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Gift ideas for the serious athlete on your holiday shopping list

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings dietitian Lisa McDowell has a passion for fresh, functional food and enjoys sharing her knowledge with athletes to improve performance. McDowell applies the science behind sports nutrition and translates rigorous scientific research to food and meal planning for the Red Wings. Read more in this month's Priority Health Wellness Blog below. TO VISIT THE PRIORITY HEALTH MONTHLY DIGITAL MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE.

Holiday shopping can be challenging enough, even for those you know well. But when there is a serious athlete on your list, finding the perfect gift can be downright perplexing. You know the type – they skip dessert, have the willpower to say no to seconds and even turn down midnight karaoke so they can get a couple hours more sleep before their early morning yoga class. They carry a water bottle wherever they go, and bring avocados and veggies to potluck celebrations. Maybe it’s your spouse who is a marathoner, or a tri-athlete, or maybe it's your niece who is on a college volleyball team. Regardless, finding just the right gift for serious athletes can be challenging.

So to help, I have put together a list of my Top-10 holiday gift ideas for the serious athlete on your list:

1.Matcha Tea – There is a long list of health benefits that come from drinking tea – in particular, green tea. I like organic Matcha Tea but also enjoy many others. Look for teas without artificial ingredients and sweeteners.

Why it works: Matcha comes from the same tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, but is covered before picking to accentuate the bright green color and antioxidant content. One cup of Matcha tea provides five times as many antioxidants as any other food. Antioxidants help protect the athlete from cellular damage. Green teas contain epigallocatechin gallate (EGCg) – a special catechin known for its strong cancer-fighting properties. Matcha contains 100 more times EGCg than any other tea. Matcha also contains the amino acid, L-Theanine, which helps promote better concentration without the jitters. Matcha also helps the body mobilize fat for fuel, thus preserving precious glycogen stores.

2.Dark Chocolate – You can't go wrong with this delicious gift! Dark chocolate is rich in healthy flavonols, which open blood vessels for better blood flow to the muscles and brain. Avoid buying dark chocolate with sugar content above 10 grams per serving. Sugar should be the last ingredient on the label – never the first ingredient. Cheaper brands of chocolate add sugar and other ingredients like palm kernel oil. Also, make sure your bar has at least 70% cacao. Avoid manufactured alkalized cocoa. Remember to keep portion sizes to 1-2 ounces per day and be mindful of the extra calories being consumed.

My favorites include:

Why it works: Cacao fruit (the pods/beans used to make cocoa) is rich in theobromine which improves mental alertness and helps fight fatigue. Cacao also contains tryptophan which helps make the calming brain chemical, serotonin, so you feel a sense of relaxed energy combined with a great mood. The flavonoids help optimize blood flow which translates to better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. This results in lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Dark chocolate has also been found to reduce markers of inflammation during strenuous exercise.

3.Run Gum – Run Gum is the perfect product for the athletes who need a boost at mile 22 of a marathon, but don't want to consume nutrients that might upset their GI tracts. Run Gum provides fast-absorbing caffeine, B vitamins and taurine. There is no digestion or wait time needed. The ingredients are absorbed through your cheeks and gums for that extra boost to fight fatigue.

Why it works: Caffeine reduces physical fatigue and increases mental alertness. Caffeine helps to mobilize fat stores for fuel and encourages muscles to use the fat instead of precious glycogen. As long as glycogen is available, working muscles can use fat for fuel. Caffeine has been shown to spare muscle glycogen by as much as 50 percent. Ultimately, this means your athlete will be able to train longer before exhaustion occurs.

4.Generation UCAN – UCAN drink mixes are a perfect gift for the endurance athlete. UCAN is not a supplement, but a food. In fact, UCAN is a SuperStarch drink that helps control blood sugar with no insulin surge.

Why it works: This drink improves metabolic efficiency by allowing your body to use more fat for fuel, thus preserving glycogen stores. Blood glucose levels remain steady, preventing early spikes or late dips. This allows for extended energy without feeling the need to frequently refuel.

5. Cold-pressed juices gift certificate – Because you feel alive when you consume food that is alive and full of nutrients! Refresh with the pure ingredients of cold-pressed juices. Cold-pressing means the juice retains its maximum amount of nutrients giving your body instant access to what has been depleted. For many of us, it is not easy to eat three pounds of greens – and the corresponding nutrients that go along with that - but adding this amount to juice is possible. The simple pure taste also helps retrain your taste buds to decrease the desire for processed foods and added sugars. Many local stores and restaurants offer fresh, cold-pressed juice. My favorites are from Creative Juice, Drought and Urge. I like to use shots of Beet Boost before a long run and then enjoy a shot of turmeric/ginger for recovery. Look for perishable juice that was made fresh the same day you will drink it. Enjoy delicious blends with cacao nibs, shiso leaves, kale and pears. Food and drink that is great for you should also be appealing. Be mindful to integrate the calories into your day. And remember, drinking an occasional juice does not replace the need to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

