After years of making fun of Popeye and his spinach-fueled muscles, it might be time to apologize to the original muscle-bound vegetarian.
The cartoon might seem outdated and outlandish, but research now shows that the concept might not be that far fetch. According to research compiled by Examine.com, nitrates, a powerful compound found in green vegetables can provide many of the benefits oftentimes reserved for pricey supplements.
While it doesn’t work like magic (and you have to eat a lot of spinach to see benefits), there’s more substance than you might think to a natural energy boost. Here are a few natural food resources, based on research from Examine.com and their Stack guides, which can help improve your workout without any chemical compounds or stimulants.
The Surprising Cardio and Weight-Training Spark
The research behind nitrates might be some of the best support yet why vegetarians and vegans can still be effective performance athletes. Nitrates are a compound found in most leafy green vegetables and beetroot. Nitrates break down into nitrites, which circulate in the body and are turned into nitric oxide (NO) as needed, according to research reviews conducted to Examine.com.
Elevated NO levels during exercise provide a variety of benefits. Nitrate supplementation has been shown to improve anaerobic and aerobic endurance, blood flow, and work output, resulting in increased muscle recovery between bouts of exercise.
Nitrates improve the body’s ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from the food you eat. ATP is responsible for the energy transfer that powers your muscles. High levels of circulating nitrite help the mitochondria in cells produce ATP more efficiently.
Ready to go out and buy the best nitrate supplement? You might feel like you’re searching for Waldo in a sea of American flags.
Selling a nitrate supplement with a dose high enough to cause the positive performance-enhancing effects is not legal. This is due to the regulation surrounding sodium nitrate, a food additive frequently added to meat products, says Examine.com.
How to Achieve Your Boost
Nitrates are best supplemented through food products like leafy greens or beets, 60 to 120 minutes before exercise. You’ll want these window not only for digestive purposes, but also for stomach comfort. Consuming these foods in a liquid form, such as through a shake, juice, or puree, will increase the rate of nitrate absorption, since solid food particles take longer to digest.
The optimal nitrate dose is in the range of 6.4 – 12.8 mg per kilogram of bodyweight. This corresponds to approximately:
- 440 – 870 mg for a 150-pound person
- 580 – 1,160 mg for a 200-pound person
- 730 – 1,450 mg for a 250-pound person
What does it all mean? Well, get ready for a trip to the farmer’s market. Consuming 500 g (a little over a pound—yes a pound) of beets, radishes, or any leafy green vegetable, including lettuce, rocket, spinach, crown daisy, and swiss chard will provide enough nitrates for you to enjoy the benefits during your next workout. Yeah, it’s a lot of greens, but not that far from what you’ll find in many greens juices.
If you take the blood thinner warfarin should consult with their doctor before consuming high levels of some leafy greens, due to the vitamin K content.
Carb Fueling is Not Carb Loading
Carbs make us fat, right? If you eat too may of them and don’t exercise, then yes, pounding down bread, pasta, and even fruits can add up to a few extra pounds to your waistline. But that does not mean that carbs are inherently bad or even make you fat. In fact, carbs are a necessary source of energy and filled with healthy nutrients. (Don’t forget, almost all vegetables are a source of carbohydrates.)
If you like exercise or are looking to become stronger, faster, improve endurance, or even boost fat loss, than carbohydrates are an essential ingredient in your workout plan.
Carbohydrates help you perform at your best. Much like creatine, the very effective, safe, and highly researched performance enhancer, carbs provide energy for your muscles. In fact, studies have found 50 to 75 grams of carbohydrates provides a benefit similar to supplementing 5 g of creatine.
Carbohydrates, specifically sugars, are quickly absorbed by the body and cause an increase in insulin levels, an important hormone in the body that influences both muscle gain, fat loss, and physical performance. Insulin, which is released after carbohydrate consumption, improves the effects of nitric oxide and provides benefits for blood flow, much like those mentioned for nitrates.
Both of these effects contribute to peak physical performance. This is why you will oftentimes see athletes sipping on a sugary drink during their workout.
But keep in mind that carbohydrates during exercise are not for everyone. The fewer carbohydrates you consume in your regular diet, the more effective this performance enhancing effect will be.
So if you carb binge all day long, then loading up on carbs before a workout won’t have the same impact, and could even lead to fat storage simply because you’re taking in more carbs than your body needs.
In terms of types of activities, carbs are beneficial during high intensity acute training (think lifting weights) and long endurance events (such as marathon training). However, mild intensity and duration exercise can be sufficiently fueled by a small carbohydrate containing whole meal a few hours before the workout, according to research compiled by Examine.com.
How to Achieve Your Boost
Start drinking your pre-workout shake or juice about an hour before you arrive at the gym. Ideally, you’ll leave yourself half of your drink to sip on during the rest of the workout.
Your carbohydrate drink should consist of mostly glucose with a bit of fructose, but a glucose and fructose mix will also work (some people find even that mixture too sweet, and should mix in maltodextrin or another fast digesting carb).
Aim for 50 to 75 grams total, though you may need more if your workout lasts longer than 90 minutes.
A sports drink is an effective way to get these carbohydrates, and usually preferred over options like soda which, due to carbonation and acidity, which may cause your stomach to become pissed off during exercise.
Athletes should be careful to not overdo their carbohydrate consumption, particularly before a game or competition. Too many carbohydrates at once could cause temporary refractory hypoglycemia, which is characterized by a short period of low blood sugar and could hurt sports performance.
Too many carbohydrates in too little water can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort. It’s also very important to try new supplements and preworkout drinks during practice before bringing them to the big game. You don’t want to find out you’d be more comfortable with a lower dose when you’re about to step onto the field.
Remember, the benefits of carbohydrates depend a lot on your regular diet. People with high carbohydrate diets will not see as much improvement in their workout from a carbohydrate drink.
Similarly, eating a high carbohydrate meal before exercise will render a workout drink unnecessary. People that eat a low carbohydrate diet, however, will experience significant benefits.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.