Fall is prime harvest season. Dishes take on a comfort-food feel, your local farmers’ market carries the year’s best bounty, and the produce packs in vitamins and minerals. While we love the season’s classic flavors and ingredients, try adding these lower-profile but equally performance-enhancing alternatives to your meals.
The alleged benefits of beet juice are many: improved stamina, better blood flow, lower blood pressure, and increased speed and endurance. But the whole-food form can be useful to athletes as well. “Eating high-fiber root vegetables like beets at least an hour after a workout or the night before a morning workout provides a wide range of nutrients, complex carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores, and necessary roughage to keep the GI tract running smoothly,” says Mindy Haar, assistant dean of undergraduate affairs at the New York Institute of Technology School of Health Professions. Roast beets as an easy side dish, or pair them with goat cheese for a nutritious autumn salad.
“Cranberries contain unique plant nutrients called proanthocyanidins (PACs) that can help improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure,” says Jenna A. Bell, co-author of Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Lifestyle. The berries reduce inflammation—the reason your legs feel so sore after tough workouts—which expedites recovery and reinforces your immune system during especially tough training blocks. Throw some unsweetened cranberry juice into your morning smoothie, or spread homemade cranberry sauce on a turkey sandwich.
Your grandma was on to something: Cabbage provides a much-needed and all-natural way to keep your gut clean. “A healthy gut limits inflammation, so the athlete can recover quickly,” says Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet book series. Plus, with many cabbage varieties to choose from—green, red, bok choy, Chinese, and more—there’s no shortage of flavor-packed and hearty ways to cook it.
Although they don’t enjoy the popularity of fall fruits like peaches or pears, persimmons work well in both savory and sweet dishes or as a stand-alone snack. It’s high in vitamin C, which athletes tend to lack during exceptionally strenuous periods of training, and the mineral manganese. “Manganese helps to metabolize glucose for energy, which athletes want to make sure they have plenty of before and during a performance or workout,” says Vanessa Carr, clinical nutrition manager at Kate Farms. “It aids in protein metabolism as well as supports preservation and maintenance of lean body mass or muscle mass.”
“Parsnips look like white carrots,” says Haar. Peel them as you would an orange carrot, then add them to a vegetable soup, or roast them as a side dish. In addition to being rich in manganese, the potato-like vegetable is rich in both fiber and folate—crucial for protein synthesis and tissue repair and something female diets often lack.
This potent flavor enhancer doubles as a nutritional powerhouse. “Garlic has been shown to temper inflammation and expedite post-exercise recovery,” in addition to bolstering your immune system to avoid taper-week illness, says Julie Upton, co-founder of Appetite for Health.
Perfect for energy on long runs, dates are also loaded with potassium, fiber, calcium, iron, and magnesium—the ultimate nutrient combo for endurance athletes. Chopped up, they’re an easy oatmeal topper, but you could also put dates on whole-grain toast with a drizzle of olive oil, or eat them straight mid-race, sprinkled with a little salt.
Whatever you call it—celery root, knob celery, or celeriac—it’s a damn good idea to load up on the stuff. “No one really thinks of celery root when they think of performance-forward fall foods, but it’s an excellent source of complex carbohydrates that are actually prebiotics as well,” says Elizabeth Trattner, doctor of oriental medicine and acupuncture. Bonus: “Celery root is loaded with fiber, which keeps blood sugar levels stable after a taxing workout.”
These purple grapes are harvested only in the fall, and their deep, rich hue marks the presence of many beneficial polyphenols—the same sort of antioxidants found in red wine. “Unlike other types of grapes, the thick deep-purple skin and crunchy seeds of Concord grapes are concentrated sources of beneficial polyphenols for heart health and proper circulatory function,” says Upton. A half-cup gives you a hefty serving of manganese, vitamin K, potassium, certain B vitamins, and vitamin C.