Apparently, Popeye and your mom were right—spinach really can make your muscles pop. A recent study confirmed that cyclists who took nitrates during sprint interval training improved overall performance, even at elevation. And more research has shown how nitrates, a naturally occurring component in foods like beets and kale, can help lower blood pressure, improve circulation, and boost your cardiovascular health. Keep in mind, a few sips of veggie juice won’t transform a couch potato into a marathon crusher. But for competitive cyclists, runners, and other endurance athletes, nitrates could help shave seconds off your race time.
“I absolutely recommend nitrates for endurance athletes, during training and competition,” says John Ivy, Ph.D., expert in exercise physiology, and author of Nutrient Timing. “Taking the right amount at the right time can improve performance. Nitrates increase blood flow to active muscles, delivering more oxygen and nutrients, while sweeping away waste, like CO2 and lactate. You’ll be able to work more efficiently, and require less oxygen, so you can train harder and longer.”
Most athletes and studies rely on supplements, to make sure they’re hitting exact quantities. But you might be able to get similar benefits from natural sources! Beets, kale, chard, spinach, celery, and other leafy greens are all high in nitrates. Ivy points out that levels may vary, depending on the soil a vegetable was grown in, and a few other conditions. But he estimates 250 to 350 mg of nitrate in 100 g of these vegetables. For athletes, he recommends 450 to 500 mg of nitrates, about 2.5 hours before an intense workout. That could look like 1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) of raw beet juice in your smoothie, or 1 cup (6 oz/185 g) of cooked spinach with your scrambled eggs.
But any greens are better than no greens, so you don’t have to get hung up on the grams. “Even if you’re not in training, aside from the performance benefits, there are lots of great health reasons to eat vegetables high in nitrates,” Ivy emphasizes. So eat up! It’ll make you feel strong. Here are five delicious ways to dig into those greens.
Sip on beet smoothies and green smoothies, which are bursting with benefits for your heart. You can roast beets, peel them, and store them in the fridge for up to a week, or use raw beet juice as your liquid. Or grab a big handful of spinach or kale leaves, to throw in with your banana and berries.
Baby arugula, spinach, and kale are the base for killer salads. Mature kale leaves are also delicious, you just want to massage or marinate the leaves a little bit, to help tame that fierce texture. Get hippie with chickpeas and avocado, or toss with turkey and grains for sustenance.
It couldn’t be easier to slip torn kale, chard, or spinach leaves into soups, during the last few minutes of cooking. They can simmer right along with beans, grains, chicken, or whole-wheat noodles. Same deal with braises—you can crack open your Dutch oven or slow cooker toward the end of cooking, and jam some greens directly into the sauce, to get plump and juicy.
Greens are a great companion to whatever you’ve got cooking for dinner, from roast chicken to pasta. Dump a big pile of leaves in a skillet, let it sink down for a few minutes, then season it up, for a side dish worth getting excited about. Quality extra-virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, good grind of pepper, and big squeeze of fresh lemon make all the difference. Add dimension with minced garlic, diced tomatoes, and a pinch of red chile flakes. Or go a new direction with grated ginger, garam masala, and a splash of coconut milk.
Have you ever drizzled kale leaves with olive oil, sprinkled lightly with salt and pepper, and roasted until crackling? If not, please step this way. Crispy, crunchy veggie chips are the solution to all of your snack cravings.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.