Why it works: Selecting key ingredients benefits performance and recovery. For example, a shot of ginger and turmeric reduces inflammation and helps build your immune system. Other ingredients like beetroot juice increase blood flow and lower blood pressure. Beets are very high in betaine, which is a methylator that helps boost testosterone levels. Beet juice also contains high levels of healthy dietary nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in our blood, ultimately leading to better oxygen delivery to our hard-working and recovering muscles. Tart cherry juice shots also reduce inflammation and provide a natural form of melatonin, which can lead to better sleep.

6.A consultation with a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics – Look for the credentials RD and CSSD. A sport RD can enhance performance by providing meal plans which incorporate key functional ingredients and appropriate meal timing. A sport RD also can provide grocery shopping lists, a great recovery plan, recipes, hydration goals, electrolyte needs, lab interpretation and recommendations for micro and macronutrients. In addition, the RD can assist with offseason periodization, competition-day strategies, guidelines for healing injuries and education for those needing help with medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, anemia, allergies and gastrointestinal problems.

Why it works: Ignorance is not bliss! Optimal performance results from having a plan and implementing sound nutrition principles. We love to share all the secrets of success.

7.A laboratory draw and evaluation – While this may seem extravagant, the information obtained from a sports performance blood panel can mean the difference in achieving performance goals. For the serious athlete looking for peak performance, we know various blood value results can impact how well you perform. For example, athletes with a low serum Vitamin D are at higher risk for a bone fracture. And athletes with low serum ferritin or iron levels struggle with fatigue. Athletes may look healthy on the outside but their appearance could be misleading. If an athletic panel is not covered by your athlete's primary care insurance, then I recommend a gift card from one of the following companies:

  • Inside Tracker – offers a performance package that analyzes 20 biomarkers in the blood that can be modulated by simple lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and supplementation. Check out their panels here:
  • Wellness FX – similar to Inside Tracker with various panels to choose from. Their lab packages can be found here:

Why it works: As the saying goes, nobody is perfect. This is true for lab values. While normal ranges may apply to the general population to prevent deficiencies, certain lab values have optimal ranges for those looking to perform at a high level. For example, a professional running back unable to gain muscle mass may not know he has a problem with low testosterone. Knowing your numbers takes the guess work out of the equation.

8.A recipe book geared toward athletes and their specific nutritional needs – Athletes require a sound nutritional approach in fueling their bodies during training and competition. Here are some of my favorite books, which would make perfect gifts for a serious athlete:

Why it works: Athletes who know how to cook and understand the basic skills in the kitchen are able to create meal plans to fuel their sport. Many athletes who rely on takeout often find the food contains too much salt, sugar and fat for their training needs.

9.Healthy homemade energy bars – Instead of cookies, brownies or cakes, try a healthy energy bar recipe and place the treats in a beautiful BPA-free container that can be kept in the freezer. These bars are delicious, functional and require no baking! We always have these available for our team because so many athletes get taste fatigue from commercial energy bars. These can be customized to your athlete's favorite ingredients.

  • 2 cups oats
  • 1/3 cup dried tart cherries
  • ½ cup all-natural peanut butter or almond butter
  • 3 tablespoons Manuka honey
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 oz. dark chocolate or cocoa nibs
Optional Ingredients:
  • Protein powder of choice (NSF-certified only)
  • Chia seeds
  • Pepitas
  • Maple syrup
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruits
  • Toasted coconut
  • Ground flax
  1. Mix ingredients together in a bowl.
  2. Fill cups and freeze for 30 minutes.

Why it works: Functional ingredients provide optimal fuel which allows your athlete to work out harder. Gains are made during training sessions, and the faster you can recover from a hard session, the stronger you will be the next day. These portable and tasty energy bars provide the right mix of fuel to help rebuild stronger muscles. Your athlete will think of you when he or she grabs one from the freezer to fuel a long run, ride or swim.

10. Gift card to your favorite produce store – Everyone loves to check out new markets. You can't be successful in implementing your meal plan without actually purchasing the ingredients. My favorite local five include Cantoros Italian Market, The Farm at St. Joe's Farmer's Market, Whole Foods, Costco and Papa Joes. For those too busy to shop, I highly recommend giving a gift card for a membership to the highly-innovative Thrive Market. What an incredible concept–an online store offering the best-selling organic products at wholesale prices. You can check them out here:

Why it works: Let real food be your fuel. You cannot supplement your way out of a poor diet. Significant gains come from eating real food. It's that simple.

Please Note: I do not work for any of these companies and have not received compensation for recommending them. They are simply my favorites.

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