Top 10 Foods for Sports Performance and Recovery

As CrossFit athletes we know the importance of good nutrition. It is the foundational layer of the CrossFit pyramid and many of us will have participated in a Paleo Challenge or Whole 30 at our box. We have a comprehension of the importance of clean food and of keeping out the processed foods that clog our cells. But, why exactly, do some foods shine above others? What is it about those foods that make our bodies sing?

When we look at foods in relation to sports performance and recovery there are certain criteria to be met. Does that food help build muscle?  Or perhaps it is ideal for post exercise glycogen replenishment. Are there foods that will enhance performance when taken pre-workout? Or are we looking for an anti-inflammatory or protection against exercise induced cell damage?


Top 10 Foods for Sports Performance and Recovery

Muscle Builder Glycogen replacement Cell protection Anti – Inflammatory Performance enhancement Nutrient dense
Sweet potato
Coconut oil


The Muscle Builders

Muscle is king.

Whether you’re skinny or fat, weak or strong, we all benefit from building more muscle. Research tells us that people who have plenty of muscle have recover better from illness and injury, age more slowly and enjoy a multitude of benefits in day-to-day life. But beyond that, having ample muscle mass makes you a better athlete; stronger, with more stamina and endurance.



Quite possibly the perfect food the humble egg is a nutritional powerhouse. The whites have plenty of protein for muscle building while the yolk contains a multitude of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as selenium, choline, lutein and Omega 3s. Free range organic eggs have a higher nutrient profile and tick the box for humane farming practices



Rich in protein, sardines are packed full of amino acids to build muscle. They are also one of the most concentrated sources of the anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids.  As a small fish near the bottom of the food chain they are low in mercury and other toxins, and high in calcium and B12. Unlike endangered tuna or farm raised (read: tampered with) salmon, sardines are native to our seas, amenable to eco-friendly fishing practices, and are found in abundance.

A 100g tin will give you 23 grams of protein. That’s the perfect amount in one sitting. If using tinned sardines try to find brands that use olive oil rather than the pro-inflammatory vegetable oils such as safflower or canola.



Dairy foods provide two types of protein; whey and casein. Whey is a well known source of highly bioavailable, rapidly absorbed protein but it is the high casein levels in yoghurt that have afforded it a place in the Top 10 Foods.

There are two major processes that affect our capacity to build muscle. One is our rate of muscle repair and synthesis and the other, our rate of muscle breakdown.  Muscle mass increases when protein synthesis outweighs protein breakdown.

The casein in yoghurt is released into the blood stream at a very slow rate so its role in muscle repair and regeneration is minimal. But, this slow absorption rate prevents muscle breakdown making it one of the best foods we have to tip the scales toward muscle building.

A serving of organic Greek yoghurt before bed each night is the ideal late night snack for gaining muscle mass.



Glycogen Replacement

By the time we finish our days’ training our muscle glycogen stores are spent. CrossFit WODs with their short, sharp met cons and high rep lifting are dependent for the most part on the glycogen energy pathway.  The best way to keep that fuelled up is to replenish our muscle glycogen stores straight after training – the sooner the better. Not only will your recovery be better but you will also give your body the energy it needs to repair and rebuild muscle, ultimately increasing your muscle mass.  Glycogen stores are restored by carbohydrates but not all carbohydrates are created equal. You could fill up with sweets or nutrient poor grain based foods but there are far better choices. Arguably the best is sweet potato.


Sweet Potato

Sweet potato will give you all the carbs you need to fill your muscle glycogen stores but at the same time will benefit you with a multitude of nutrients. They are particularly rich in beta-carotene but also have significant levels of vitamins C, E, K and the B vitamins. They boast an impressive list of minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and zinc. And, if that’s not enough, they provide a broad range of phytochemicals to protect our cells from damage.

Sweet potato can be taken as a whole food or powdered sweet potato can be a great option to add into a protein shake immediately post training.


Performance Enhancement

Performance enhancing, or ergogenic, foods have the capacity to improve exercise related outcomes with regard to speed, endurance or energy expenditure. Two of the most exciting and well researched ergogenic foods are coconut oil and beetroot.


Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride, or MCT, which is a type of fatty acid that has numerous health benefits. As MCTs are relatively soluble in water they are rapidly absorbed and are able to bypass the fat storage system via the liver and instead get straight into the cells where they can be burned as fuel to create energy. In this way they behave more like a carbohydrate than a fat.

Researchers have found that consuming MCTs immediately prior to high intensity exercise can lead to lowered blood lactate, a lowered rate of perceived exertion and a longer time to exhaustion.

Coconut oil has also been found to increase basal metabolic rate making it excellent for fat loss. It’s calorie dense so it fills you and is excellent for staving off sugar cravings. The lauric acid is also a powerful agent against various bacteria, viruses and fungi.

