10 best natural performance enhancers

These natural foods will give your body the nutrients it needs to power your way through any workout. Sports dietitian Gabrielle Maston reports.


Animal proteins, like those in beef, contain high levels of creatine, which increases lean muscle mass and improves the work capacity of muscle. Muscle saturation of creatine takes at least 4 weeks, and is maximised if eaten with 50-100g of carbohydrates.

You can creatine load by eating 500g of beef (which contains 5g of creatine) each day for 28 days. If you don’t like red meat, you can always opt for 500g of salmon, which provides you with 4.5g of creatine.


Coffee contains caffeine, one of the most widely used ergogenic aids on and off the sporting field. Caffeine improves mental acuity and alertness. It’s most effective for precision-based or long duration sports, where both physical and mental fatigue are factors that affect performance.

Caffeine affects the central nervous system, reducing the perception of effort and helping working muscles recruit more motor units. This means it makes exercise feel easier and less painful. But to be effective, you need to time your intake right. Take a shot of espresso (75mg of caffeine) when you’re feeling fatigued for it to have the best effect on your training.

Beetroot juice

Beetroot juice can take your training to the next level. Beets contain high levels of nitrates, which widen blood vessels to allow more blood flow. This provides more oxygen to muscles during exercise, reduces lactic acid production and reduces fatigue ­­— often the limiting factor in performance. During competition, drink 70ml of pure beetroot juice 2 hours before exercise.

Cow’s milk

Milk contains two muscle-growing proteins: whey and casein. Whey in particular contains high amounts of the amino acid leucine, which switches on the genes responsible for muscle growth and repair after exercise. All you need is 600ml of milk per day to provide you with 2.7g of leucine, more than the amount you need to stimulate growth.

Chicken breast

Chicken breast contains carnosine, an amino acid that creates beta-alanine. Beta-alanine reduces acidity levels in your muscles during exercise, improving muscle fatigue resistance, which in turn improves your training capacity and performance.

Chronic loading of 3.2-6.4g of beta-alanine per day for 6-12 weeks will optimise your muscle’s carnosine stores. You can get this from eating a range of animal products throughout the day, for example, 480g of chicken contains 1g carnosine.


Gelatine or gelatin is high in amino acids, the building blocks of protein and collagen, and is good for your joints. Collagen provides elasticity and strength to soft tissues like tendons and ligaments. For athletes that experience heavy training, you know how painful overtraining can be to these areas! Now there’s a natural food ingredient to help you recover faster.

Start by mixing 15g of pure gelatine (not mixed jelly powder) with fruit juice just before your training session. It’s thought that the vitamin C in fruit and gelatine work together to improve joint mechanics and reduce joint pain in athletes.


Not just for Popeye, spinach contains antioxidants, vitamin C, folate and iron, which are essential nutrients for women who train. When women restrict their energy intake through dieting, in combination with a high exercise workload and menstruation, it can develop into iron deficiency, decreased bone density and reduced performance.

Iron is necessary for transporting oxygen in the blood to muscles, red blood cell production and for a healthy immune system. Low iron levels can affect your ability to exercise properly and can cause fatigue, the opposite of how you want to feel when you go to the gym! To get more iron from spinach, couple it with a food item high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes or fruit.

Sweet potato

Sweet potato is a low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrate. Low GI carbs have the ability to regulate blood sugar levels, control hunger and assist with weight loss. They also provide a sustained energy release, which is perfect for long training sessions. Switching your white rice (high GI) for sweet potato may help you lose weight and regulate your hunger.

Salmon & tuna

Athletes suffer from musculoskeletal injuries all the time, resulting in lost training time and missed competitions. Everyday training produces stress on the body and has high metabolic demands. Oily fish like salmon and tuna are good for your health because they’re high in omega 3 fatty acids.

Omega 3 is used for recovery, reducing metabolic stress and fatigue and improving your reaction time in sports. Aim for 1g of omega 3 per 20kg of your body weight (60kg person = 3g omega 3). You can get 1.1g of omega 3 in 100g of pink salmon.

Pickle juice

Muscle cramping can really hamper a good night’s sleep and recovery. Pickle juice has been shown to reduce muscle cramps caused by fatigue. It contains acetic acid, which is thought to change the acidity levels in the affected muscle and reduce cramping. If you suffer from muscle cramps, drink 150ml of pickle juice before exercise.