Sonya Looney found international fame years ago with over 15 international wins at the hardest stage races in the world, and she recently added another exclamation mark to her career by winning the prestigious WEMBO 24-Hour World Championships, riding over 234 miles with 29,000 feet of climbing. While her endurance mountain biking accolades stack high, she has expanded her cycling success into a number of different ventures. In recent years, Sonya has become a podcast host, an apparel business owner, and a plant-powered warrior (somehow still finding time to keep herself in top cycling shape!)
Since learning about the benefits of plant-based nutrition, Sonya has been on a quest to find the most nutritious and beneficial foods for athletes. She’s read countless scientific journals, hosted panels of nutritionists on her podcast, and done field testing by tossing vegetables in every gap of her diet. (Pro tip: She eats arugula by the handful for its nitrate content!) In the following article, Sonya will share her findings in her plant-based research and lifestyle. Mother Nature offers foods that are incredibly beneficial for athletes, and Sonya’s list of her top 5 performance-enhancing foods can easily be tacked into anyone’s diet – plant-based or not!
As athletes, we all know the importance of staying healthy and even using eating as training. We spend a lot of time thinking about food, making our food, and hearing about how to eat healthier so we can both go faster and live longer. This isn’t going to be an article about going 100% keto or going 100% plant-based, but it will be about foods that are proven to make you healthier and faster.
Disclaimer: I’ve spent the last 5 years obsessively studying plant-based nutrition and applying it to my own life. I won’t go into it here, but if you want to learn what happened when I started shifting to eating more plant-based, you can read about it here. I’ve been fortunate to give a lot of speeches teaching others what I have learned about health and performance. One of the most helpful has been a shortlist of a few foods that anyone can add into their diet.
Even if you don’t eat a plant-based diet, simply adding in a few of these foods to your daily food intake will improve your performance and chances are, you’re already eating some of these! I am a skeptic; a questioner. If I’m doing something, I like to know why.
Here are my favorite performance enhancing foods and why you should eat a little bit more of them.
1. Nitrate rich vegetables: increase oxygen levels in your blood
Examples: Go for leafy greens! Arugula, mesculin green, kale, rhubarb
Arugula has the highest amount of nitrates out of any vegetable. As a class of food, leafy greens are the best! But wait a second, what about beets? Beet juice is easy to use in studies, and has shown to reduce 5k running times. It is high in nitrates, but not as high as arugula or some other leafy greens. Drinking beet juice before an event could be beneficial because it doesn’t have the same amount of fiber as a whole beet or a leafy green. Too much fiber before your event can divert too much blood to the gut. Juice is much lower in fiber, so drink some beet juice a couple hours before your start. The rest of the time, eat several cups of leafy greens per day. If you are don’t feel like making a salad (I don’t like making salads), I just grab a couple handfuls straight out of the package and eat it, almost like a supplement.
How it works: Nitrates in food are converted to nitric oxide in the blood. Nitric oxide relaxes your blood vessels, causes vasodilation, reduces blood pressure and allows more blood flow.
Basically, eat as any leafy greens as you can on a daily basis and you’ll go faster. Drink beet juice before your workouts and there is evidence that you’ll go faster too!
My go-to: Arugula every day!
2. Turmeric: Reduce inflammation naturally
Turmeric: Great for anti-inflammatory and better blood flow!
Yeah, you can get all fancy with turmeric lattes, but you really don’t need to add that much to make a big difference. Turmeric is a spice made from a root. (Curcumin is one component of turmeric). As athletes, our workouts and races create inflammation. Part of recovery is about reducing inflammation. Turmeric is a strong anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. It improves endothelial function meaning again – better blood flow! You can put a teaspoon in your food, add fresh turmeric root to a smoothie or you can get fancy and get your turmeric latte! If you’re recovering from an injury, turmeric is also your friend!
Honorable mention for anti-inflammatory: Tart cherries! I like to make a spritzer with carbonated water and juice. It’s almost like drinking a cocktail!
Turmeric also helps reduce risk of cancer.
3. TEAS! Hibiscus tea and green tea: Anti-oxidants galore
Hibiscus tea: Delicious AND packs a health punch!
Trick question: what is the highest antioxidant food? It’s not blueberries, it is hibiscus tea! Green tea also gets an honorable mention as a great anti-viral drink and is also very anti-oxidant rich. Make sure you rinse your mouth out after drinking hibiscus tea because it can temporarily hurt your teeth enamel.
A quick note about tea: tea will inhibit iron absorption, so drink your tea outside of mealtimes. (and as a bonus, eat more vitamin C vegetables with your iron sources for better iron absorption). Also great for lowering blood pressure.
4. Ground flax : Omega 3s & best food to lower blood pressure
Ground Flax is a breakfast staple for brain health!
How much? 1 Tbsp a day. I put it in my oatmeal. It reduces inflammation, reduces cancer risk (especially breast and prostate cancer) due to its high lignan content. You can also use it as an egg replacer in baked goods. (Mix 1 T ground flax with 3 T warm water and wait a minute). Omega 3s are also good for brain health, can fight auto-immune diseases, and reduce heart disease risk.
5. Broccoli & cruciferous: Anti-Cancer
Eat your (raw) veggies!
Broccoli and cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, kale, and brussel sprouts contain an enzyme called sulforaphane that has strong anti-cancer properties. Note: the enzyme, sulforaphane is NOT present in frozen or cooked broccoli.
Per Dr. Michael Greger from NutritionFacts.org: How to make sure the enzyme isn’t destroyed? Chop your broccoli, kale, cauliflower, brussels, etc, wait 40 minutes and the enzyme is made. And THEN you can cook it.
I created my own cookbook with simple, healthy plant-based recipes for athletes. If you want to add in some of these meals to what you’re already eating. You can get a digital copy here!
If you want to learn more about healthy foods that happened to be plant-based to add in to your diet, here are a few podcasts I’ve recorded with some of the world’s leading experts in nutrition. Subscribe here!
(Nutrition is just part of it. It’s also about mindset and inspiring stories.)