Four days on the Mediterranean diet
A small study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition compared the Mediterranean diet and a typical Western diet when it comes to sports performance. Researchers from Saint Louis University recruited a group of recreationally active adults (7 women and 4 men) and instructed them to follow a Mediterranean-style diet for four days. The participants had to adhere to the following rules.
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil per day
- 3 or more servings of nuts and fruits per day
- 2 or more servings of vegetables per day
- Included fish, legumes, and red wine
- Limited meat
- Restricted sweetened beverages and bakery sweets
Athletic performance was assessed
After the initial four days, the researchers put the volunteers through several exercise trials to test different aspects of their fitness. They had to go through the following.
- 5 km treadmill run to test endurance
- Cycling sprint trials to test anaerobic fitness
- Vertical jump
Four days of a typical Western diet for comparison
When the testing was done, all participants went back to their usual diet for a washout period of 9 – 16 days. After that followed four days on a typical Western diet, which is considered quite unhealthy. They had to adjust their diet according to the following rules.
- Fewer than 2 servings of fruits and vegetables per day
- Fewer than 1 serving of nuts and legumes in four days
- Increased red and processed meat, dairy and refined grains
- Added more sugar and sodium
They ran 6% faster after the Mediterranean diet
All of the exercise trials were repeated after the Western diet phase was finished. After that, the researchers compared the numbers and found that there were no significant differences in anaerobic fitness or strength between the two diets. But the aerobic fitness test was a different story.
On average, the participants ran 1 minute and 50 seconds faster during the 5 km endurance test following the Mediterranean diet. They completed the distance in 27:09 minutes which was 6 % faster than their 28:59 time after the Western diet. This difference is even more striking considering that they had the same average heart rate of about 160 bpm and the same ratings of perceived exertion during both runs. It’s clear that this could easily translate to improved endurance on the bike as well.
The researchers speculated that the Mediterranean diet’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and dietary nitrates could be the reason for the improved endurance. They also warned that the endurance benefits were lost just as quickly when eating the unhealthy Western diet. This means that following the Mediterranean diet long-term is crucial for sustained performance benefits.
Cycling and the Mediterranean complement each other
Improved endurance is not the only reason to give the Mediterranean diet a try as a cyclist. A large review of scientific literature showed that when Mediterranean-style diets are combined with physical activity, they become a key factor in the prevention of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic respiratory diseases.