A person eats a salad with a fork. The salad contains tomatoes, onions, broccoli and a light dressing.
A diet rich in plant-based foods delivers a host of benefits for high-performing athletes, including better recovery times and a leaner body composition. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

A diet that maximizes an endurance athlete’s performance should provide steady energy, enable efficient blood flow and promote post-exercise recovery.

It should also improve the athlete’s overall body composition.

“A diet comprised of whole, plant-based foods can accomplish all these goals, in addition to preventing chronic disease,” said Kristi Artz, MD, medical director of lifestyle medicine at Spectrum Health.

Dr. Artz looked at each of these positive effects of a plant-based diet and explained how it can enhance athletic performance.

Steady energy

The primary fuel source for exercising and training comes from blood glucose and glycogen stored in muscle tissue, Dr. Artz said.

Complex carbohydrates in the form of beans, legumes, whole grains and root vegetables provide a steady, nutrient-rich source of glucose and help replenish muscle glycogen stores, she said.

Consuming whole, plant-based complex carbohydrates each day will provide fiber, too, which is essential for cardiovascular and gut health.

Efficient blood flow

Athletic performance relies on proper blood flow to and from muscles, which regulates oxygen flow and removal of waste materials.

Blood viscosity, or thickness, and blood vessel elasticity, or flexibility, are influenced by dietary choices, Dr. Artz said.

The saturated fats found in animal meats, cheese and tropical oils cause blood to become thicker while making vessels less flexible, she said. More viscous blood and less elastic vessels impair our ability to exercise and compete at a high level.

To avoid these pitfalls, replace saturated fats with unsaturated plant fats.

Post-exercise recovery

Endurance sports and high-intensity training can trigger widespread inflammation and oxidative stress.

“Antioxidant-rich foods high in vitamins C and  E, beta-carotene and nitrates will help scavenge free radicals and dampen inflammatory effects in muscles and joints,” Dr. Artz said. “Kiwifruit, nuts and seeds, butternut squash, green leafy vegetables and beets are excellent example of these types of foods.”

Eating these items will help you feel better and recover faster, she said.

You can reduce muscle soreness, for instance, by enjoying a tropical green smoothie for breakfast. And it takes just a little work to add a green salad to your dinner.

Body composition

Improve aerobic capacity and endurance by increasing lean muscle mass and reducing visceral fat—the fat around the internal organs.

It’s possible to build a leaner body by consuming whole, plant-based foods, which are naturally low in calorie density, Dr. Artz said. This allows you to enjoy the same amount of food while consuming fewer calories.

“Calorie density is a powerful way to improve the quality of your diet while promoting a healthy and lean composition,” she said.