Science Says These 3 Foods May Help Athletes

Jennifer Purdie
by Jennifer Purdie
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Science Says These 3 Foods May Help Athletes

For many athletes, knowing which foods aid performance and which don’t relies on trial and error. Peer-reviewed journals can be a great source of information, too. They provide top-tier, quality content backed by thorough investigation from researchers on numerous subject groups. The following foods received such examination and the results were published in top journals. Read on to learn more about each study and outcome, then decide for yourself whether or not it works for your training.


Background: The flavanols in dark chocolate can help boost nitric oxide production — this causes blood vessels to swell and reduces the amount of oxygen you need.

Question: Does dark chocolate consumption lower oxygen requirements and allow you to exercise longer?

The research: In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a team of researchers at Kingston University reviewed this query. They had a group of nine amateur cyclists complete an initial fitness test to establish where their exercise levels were. The nine participants were split into two groups. The first group replaced one of their daily snacks with 40 grams of dark chocolate daily for two weeks. The second group did the same, but replaced the snack with white chocolate. During this period, researchers conducted cycling tests and tracked heart rates and oxygen consumption. After a seven-day break to remove all traces of chocolate from their bodies, the two groups switched the type of chocolate they ate for an additional two weeks and took the same cycling tests again.

Conclusion: Dark chocolate eaters used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace, and covered more distance in a two-minute time trial.


Background: Eating nitrates has been linked to exercise improvement; roasted beets contain particularly high nitrates.

Question: Can the nitrates found in beets improve running performance?

The research: In a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers used 11 recreationally fit men and women in a double-blind trial to discover the answer. Participants ate baked beetroot and 75 minutes later ran a 5K treadmill time trial. In a separate test, they ate cranberry relish and 75 minutes later ran the same 5K time trial.

Answer: After eating beets, participants ran 5% faster and perceived exertion was lower than after eating cranberry relish.  


Background: Cherries are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.

Question: Can these anti-inflammatory properties translate into helping runners recover after a marathon?

The research: Published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, researchers tested marathon runners to see if cherry juice works. Twenty recreational marathon runners were assigned to one of two groups: cherry juice drinkers or placebo drinkers. They consumed their drink for five days before a marathon, the day of the race and 48 hours after. Muscle damage, soreness and inflammation were examined before and after the race.

Conclusion: Those who drank cherry juice healed faster. Researchers found the juice reduced inflammation by increasing total antioxidative capacity — meaning, the antioxidants in the cherries helped clean the harmful free radicals in the cells and blood. In turn, strength recovered significantly faster.

About the Author

Jennifer Purdie
Jennifer Purdie
Jennifer is a Southern California-based freelance writer who covers topics such as health, fitness, lifestyle and travel for both national and regional publications. She runs marathons across the world and is an Ironman finisher. She is also a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter @jenpurdie.


8 responses to “Science Says These 3 Foods May Help Athletes”

  1. Avatar Jeremiah Haremza says:

    Wondering how much cherry juice? the abstract to the article didn’t say.

  2. Avatar Lytrigian says:

    My comment is lost in moderation, probably because I included a link. The link was to the John Ioannidis paper explaining why most published research is wrong.

    Come on. These studies do not tell us that “science” says anything at all. We have n=9, n=11, and n=20. These are the kinds of small pilot studies that almost always find what their researchers are looking for, with effect sizes that shrink into insignificance as the studies become larger and better-controlled. Hell, these aren’t even placebo controlled, let alone blinded. Yes, the cherry juice study claims to be placebo-controlled, but any dolt can tell the difference between artificial flavor and real juice.

    So no, “science” doesn’t say these three foods may help athletes. Science says nothing at all about how they affect athletic performance, at least not if these studies are the only information we have.

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    • Avatar Philip Holman says:

      Yes, at most I would say these studies have identified the need to perform a larger more controlled test. But to be fair, when subjecting the participants to both the study and the control, it is easy to blind the subjects simply by not disclosing the hypothesis. For example, in the case of dark or white chocolate, the subject isn’t informed which is the study and which is the control and neither is the test administrator.

    • If someone need to sell more dark chocolate or cherry juice, he pays for some studies to some scientist, who will write an article later on. There was a joke: “American scientists have discovered that people will believe in anything american scientists says”.

      • Avatar Lytrigian says:

        I don’t know who funded these studies, and that’s actually irrelevant. Bad or inadequate studies can be criticized on the merits.

        This sort of thing is at least as much the responsibility of university PR departments and the abysmal quality of science reporting in general as anything else. That recent Stanford study about healthy low fat vs. healthy low carb diets is a case in point. 90% of the press is reporting it as if it said CICO doesn’t matter. Not only is that not what the study was about, but if you read the thing you actually find that study participants ended up consuming 500-600 cal/day less than baseline on average.

  3. Avatar fmrleftchick says:

    Cherry juice will make you run faster… to the bathroom!

  4. Avatar Jonathan Owen says:

    Trouble is, these studies are so infinitesimally small as to be entirely inconclusive. As a scientist, I need thousands of participants to take part in much more robust studies to glean any meaningful data which must then be tested statistically to support/reject any hypothesis. The studies must then be repeatable and peer-reviewed before any degree of ‘certainty’ can be claimed.

    The Beetroot study involved just 11(!) subjects – you could repeat this study 100 times and get 100 different results. This is the problem with these reports – they have nothing whatsoever to do with science – and usually everything to do with marketing

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