For athletes, diet is hugely important. They need enough of the right nutrients to fuel their workouts and performance while also aiding recovery and allowing their muscles to build and repair. Getting enough of those nutrients means finding a good balance—a good balance of protein and carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and plenty of antioxidants.
As it turns out, Spirulina is full of all the good things, and science has more recently come to tout its benefits for athletes in particular.
First, let’s refresh: What is Spirulina?
Spirulina is a single-celled microalgae that grows in both salt and fresh water and produces its own energy through photosynthesis. It’s got huge amounts of protein and vitamins, with just one tablespoon of Spirulina powder having 4g of protein and offering an abundance of iron, calcium, and potassium—not to mention antioxidants galore and plenty of riboflavin, thiamin, copper, niacin, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E, and B as well. In fact, Spirulina is one of the few plant-based complete proteins, being 55-70 percent protein, including all nine amino acids in proteins that our body doesn’t produce on its own. All nutrients combined, you can see why it gets its “superfood” title.
Why is it good for athletes?
High protein = high energy
Because of Spirulina’s high-protein content, the algae is a fantastically lean source of long-lasting energy, and as research has shown, it can help increase muscle strength, prevent muscular damage, and improve stamina overall—musts for performance athletes.
When comparing Spirulina to other good sources of complete protein, such as beef and eggs, Spirulina outshines them by leaps and bounds. Beef, for instance, is only about 25 percent protein, and eggs come in at 13 percent. In that comparison, Spirulina’s 55-70 percent takes the cake by a landslide. But even beyond its straight high protein content, the algae has a large number of amino acids that are specifically good for maintaining and even growing muscle mass, namely valine, leucine, isoleucine, and methionine.
On top of all of the dietary benefits, Spirulina is also incredibly easy to digest, because there is no cell membrane in the algae, and therefore our bodies don’t have an additional barrier to break down. Measurably, the Net Protein Use (NPU) of Spirulina is roughly 52 percent. By comparison, the NPUs of lentils, beef, and cow’s milk—which all involve a cell membrane breakdown—is 30 percent, 15 percent, and 12 percent, respectively.
Strong aid for cellular respiration and endurance
Athletes rely on strong cellular respiration—the flow of oxygen to cells and the removal of carbon dioxide away from them. The hemoglobin protein in our blood cells is a major player in this process, and iron is a key component in hemoglobin. However, athletes, and particularly female athletes, tend to be iron deficient, which means they don’t get enough of the blood proteins necessary for keeping their cells properly oxygenated and as a result run the risk of having poorer athletic performance. Thankfully, Spirulina has plenty of iron— with some suggestions that it contains as much as three times the amount in spinach—to help offset deficiencies.
Antioxidants for anti-inflammation
In addition to iron, Spirulina also has a pigment called phycocyanin. Structured very similarly to hemoglobin, phycocyanin packs a powerful antioxidant punch, helping shield our cells from oxidative damage and providing anti-inflammatory reprieve. With plenty of physical stress endured regularly, inflammation is both part and parcel of an athlete’s life and something to be prevented as much as possible. Getting extra anti-inflammatory pushes from Spirulina can go a long way.
Improved endurance, decreased inflammation, more energy
Between ramping up energy and making people slower to fatigue, coupled with protecting your muscles from oxidative stress and inflammation and providing a strong iron supplement, the case for Spirulina’s use within athletes makes itself. In general, notes one dietician, Spirulina is really a “systematic health enhancement,” offering sweeping improvement for one’s overall health. Great for everyone, it’s especially good for athletes who need their bodies at their healthiest to compete at the highest level.
Don’t take our word for it though! We’ll leave the last word on this to Casey Patterson, Olympic beach volleyball player, and 15-time AVP Champion. “As an elite athlete who competes in a sport where money is only earned and not guaranteed, I have to keep my body performing at optimal levels every day. Spirulina is a huge benefit to me when it comes to fighting off inflammation. I am training 5-6 hours a day and my body takes a beating. Controlling inflammation is a huge focus especially at age 40. Then, of course, muscle repair and protein benefits make Spirulina a no brainer. It’s the superfood that actually lives up to its name. The fact that it tastes amazing is almost a bad thing because my kids are eating up all of mine.”