You can add a tablespoon to a pre-workout shake, take a Bulletproof coffee or eat it straight off the spoon. You may want to start slowly with a teaspoon per day then increase as your body adjusts.



Beetroot has been under the spotlight in recent years and fortunately for us there has been plenty of research revealing why this food is so good at improving sports performance.

Beetroot has a very high level of nitrate which is converted in the body to nitrite then nitric oxide.  The nitric oxide causes our blood vessels to dilate so that more blood can pass through and deliver more oxygen to the cells. Nitric oxide also makes the mitochondria in our cells more efficient. The mitochondria are the energy producing powerhouses within our cells that create ATP. The net result is that you can expend the same amount of energy while consuming less oxygen. That translates to faster times and more endurance. See the Research Corner for some pretty impressive results.

The best way to supplement is to take beetroot juice 2 – 3 hours prior to training. The ideal dose appears to be 600ml or two 70ml shots of concentrated beet juice.


Cell Protection

Plant based foods are particularly rich in substances that can prevent damage to our cells. Broadly described as phytonutrients, these substances include anti-oxidants, plant sterols, enzymes and non-digestible carbohydrates. These compounds exert a variety of health benefits from cancer protection to immune boosting functions.

Particularly beneficial for the athlete are the anti-oxidant compounds. We know that overall the benefits of exercise far outweigh any risks but it is also true that at times the free radicals produced by intense exercise can overwhelm the system and create damage at the cellular level, including changes to our DNA. Anti-oxidants bind to the free radicals and render them harmless.



Arguably the richest source of phytonutrients in the vegetable world kale is considered a super food and with good reason. It contains an abundance of the anti-oxidant vitamins C, E and K along with important trace minerals and anti-cancer components.



Boasting particularly high levels of the anti-oxidants ellagic acid and anthocyanidans blueberries are considered one of the most protective foods we can consume. While not as high in vitamins and minerals as vegetables the anti-oxidant components of blueberries are able to pass the blood brain barrier and studies have shown that eating blueberries increases the antioxidant value of the blood. Naturally sweet, but with a low glycaemic index, they are an excellent choice. Bear in mind though that according to the Environment Working Group (EWG) they come up high on the Dirty Dozen list with regard to pesticide and herbicide levels. Although more expensive this is one food where buying organic is a smart choice.



Turmeric offers a double whammy in terms of anti-oxidant protection. The curcuminoids are incredibly efficient free radical neutralisers but they also dramatically reduce the risk of free radical formation in the first place. Turmeric is also one of our most potent anti-inflammatory agents so it is a great choice for athletes. In fact, its anti-inflammatory properties are comparable to some anti-inflammatory drugs without the adverse effects.



Macadamia nuts are like the egg of the plant world. They’re a little package full of nutrients. Containing fats, carbohydrates and a little protein they also boast an impressive array of B vitamins, minerals and the anti-oxidants selenium, zinc and vitamins A and E.

While nuts in general are quite nutrient dense the majority of them are high in the pro-inflammatory Omega 6 fatty acids compared with Omega 3s. Macadamias are easily the nut of choice on this score with the lowest Omega 6 content of them all.


Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Inflammation is a necessary and helpful process in acute situations but chronic inflammation is a feature of the majority of today’s most prevalent and disabling illnesses – diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, obesity and hypertension. There is no doubt that exercise causes short -term inflammation and that is in fact a great thing. Without it we wouldn’t see the improvements in muscle mass, endurance and work capacity that training delivers. But, when your training becomes excessive (a not uncommon finding among CrossFitters!) or if you’re training with an unresolved injury then inflammation management becomes a priority.

As mentioned previously, two of the best foods for managing inflammation are the Omega 3 rich sardines and the potent curcumin from turmeric.



The Ultimate Sports Smoothie


1 cup coconut water

1 handful kale

¼ cup fresh mint

1 fresh organic egg

1 – 2 tablespoons yoghurt

1 small handful macadamias

½ banana

Ice blocks



Put all ingredients in a high speed blender and blend for 1 -2 minutes until smooth.

Very green and very delicious. The mint is a must.



‘Research Corner’*

A December 2013 study examined the effect of beetroot juice on severe intensity training. Various parameters were assessed when the subjects moved from moderate intensity training to severe intensity within the one session. VO2 kinetics were increased and exercise tolerance was enhanced.

A more recent study published in Nutrients January 2014 found that beetroot juice supplementation improved swimming performance by significantly increasing the work load at anaerobic threshold along with reducing aerobic energy cost. This resulted in faster swim times with reduced energy output.

Excellent results were seen in another January 2014 study where highly trained cyclists were given a single dose of beetroot juice. VO2 was lowered at sub-maximal exercise and a 16km time trial at altitude was performed at significantly faster times.

*References available on request