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Were you told to eat your veggies growing up? Well, it’s for a good reason. Vegetables are a major nutritional pillar, according to U.S. dietary guidelines. Studies like this one from the journal Circulation back up those recommendations by proving that eating vegetables is linked to a lower risk of early death.
When it comes to runners, the positive health benefits of vegetables are amplified. Some veggies have anti-inflammatory properties, which are helpful for reducing soreness after tough workouts. Others help fight upper respiratory problems, something we want to avoid leading up to a big race. And others lower blood pressure while improving athletic performance.
We talked to Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, about what vegetables are essential to a runner’s diet. Here are her nine definitive selections.
Why should you eat beets?
Beets are a superfood for athletes. On top of numerous vitamins and minerals, Ehsani says that beats are high in nitrates, which help blood flow.
She also says that it’s been proven through research that beets make you more efficient: “It doesn’t require as much oxygen when you are running, and it also increases the time to exhaustion.”
How can you add beets to your diet?
It can be as simple as drinking beetroot juice, adding them into a smoothie, or chopping them up into a salad.
Ehsani’s favorite way to prepare beets? “Roast them in the oven at a high temperature. It tastes really sweet.”
Why should you eat bell peppers?
Research shows that high-intensity exercise, like long-distance running, can lead to upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds. Luckily, the same research showed that vitamin C—which bell peppers are high in—helps prevent this.
Ehsani also lauds them for having plenty of antioxidants, which help prevent heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
How can you add bell peppers to your diet?
Bell peppers are great to snack on. You can cut them into slices and dip them into hummus or ranch. If you want to add them to a full meal, they make a great choice for tacos, burritos, and stir-fry dishes.
[Related: Benefits of Peppers]
Why should you eat ginger?
“Ginger is the first root veggie I think of when it comes to inflammation,” says Ehsani. For runners who are grinding miles every day, building up lactic acid in workouts, and hitting the gym to work on weak muscles, anything anti-inflammatory is a must.
Ginger also helps with stomach issues. It helps reduce nausea after a hard workout or calm your stomach after a long marathon.
How can you add ginger to your diet?
You can eat ginger raw, says Ehsani, by grating it into soup or stews. You can brew ginger chunks into a hot tea for a cold day. You can even add it to smoothies and yogurts. Because it’s sweet, a little spicy, and slightly citrusy, it goes with almost anything.
Why should you eat broccoli?
Broccoli is a classic vegetable, often a bane to children everywhere. Despite its bad reputation with kids, it’s great for runners.
Broccoli has important nutrients necessary for a well-rounded diet: Vitamin C helps the immune system, vitamin K supports strong bones, and potassium is a valuable electrolyte that needs replenishing after runs.
How can you add broccoli to your diet?
“It’s just a really great veggie to incorporate and have on deck,” says Ehsani. She likes to eat it raw with some dip or in a salad, but also recommends roasting it for a stir fry or rice pilaf.
[Related: Hate Broccoli? Your DNA May Be to Blame]
Why should you eat garlic?
Garlic is chock full of great compounds that have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-fungal properties, so it’s well equipped to fight for your immune system. Whenever a runner feels the onset of sickness, Ehsani recommends garlic straightaway.
How do you add garlic to your diet?
Garlic is a great addition to a multitude of dishes. You can sprinkle chopped garlic onto avocado toast or throw it into an omelette for breakfast. You can sauté it for lunch soups or salads. You can make garlic bread as a side with dinner.
“It’s a unique veggie that people don’t think about that has great benefits,” Ehsani says.
Why should you eat potatoes?
Carbs, carbs, carbs.
If you run every day, you need carbohydrates for energy. Potatoes are an excellent source, and luckily, they have even more to offer.
“Runners always think about, ‘oh, I’ve got to eat a banana [for potassium],’” says Ehsani. “But you can get [potassium] from potatoes too.”
How can you add potatoes to your diet?
There are tons of ways to use potatoes. You can roast them, bake them, mash them, make them into fries or hash browns, add them to soups and chilis, and the list goes on! There’s no shortage of ways to enjoy a potato, so find the way you like and add them to your rotation.
[Related: Are Potatoes Good for You?]
Why should you eat spinach?
Spinach is loaded with vitamins and minerals, specifically the ever-important iron.
“Runners are more susceptible to having lower iron stores,” she says. “So it’s really important they have good sources of iron each week.”
Ehsani warns that while animal sources of iron are better absorbed by the body, spinach can easily do the trick as long as you pair the leafy green with a good source of vitamin C.
How can you add spinach to your diet?
Making a simple salad that pairs spinach with tomatoes or bell peppers that have a lot of vitamin C will help you reap the iron benefits.
Spinach is also easy to add to a sandwich, wrap, or smoothie. In fact, you can add it to almost any dish. Ehsani just recommends that, if you’re going to cook it, don’t overdo it or the spinach will sweat out important nutrients.
Why should you eat tomatoes?
Tomatoes are high in vitamin C and potassium, and also have some vitamin K. But their most unique benefit comes when they’re cooked.
“Lycopene get pulled out,” says Ehsani. Lycopene is an antioxidant that helps with bone and oral health. It also helps with blood pressure and reduces risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
How can you add tomatoes to your diet?
Tomatoes can be made into sauces for pasta, slices for sandwiches, cubes for salads, or tossed into stews. You can even simply sprinkle salt and drizzle olive oil on a slice for a tasty snack.
[Related: The Easiest Homemade Tomato Sauce Ever]
Why should you eat mushrooms?
Mushrooms are the main sources of vitamin D in the produce aisle. “It’s mainly found in dairy products,” Ehsani says, and fish. So if you can’t eat dairy or don’t like fish, then mushrooms are vital.
Vitamin D is important for many things, like calcium absorption, proper immune function, and general bone, heart, and muscle health. You get vitamin D naturally from the sun, but in the winter months or in colder, cloudier climates, you’ll need to consume more of it.
How can you add mushrooms to your diet?
Mushrooms have an almost meaty flavor, so they make a good substitute for foods like ground beef or turkey. Like many other veggies on this list, you can roast or sauté them too.
Vegetables are good for you, so they need a place in your diet. If you find that you aren’t having enough or if you gag at the sight of anything green, Ehsani has some sound advice.
“Try them in a variety of different ways,” she says. “Maybe you try it roasted one day, maybe you try it grilled … You don’t have to be eating them raw in a salad because that’s boring, or you don’t have to just steam your veggies.”
Do you love having eggs for breakfast? Great! Try throwing a little spinach in there. It’s all about finding creative ways to incorporate more veggies into your daily routine.
“You don’t have to cut anything out of your diet,” Ehsani says. “We just want you to try to add a little bit more veggies.”
[Related: Best Vegetables for Your Immune System]