Written by Jen Van Allen
When we runners think about food, we mostly focus on its flavor, how well it can fuel up our workouts, or how much it will fill out our waistlines. But food serves another critical role: it provides essential vitamins and minerals we need to help turn food into energy, keep bones strong, boost immunity, repair strained muscle tissue, and live a long and healthy life. Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals can keep you from meeting your fitness goals. If you’re not getting enough Vitamin D or Calcium, for instance, you may have a higher risk of stress fractures. If you’re low in B12—say because you don’t eat meat or any animal products—you might feel chronically fatigued, and unable to give your all to workouts.
That’s why it’s important to make an extra effort to eat with vitamins and nutrients in mind. Here are some tips on how to do that.
It’s best to get vitamins and minerals from foods rather than pills, powders, or other supplements, said Dr. Stephanie Howe, a coach and ultrarunner who holds a PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. “You’re able to absorb more of the nutrients when it comes from a food source,” said Howe, who won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in 2014. The other nutrients in food—like fiber, fat, and protein—provide satiation, which is critical to staving off hunger. “And it forces you to think of food as nourishing your body not just for energy and taste, but to think of food as something you’re trying to give your body what it needs,” she said. “In our culture we kind of get away from that.” It’s a much better approach than consuming a diet that’s devoid of nutrients and assuming you can drink vitamin water and pop a pill.”
Just envision a plate of dark leafy greens compared to a powder that says it contains greens, said Howe. “One is a highly processed form and the other is real food,” she said. “When you visualize the two, it’s kind of obvious what the right choice is.”
“Foods offer not only micronutrients like vitamins and minerals but also contain phytonutrients, antioxidants, and other compounds that most supplements don't provide, said sports dietician Pamela Nisevich Bede, co-author of Run to Lose: A Complete Weight Loss Guide for Runners. There are other reasons to focus on food, too. Supplements are not regulated by any government agency, the way foods are. So there’s no guarantee that what is advertised on the package matches what’s on the inside. “As an athlete, I want to makes sure that the things I’m eating are high-quality,” she said.
One exception is Vitamin D, which can be tough to find in foods. Sunlight is one of the best sources of Vitamin D. But during the winter, and in areas with little sunshine, adequate D can be tough to get.
If you do get a supplement, make sure that it’s a high-quality source. Research the company. Certain seals of approval on the labels can give you the confidence that the product you’re buying provide the nutrients it claims to contain, said Bede. Look for “USP,” the logo of the US Pharmacopia, said Bede. Products that carry this seal have voluntarily submitted to a third-party verification program, and met stringent testing and auditing criteria set by a third party, she added. Also, look products that are labeled as “NSF,” she suggested. This is another third party that tests ingredients and products to make sure they are safe, follow good manufacturing processes and what’s on the label is in the bottle.
If you are concerned that you’re deficient in any nutrients, talk with your doctor before taking any supplements, said Bede. He or she can determine whether you are deficient, and the best steps to correct it.
Here are the nutrients every runner needs, according Bede.
Why it’s important: Calcium plays a role in many basic body functions,including muscle contraction and blood clotting. If you don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D, you increase the risk of low bone-mineral density and stress fractures.
Where to get it: Dairy products can help you meet most of your calcium needs. It can also be found in other products like canned salmon, fortified orange juice, and leafy greens.
Why it’s important: The body needs Vitamin D to absorb calcium and regulate phosphorus, to keep your bones healthy. If you train indoors most of the time, or live in a place with limited sunshine, talk with your doctor about whether you’re at risk for a deficiency.
Where to get it: Dairy is the main source of Vitamin D; it can be hard to find in other foods. Look for products that have been fortified with Vitamin D, like breads, orange juice, and margarine, as well as mushrooms grown under UV lights.
(This includes Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, B-6, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, Folate, and B-12)
Why it’s important: B vitamins are essential to energy metabolism. Some of them help produce energy during exercise; others help produce red blood cells, synthesize protein and repair strained tissues. Female athletes, especially vegetarians or those with disordered eating patterns, are often low in riboflavin, pyridoxine, folate and B-12
Where to get it: Enriched and whole grains are a potent source of many B vitamins. Other sources, include meat, nuts, dairy, and green vegetables. If you don’t eat meat, nutritional yeast is a good source of B-12.
Why it’s important: Without adequate iron, you’re likely to tire easily and feel winded before you finish your run. Low levels of iron can impair muscle function and limit your capacity to exercise. Iron is also one of the most prevalent deficiencies in athletes, especially females. If you are concerned that you are iron deficient, see your doctor.
Where to get it: It’s easiest for the body to absorb heme iron; the form of iron that comes from animal products like beef, pork, poultry, and liver. if you don’t eat meat, non-heme iron sources such as black beans, kidney beans, fortified grains and breakfast cereals are good options. The body will absorb iron better if you consume iron-rich foods with those that are also rich in Vitamin C.
Why it’s important: Zinc plays a role in immune function, energy production, and building and repair of muscle tissue.
Where to get it: Find zinc in red meat, dark-meat poultry, raw oysters, whole grains, and enriched grains and cereals.
Why it’s important: Magnesium is critical to maintaining strong bones; it helps to regulate a proper balance of Calcium and Vitamin D in the body. Magnesium is also critical to blood-sugar control, protein synthesis, and blood pressure regulation.
Where to get it: Leafy green veggies such as spinach as well as many whole grains, seeds, and nuts are good sources of Magnesium. Seafood, beans, and dairy products also contain some Magnesium. Refined and processed foods are generally low in this nutrient.