Athletes are typically familiar with macronutrients—those vital nutrients protein, carbohydrate, and fat needed in large amounts to provide energy to the body. While your mix of macronutrients certainly influences health and performance, there’s a lesser known class of nutrients deserving of attention: micronutrients. Needed in trace amounts to support growth, development and health, this category is vast but with some standout elements that endurance athletes would be remiss if they failed to consume.
Here’s an expert’s take on nutrients to add now to maintain health and performance well into the future.
With all that we ask of our bones, it’s a bit appalling that we don’t often give them the nutrients they need to perform. The intake of bone-boosting nutrients—calcium and vitamin D—are lacking in typical diets with most of the population deemed vitamin D deficient. This popular sunshine vitamin (technically, a hormone) is a potent ally in immune health and is critical in the battle against muscle weakness, pain, balance, and fractures, yet is not widespread across our food supply. Promising research on Vitamin D’s impact on exercise-related inflammation and prevention of chronic disease is accumulating, and experts hope we will soon zero in on the exact amount needed to support better health and performance in addition to fighting off deficiency. For now, the recommendation is to consume 600 IU each day, an amount deemed sufficient to maintain bone health and normal calcium metabolism in healthy people. Besides relying upon the sun, find vitamin D in supplements containing the active D3 form (cholecalciferol). Seek out fortified foods as well as inherent vitamin D from dairy, seafood, and mushrooms exposed to UV light. Remember to consume vitamin D alongside calcium for best absorption.
Aided by vitamin D, phosphorus and other micronutrients, it’s no secret that calcium intake is critical to bone health. Athletes should focus on consuming the recommended 1000mg/day of this micro as it is also critical for nerve transmission, constriction and dilation of blood vessels, and muscle contraction—hello, performance! A diet chronically low in calcium and vitamin D is related to low bone mass and may contribute to the development of osteoporosis and sidelining stress fractures. Don’t rely on a multi for your calcium content as few multivitamins contain more than a sprinkling of calcium. Instead, consume calcium-rich sources like dairy, fortified beverages and cereals, as well as calcium and vitamin D-specific supplements to meet the needs of endurance athletes in training.
It’s possible that there are hundreds of substances that act as antioxidants within our body. These substances fight oxidative stress and cell damage. Micronutrients, notably vitamins C and E, selenium and carotenoids—such as beta-carotene and lutein—are powerful nutrients that prevent this inflammatory cell damage. The best sources of antioxidants are whole food sources such as citrus fruits, rich and colorful berries, brightly colored vegetables, eggs, nuts and other unprocessed foods.
Excessive supplementation in pill form is controversial and potentially detrimental to performance. While an athlete’s plate should include a variety of food-based antioxidants like vitamins A and C outlined below, potentially unwarranted high doses of single antioxidants may impair or prevent training adaptations in endurance athletes and are not recommended unless recovery is a sole focus. Athletes in the recovery and repair phase of training might boost intake of foods or supplements containing a variety of antioxidants (e.g., dark berries, tart cherries) for the potential to speed recovery and return to competition.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that supports vision as well as better immune function. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with decreased resistance to infection, meaning that low intakes of this vitamin and other antioxidants, coupled with intense training, will up your chances for being sidelined by upper respiratory infections. Aim for a daily intake of 900ug retinol activity equivalents (RAE) for men and 700ug for women. You can find this in orange-colored fruits and vegetables; a half cup of canned pumpkin or a medium-sized baked potato easily supplies over 100% of your daily needs.
Running is known to increase oxidative stress and free radicals, which over time can lead to damaged cells, tissues and organs if proper recovery isn’t habitually practiced. Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, naturally fights against oxidative stress and the free radicals it creates. While vitamin C may not prevent your next cold, it has been found to shorten the duration. And though you may have taken supplements in the past, most experts agree that it’s best to get this antioxidant from real food. When boosting vitamin C intake, be sure to accompany it with a serving of iron.
Iron is a nutrient of concern for most runners, with the toll of mileage leading to red blood cell breakdown in the feet and other losses during exercise. Fall short in iron intake, with or without anemia, and you’re signing up for impaired muscle function and limited work capacity, all leading to compromised training adaptation and poor performance. Not all endurance athletes need to supplement iron (check with your doctor first), but those at highest risk include athletes with limited iron intake from animal sources, female athletes, regular blood donors, and athletes with inadequate energy intake. To aid absorption, remember that iron and vitamin C absorption works in concert, their relationship akin to calcium and vitamin D. Enjoy these nutrients together, especially if you’re a vegetarian and rely on plant-based sources for iron, like lentils, chickpeas and black beans.
Should You Supplement?
It’s no secret that vitamins and minerals play critical roles in total body health with exercise increasing the need for these nutrients in various ways through the repair of tissue, losses through sweat, and more. Boost your intake with real food first as these nutrient-dense choices offer the micros you need, accompanied by other vital nutrients such as fiber and phytonutrients, to name a few. Universal supplementation by all athletes with adequate dietary intake with the sole goal of improving performance is both controversial and likely unwarranted. However, athletes who frequently restrict energy intake, rely on extreme weight-loss practices, follow special diets, eliminate one or more of the food groups, or in general, consume inadequate amounts of essential micronutrients may need to consider adding supplements to their daily regimen.
The complexities of the types of micronutrients an athlete requires and how the body absorbs them reveal that there’s still a considerable amount of work to be done to fully understand what is optimal for athletic training, particularly given the variety of diets and individual differences. Professionals in the athletic and health industries will want to learn more about the nuances before recommending any solution to clients. The ideal way to do so is through an online B.A. in Exercise Science. Concordia University, St. Paul’s flexible and fully online program prepares students looking to become athletic trainers, fitness trainers and coaches to advise on diets and supplementation directly and soundly. At the same time, CSP prepares students to enter the research side of exercise science by equipping them with the tools to go on and conduct graduate-level study.
Pamela Nisevich Bede MS, RD, LD is a sports dietitian and author of Sweat. Eat. Repeat.