The mid-summer months of July and August bring a plethora of healthy, juicy berries to the table. They are easily found at local farmer’s markets and in grocery store aisles this time of year when they are ripest and in season (and at their lowest price, too!)
My advice to all clients is to consume plenty of produce rich in antioxidants like blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, and even some less-popular ones like huckleberries, gooseberries and salmonberries. Like any healthy diet plan, getting a variety of these types of foods is key to getting a vast array of different vitamins and minerals.
But for endurance athletes in particular, my top recommendation is to get a daily dose of blueberries onto their plates.
As we all know, strenuous exercise leads to micro-tears in the muscles, which results in soreness and fatigue. Part of this process is driven by localized inflammation and oxidative stress in the muscle tissue. But, promising new studies with athletes are showing that blueberries play a role in reducing the damage that occurs at the molecular level, minimizing soreness and ultimately accelerating muscle recovery and boosting overall performance.
Comprised of about 85% water, blueberries pack a potent punch of hydration with each bite, which is a big plus for all the heavy sweat sessions that come with the summer season. This small but mighty fruit is a powerful source of both Vitamin K and Manganese. Vitamin K plays a key role in building strong bones, and is protective of a healthy heart, while Manganese helps the body form connective tissue and bones, and plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption, and blood sugar regulation. In addition, Manganese is also necessary for normal brain and nerve function.
If you’re an athlete who is also watching your weight, these little fruits are a great choice, since they’re very nutrient-dense, meaning that they pack in a lot of nutrition for a small number of calories. They are also relatively low in sugar compared to other fruits, and they have a high fiber content, which helps to keep your blood sugar and insulin levels steady. With balanced blood sugar and insulin, those looking to lose or maintain their weight can avoid mindless snacking and cravings, because they will have an enhanced ability to stay satiated between meals.
In addition, new research studies are showing that eating blueberries is connected with enhanced cognition and brain-boosting benefits. The flavonoids present in blueberries have been linked to improved mental performance, as well as show promise of helping to reduce stress of our neurons. This is important, since endurance athletic endeavors require a large amount of sustained mental energy and focus.
Want to know an extra bonus of berries? It’s important to note that as endurance athletes, we’re exposed to more hours of intense, direct sunlight during our summer training, due to the longer periods of daylight. While this could be damaging to our bodies, the good news is that the antioxidants you eat in berries can help to offset much of the free radical damage you might get from excess sun exposure.
Antioxidants are important because they protect our bodies from damage by free radicals (unstable molecules that can damage cellular structures and contribute to aging and diseases like cancer).
Of all the commonly-consumed fruits and vegetables, blueberries are believed to contain one of the highest antioxidant capacities. The main antioxidant compounds in blueberries belong to a large family of polyphenols called “flavonoids,” and one group of flavonoids that are specifically linked to positive health effects are called “anthocyanins.” These have been shown to directly increase the amount and activity levels of antioxidants in the body, which are beneficial for athletes who constantly push their bodies and create free radical damage on a daily basis.
Thankfully, blueberries can be easily incorporated into your daily meal plans. For example, you can throw a few handfuls into a smoothie or yogurt bowl, or use them as a topping for oatmeal or (healthy) granola or pancakes. Of course, they can also simply be eaten by the handful as a snack, accompanied by a serving or two of raw nuts/seeds.
With so many physical and mental benefits – from the muscles, to the heart, to an athlete’s cognitive state of mind – making blueberries a part of your diet this summer should be a no-brainer!