For many people almonds are a go-to healthy snack, but they aren’t typically used as a performance enhancer. A recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition contended that this omission may be a mistake.
Almonds are a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, some B vitamins, magnesium, and manganese. They also contain healthy fats, protein, and fiber. In particular, almonds are high in the amino acid arginine, which is a precursor to nitric oxide. The combination of these nutrients means almonds have a strong potential to be beneficial for athletes.
For four weeks, each person in the study consumed 75g of almonds (about half a cup, or about 430 calories worth). For the next four weeks, they ate cookies. Before and after each phase of almond or cookie eating, the participants were tested on their endurance over about two hours, including a twenty-minute time trial on a stationary bike. The participants were all professional athletes, either cyclists or triathletes, so the results were not due to them simply getting better at the tests as they trained.
In studies like this one, the food being investigated is sometimes tested against another food as a control. If the control group ate nothing, it might be possible to explain the boost in performance by higher calorie consumtion. For this reason, the researchers ensured the cookies eaten in the control group had the same amount of calories as the almonds.
I would have liked like to have seen the almonds compared to other foods that had the same calories, but were perhaps protein- or fat-based. There is reason to believe that protein itself might improve performance. As such, this study would only tell us what almonds might do to enhance performance compared to carbs, not other proteins.
According to the study, almonds are, in fact, better than cookies as a performance enhancer. Over the twenty-minute time trial, the athletes were able to go almost 2km further on average after eating almonds for the four weeks, as compared to the cookies.
When eating the almonds, the athletes actually burned more carbohydrate as fuel for the cycling tests than they did when eating cookies. They also burned less fat and consumed less oxygen. The oxygen consumption may have been responsible for the difference in performance over twenty minutes, as it would indicate they required less energy to perform. There was no significant difference in heart rate between the two groups.
The researchers noted that one potential explanation for the difference in performance and oxygen use could be the antioxidants found in almonds. Antioxidant levels were higher after eating the almonds for four weeks. It’s hard to be certain what this means, however. More antioxidants may have increased tolerance to exercise, but it’s also possible whatever caused the increase in performance also reduced the need for antioxidants, resulting in higher levels.
Whatever the reason, it seems beneficial to add almonds to your diet. They may possess unique properties that will increase your endurance performance. Even better, they taste great and are better for you than cookies.
1. Muqing Yi, et. al., “The effect of almond consumption on elements of endurance exercise performance in trained athletes,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:18.
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