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Can eating hot peppers improve endurance performance?

Studies show capsaicin, the compound found in hot peppers, may help you become a better runner

If you enjoy dousing your burrito in hot sauce or throwing a few extra jalapenos onto your sub, your penchant for a little heat may be giving you a boost on race day. A recent systematic review of research concluded that capsaicinoids, the compounds responsible for giving spicy foods their kick, improve performance during exercise.

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How does capsaicin help improve endurance?

Numerous studies have shown that capsaicin has analgesic (pain relief), anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, among many other benefits. The compound also upregulates PGC-1α (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ coactivator-1α) in skeletal muscles, which has been shown to improve endurance performance, and this study demonstrated that capsaicin also has anti-fatigue effects, which allows you to run longer without tiring.

Of course, chili peppers don’t actually make you less tired, but they change your perception of fatigue. When you eat a hot pepper, the capsaicin activates receptors in your mouth, stomach and blood, called TRPV1 receptors, which detect and regulate your body temperature. The more capsaicin you eat, the more desensitized your pain nerve cells become to the heat, but you’ll also become less sensitive to other types of pain, like exercise fatigue.

The review

The researchers reviewed 14 studies, eight of which were conducted on humans. Of those eight studies, three demonstrated “significant acute endurance benefits” and two showed “acute resistance exercise performance benefits.” The researchers concluded:

“Therefore, while more mechanistic studies are necessary to confirm these outcomes in humans, the available scientific literature appears to suggest that these compounds could be considered as a potential new nutritional strategy to improve exercise performance.”

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So if you already love spicy food, continue enjoying a little spice in your life and reap the endurance benefits. If not, perhaps it’s time to try gradually upping your spice tolerance. You never know — adding some kick to your meals may just help you shave a few more seconds off of your PB.