It has been proven that the Mediterranean diet of our ancestors, has a number of health benefits, and Saint Louis University (SLU) has proved there are even benefits for getting the most out of your fitness training.

A study led by Professor of nutrition and dietetics Edward Weiss has confirmed that less than a week on the Mediterranean diet can improve endurance exercise performance.

The results, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, revealed that certain foods in the diet are full of compounds that are linked to improved athletic performance.

“For example, dietary nitrates increase exercise performance in a single dose, and alkalinity from dietary alterations improves exercise performance as quickly as it changes urine pH — that is, within days,” Professor Weiss said.

The study involved 11 participants – fit men and women in their late 20s – who were place on either the Mediterranean diet (whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and whole grains; avoidance of red and processed meats, dairy, trans and saturated fats and refined sugars) or a standard Western diet (low in fruit, vegetables and minimally processed oils; high in saturated fat, dairy, refined sugar, highly processed oils, sodium and processed food). After four days, they underwent a round of exercise tests including a five kilometre timed treadmill run, short yet intense cycling, vertical jumps, and hand grip strength test.

Participants then took a break from the experiment for approximately a week, and swapped diets for another four days and then underwent another round of the same exercise tests.

The results were clear: participants finished the five kilometre run six per cent faster on average after four days on the Mediterranean diet, despite similar heart rates and ratings of perceived exertion. However it is not exactly clear why there was no difference in their other test results.

One possibility is that foods in the Mediterranean diet acts on pathways that in the short-term benefit aerobic rather than anaerobic exercise.

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Professor Weiss said the next step is to determine if long-term consumption of the Mediterranean diet would have even greater benefits, which he suspects it would.

“If nothing else, the acute effects would allow for greater training loads which would be expected to lead to greater long-term training adaptations,” he said.

Professor Weiss and the research team noted that participants’ regular diets generally leaned more towards the Western diet. One of the challenges during the course of the study was to ensure that those on the Mediterranean diet did in fact consume the required amount of fruit and vegetables, which is a higher dose than generally consumed.