Runners love a cup of pre-race joe for the pep it puts in their step. “Research shows that the caffeine in coffee can enhance physical endurance and stamina, making a long run or ride feel easier,” says Molly Kimball, R.D., sports dietitian with Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. Try it iced or hot a half hour before a gym sesh, but if it upsets your stomach, push it back to an hour. Not crazy for coffee? Iced or hot green tea works too. Feel free to add milk, but skip the sugar, which can negate the caffeine kick.
Sore muscles often feel rewarding after a hard workout, but intense aches just plain hurt. The fix? Ginger. Consuming half a teaspoon of the raw root or ground herb lessened next-day muscle soreness by 25 percent in one study, likely because ginger contains pungent pain-relieving chemicals such as gingerol, shogaol, and zingerone. Research in the Journal of Pain suggests that it can even be more effective than popping NSAIDs. Drop a few slices of fresh ginger into your tea while it’s steeping or use ground ginger in a marinade for chicken or pork.
An apple a day…Okay you know the drill. But add this to what apples can do: The fruit is bursting with a substance called quercetin, which can improve energy metabolism to increase endurance. In one study, taking quercetin supplements helped untrained cyclists ride 13 percent longer. While you’d have to eat a ton of apples for the same dose of quercetin used in the study, it can’t hurt to make the fruit your snack of choice, as they may help keep you going on long rides or runs.
A (virgin) bloody Mary just may be the best fuel for spin class. Drinking five ounces of tomato juice for five weeks reduced free-radical damage from an intense cycling test, per new research in Nutrition Journal. Researchers credit the lycopene, an antioxidant that soaks up tissue-damaging compounds. The result? You’ll feel so good you’ll be ready to kick butt again in class tomorrow.
Salad isn’t only good for your thighs: People who ate three ounces of delicate, spicy watercress for eight weeks daily before strenuous exercise had less post-workout muscle damage. The veggies pack a wallop of nutrients such as beta carotene and vitamin E to flush waste out of muscles and speed up repair, say researchers in the British Journal of Nutrition. You’ll probably get the best results after long-term use, Kimball says, although the study did show a similar effect when watercress was eaten just two hours pre-workout. Stock up on any green—kale, Swiss chard, arugula—and consider adding a splash of olive oil, as fat enhances the absorption of beta carotene and other nutrients.
Sports chews are great for a mid-workout kick, but Ma Nature has something that can give you the same jolt: raisins. University of California at Davis researchers tuckered people out by having them run for 80 minutes. The exercisers then consumed either 100 calories of raisins, sports chews, or water only, and then ran a 5K. Those who had raisins or chews ran one minute faster then the water drinkers. The dried fruit can give your body the carbs it craves to keep energy-revving blood sugar levels up until you throw in the towel. Try ‘em during workouts lasting at least an hour or as a pre-run snack.
Tart Cherry Juice
Inflammation is the scourge of muscles, causing pain and swelling and hindering performance in your next workout, Kimball says. Ease that affliction with cherries. “They’re rich in polyphenolic compounds—namely flavanoids and anthyocyanins—that are shown to decrease inflammation,” Kimball says. In fact, when athletes consumed a cherry concentrate daily for seven days before and two days after a strength-training workout, their muscles recovered faster, U.K. researchers reported. Find tart cherry juice at your local grocer and drink it in place of your morning OJ.
While sports drinks work, they’re a little too sweet for some tastes. Grab a banana instead before your next long run or ride—research from Appalachian State University says it works just as well at powering you through a tough workout. The fruit is chockablock with easy-to-digest carbs; vitamin B6, which is key in converting fuel into energy during exercise; and potassium to prevent muscle cramps, plus all the sugar is natural. During workouts longer than an hour, consume half a large banana every 15 minutes.
Smoke the competition at your next race by roasting some roots. Naturally occurring nitrates help deliver more oxygen to your muscles, thereby reducing fatigue during high-intensity exercise, Kimball says. A new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that eating a 7-ounce serving of baked beets 75 minutes before exercise helped runners run three percent faster during a 5k—and in the last mile, they ran five percent faster. Being able to up the intensity like that means you torch both your opponents and major calories.
You eat protein after working out to jumpstart muscle recovery, but you should also consider having a protein-rich bedtime snack, according to scientists in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. After a strength session, exercisers ate 20 grams of protein. One group then consumed another 40 grams of protein a half-hour before bed, while another group was given a placebo. Those who noshed on protein before nodding off significantly improved muscle protein synthesis, which helps repair, build, and strengthen lean muscle. (You’ll want to rock a swimsuit all year!) On days when your muscles feel like putty, try Greek yogurt; it packs twice the protein of regular.