nutritional yeast per day to any food that would benefit from the addition of a savory, cheesy flavor: stir frys, salads, grains, potatoes, pasta dishes. You name it.

3. Watermelon

Exercise, especially at high intensities, causes acute muscle damage and inflammation. That’s what leaves your muscles sore and tired the next day.

And while a certain degree of damage is essential for stimulating muscle growth, too much will impair the healing process.

Enter natural antioxidants. Research has found that antioxidants — specifically those found in watermelon — are powerful anti-inflammatory agents for athletes, reducing free radical production in the body and improving the rate of recovery.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that a group of men who drank fresh watermelon juice before hard physical activity were significantly less sore 24 hours later as compared to a placebo group.

All from just two cups of the delicious, refreshing fruit.

How to Use It: Drink one to two cups of watermelon juice before your run or add two slices of the fruit to your post run smoothie.

Small Changes, Big Impact

As athletes, we’re constantly searching for the next great supplement or quick performance boost.

But we’re starting to uncover that many of the foods we all have access to — and in many cases, already eat — can have a massive impact on our athletic performance when used strategically.

If any of the three foods above aren’t part of your daily routine start adding them in one at a time, tracking any changes that take place.

Over the course of a few months, you may find these simple plant-based foods become invaluable staples for optimizing you next training cycle.

About the Authors: Aaron and Jackson are vegan endurance athletes and the hosts of the Thought For Food Podcast, a show dedicated to improving the lives of people, animals, and the planet through engaging conversations about plant-based nutrition, science, environmentalism, ethics, athletic performance and compassion in the modern world. Check out their videos at Thought For Food TV.



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  1. Robert Francis says:

    This was really breath taking stuff. So continue to research and share so you can help someone. I need some help in getting some simple vegan dishes.

  2. The watermelon was new to me! I am getting into heavy lifts and I get really sore. I’m going to give it a try!

  3. Such great info! I recently got back into running, and after a not-so-satisfying 5K a couple weeks ago, I’ve decided to get out there on a more regular basis. One big stumbling block to keeping the pace is my breathing and O2 levels. Mile 1 is great.. I try to start with a slow steady pace (I’m not that fast anyway), but by the time I get half way through mile 2, I can barely breathe – ok I’m being dramatic, but it’s a struggle for sure. Some.. I’m going to try the beets thing. Hoping that will help me as I get back in shape. Thanks 🙂

  4. Pumpkin juice is also great at reducing swelling and inflammation. When I lived in Korea they sold this everywhere. I found out that people who just got out of surgery will immediately be given pumpkin juice and was ordered to continue drinking this stuff to help with a speedy recovery.

  5. Very superb and such a nice article thanks for sharing this post.

  6. With vegetarian food, I always feel good in workout routine. I didn’t know about the functions of beets btw. Definitely this post helps me! Natural antioxidants in watermelon really boost athletic performance. Thanks for sharing!

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