Could the Mediterranean Diet Also Help You Run Faster?

Jodi Helmer
by Jodi Helmer
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Could the Mediterranean Diet Also Help You Run Faster?

Not only does the Mediterranean diet help with losing weight and improving heart health, but according to new research it could also boost athletic performance. Researchers compared 5K times for participants who followed two different diets. Those who ate a Mediterranean diet that contained lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and olive oil had faster race times compared to those who followed a traditional Western diet high in red or processed meats, sodium, trans fats, refined sugar and dairy.


Following a Mediterranean diet led participants to shave a full minute off their overall 5K times — and it only took four days of eating that way to see results. “This study provides evidence that a diet known to be good for health is also good for exercise performance,” says study co-author Edward Weiss, PhD, a professor of nutrition at St. Louis University.

Several of the nutrients common in Mediterranean diets have been shown to boost performance, adds Weiss. For example, “nitrates, which are abundant in vegetables like beets and greens, have been linked to improved muscle power and endurance, leading to enhanced performance. Additional research shows antioxidants like vitamin C have been shown to reduce exercise-related muscle damage and speed recovery.”


While diet has the ability to enhance athletic performance, it can also impair it. In a study published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport profiled 21 race walkers who followed one of three macronutrient diets: A high-carb diet (60–65% carbs; 15–20% protein and 20% fat); a low-carb diet (75–80% fat; 15–20% protein and less than 50 grams of carbs); and a “periodized” carb diet that alternated between low- and high-carbs depending on the training regimen.

The low-carb, high fat (ketogenic) helped athletes burn more fat, but it decreased their oxygen efficiency, increasing the amount of oxygen needed to sustain their pace; a high-fat diet was also linked with slower race times.

“Endurance training already improves an athlete’s ability to oxidize fat as a fuel source, which is why you don’t need to resort to chronic adherence to a low-carb, high-fat diet,” explains Louise M. Burke, PhD, chief of nutrition strategy at the Australian Institute of Sport. Instead, a healthy eating plan that is sustainable, such as the Mediterranean diet, might be a better option long-term.


Make an appointment with a registered dietitian who can develop a personalized eating plan that aligns with your specific needs and fitness goals, suggests Burke. Weiss seconds that advice, adding, “The typical athlete hasn’t been shown how to eat a healthy diet.” Ultimately, you should prioritize eating a well-balanced diet for overall health, which benefits athletic performance as well.

About the Author

Jodi Helmer
Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer writes about health and wellness for publications like WebMD, AARP, Shape, Woman’s Day, Arthritis Today and Costco Connection among others. She often comes up with the best story ideas while hiking with her rescue dogs. You can read Jodi’s work or follow her on Twitter @helmerjodi.


3 responses to “Could the Mediterranean Diet Also Help You Run Faster?”

  1. Avatar Casey says:

    There is no way to show an absolute cause and effect vs correlation after 4 days of eating beets and greens. This is more pop-science that reflects the author’s opinions rather than using the scientific method to prove cause and effect. What other factors may have influenced the groups? Was this a double blind study, thereby reducing the psychological effects? I might give ten people a pill and tell them it will improve their 5k time, and it does simply because they believe it and push themselves a little harder. Please stop posting opinions and unproven theories under the heading of “The Science

    • Avatar Roger says:

      This was a randomized crossover study design. It would be impossible to design a study of this nature where all relevant participants or researchers were blinded: they’re changing peoples’ diets to a Mediterranean diet, and that cannot be masked, so at least the participants knew which diet they were on. If you can think of a way to blind people when you’re changing their diet, please let science know. Just because a study is not double-blinded does not mean it’s invalid. There are heaps of research questions where blinding (or even intervention) simply isn’t possible. The design method was appropriate for the study. The study should not be used to make decisions, but for other reasons.

      First, the study was meant as a preliminary study to guide and justify future research and not to inform practice. The authors mention this in their discussion about the study’s limitations. The study has very low statistical power (just 11 participants with a very short study period) and the paper obliquely mentions this as another limitation.

      I disagree with the author’s conclusions, though. The paper shows that performance *may* improve on the Mediterranean diet, but none of the performance measures given in the paper reached statistical significance (based on p-values and an alpha of 0.05). I’m not a fan of p-values but since confidence intervals are not given (probably because the study was seriously underpowered) then there’s not much else to base a decision on. The study’s hypothesis should probably have been rejected based on nothing reaching statistical significance.

      I get the feeling that the author of this blog may not have read the full-text of the paper, and based the above narrative on the paper’s abstract only. The paper’s abstract is misleading (as is the case for many papers, not just this one).

  2. Avatar Mujo67 says:

    An authentic “Mediterranean” diet is going to have plenty of feta cheese, in almost every meal, especially in the salads. It might not have as much dairy as a traditional “Western” diet, but it’s certainly not dairy-free.

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