Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Produced in collaboration with Vega.
It’s common to think a hard workout calls for a hearty serving of animal protein afterward. But plant-based sources of protein and other nutrients, the often-unsung heroes of the athlete’s plate, can be just as effective at repairing muscle tissue and building strength post-workout.
These eight muscle-building veggies will help you maximize your energy mid-workout, reduce recovery time, achieve strength gains and improve body composition.
What: Branched-chain amino acids, glutamine
Why: Yellow and split peas offer not only a source of easily digested plant protein, but also contain specific muscle-building amino acids (in particular, branched-chain amino acids and glutamine) that stimulate protein synthesis post-workout.
How: Recover post-workout with a plant-based protein powder that uses a multi-source blend including pea protein, or add split peas to homemade chili, stir-fry or stew.
2. Beets and Beet Greens
What: Dietary nitrates, antioxidants
Why: In conditions of low oxygen availability such as intense exercise, dietary nitrates like those in beets are converted to nitric oxide, which enhances vascular function.1 This increases your tolerance of strenuous exercise and can help you train harder, for greater strength gains. Beet greens are also rich in vitamin A and C, both powerful antioxidants.
How: Use grated beets as a hearty salad garnish, or try adding between a quarter cup and a half cup of diced raw beets to a smoothie. Beets pair well with chocolate protein powders and frozen berries. Try it (along with the beet greens!) in this Whole Beet Smoothie.
Why: While we might not think of our leafy greens as a rich source of protein, spinach is a good source of the amino acid arginine. Arginine stimulates the pituitary gland to produce and secrete human growth hormone, which in turn increases metabolism.2
How: Create a meal with 25 grams of complete protein by lightly sautéing in coconut oil one cup each of: cooked grains (such as quinoa or brown rice), cooked legumes (such as lentils or black beans) and fresh spinach. Toss in your favorite herbs (see #7) or spices to season. Serve in a bowl and garnish with sliced avocado or olives.
What: Chlorella growth factor (CGF)
Why: Grown in pristine freshwater ponds on Japanese coral islands, chlorella is a dark-green microalgae. Chlorella growth factor (CGF), a compound unique to chlorella, contains amino acids, vitamins and nucleic acids, which benefit cellular regeneration. Chlorella also contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.
How: Easily disguise it in blended smoothies (add up to one teaspoon), or try it in this Matcha Green Tea lemonade for a hydrating and energizing boost, great during patio season.
What: Amino acids used in metabolism
Why: Spirulina is a blue-green algae that contains amino acids (including arginine) and vitamin B6, required for the metabolism of carbs, proteins and fats.3 Additionally, B6 aids the conversion of amino acids into forms useable by the body, making it a valuable nutrient for any athlete with a higher-protein diet.
How: Rotate into your diet alongside chlorella, using the two algaes interchangeably.
6. Microgreens and Sprouts
What: Anti-inflammatory phytonutrients
Why: Rich in digestion-supporting enzymes, sprouts are especially helpful for absorbing the amino acids from the protein in your diet. Additionally, sprouts contain many recovery-enhancing phytonutrients, such as sulforaphane and glucoraphanin, found in broccoli sprouts, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.4
How: Add sprouts to wraps, sandwiches and burgers.
7. Herbs: Parsley, Chives and Leeks
Why: Herbs such as parsley, chives and leeks not only add flavor to your meals, but also boost the amount of lysine in your diet. Lysine is an amino acid that helps support the growth of connective tissues found in your tendons and cartilage.5 This helps your joints recover well from heavy lifting or high-impact workouts.
How: Garnish your meals with diced parsley or chives, and add leeks to sautéed vegetable dishes.
8. Barley Grass and Wheat Grass
What: Carotenoids, minerals
Why: These edible grasses contain a mix of carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that reduce cellular aging and keep your tissues healthy. They also both contain minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium, which play a crucial role in muscle function and the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to working muscles. This benefits your stamina mid-workout for improved strength gains.
How: Boost your smoothies with a shot of fresh, frozen or dried wheat grass, or barley-grass juice.
Incorporating these foods in your diet doesn’t have to be intimidating. For efficiency, many can be combined in a single meal, like a salad, smoothie or wrap. Aim to cycle through the foods on this list each week, having at least one daily.
Emma Andrews is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, certified in Plant Based Cooking, and National Educator at Vega. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Emma is an avid endurance runner and cross-training addict who works with athletes (from the everyday to the elite) in optimizing their energy, longevity and sport performance through natural foods and plant-based supplements. Learn more about her work at myvega.com/team/emma-andrews-rhn/ or connect with her on social @emmamazing_life
1. Jones AM. Dietary Nitrate Supplementation and Exercise Performance. Journal of Sports Medicine. 2014; 44 (Suppl 1): 35-45. Published May 3, 2014. Accessed online Sept 1st 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008816
2. Haas EM. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. 21st Century Edition. Ten Speed Press.
3. Kalafati M et al. (2010). Ergogenic and Antioxidant Effects of Spirulina Supplementation in Humans. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 42(1):142-151
4. Alternative Medicine Review. (2010). Sulforaphone Glucosinolate Monograph. Alternative Medicine Review: A Journal of Clinical Therapeutics,. P. 352-357
5. Haas EM. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. 21st Century Edition. Ten Speed Press.