5 most common nutritional deficiencies in runners

A nutritional deficiency could be affecting your performance. Here's how to look out for the signs and stay in optimal health.


by Annie Rice
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As a runner, you’ll know you need to eat more calories than most to sustain yourself due to all the energy you’re expending. But what about all the other nutrients that are being used up as you run? Nutritional deficiencies are more common in runners than you might think as running increases the depletions of the stores, but you can help yourself by looking out for the warning signs and making sure you are topped up. Left untreated, they can lead to poor performance, running injuries and serious heath issues.

The signs

Nutritional Therapist, Jo Scott-Dalgleish explains the warning signs, “most common is a reduction in energy and increased perception of effort in training. Being more susceptible to infections and taking longer to recover between workouts are also signs.” To avoid any nutritional deficiencies runners can, “eat a wide variety of unprocessed foods and ensure a large enough calorie intake to meet energy and micronutrient needs is the most important thing”. Another often forgotten essential is “a good digestive function as this affects the absorption of vitamins and minerals from food”, says Scott-Dalgleish.

By ensuring you have a well balanced diet you are helping your body stay healthy. Here are the most common deficiencies in runners and why they are important for maintaining optimal health.

The 5 most common deficiencies

Iron

Why it’s important for runners: Iron helps red blood cells transport oxygen around the body, it also plays a key role in energy production. Need we say more? Female runners are most prone to low iron or anemia due to the menstrual cycle, but it can affect all runners as stores are depleted through sweating and footstrike.

How do I know if I have low iron? Signs include tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and pale complexion. It will have a detrimental effect on your running performance.

Key food sources include: red meat, liver, dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals, beans, nuts and dried fruit. Vitamin C also aids your absorption of iron.

Vitamin D

Why it’s important for runners: This one is essential for bone health as it regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body.

How do I know if I have low Vitamin D? Achiness of bones and muscles and low mood are among the symptoms of a deficiency.

Key food sources: Oily fish, eggs, fortified cereals. It’s worth noting that this one is tougher to get from food sources as the primary source is sunlight. Scott-Dalgleish recommends taking a supplement through the winter.

Magnesium

Why it’s important for runners: Magnesium helps to turn food into energy as well as playing an important role in bone health.

How do I know if I have low Magnesium? Tics, muscle spasms and cramps, seizures, anxiety, and irregular heart rhythms are among the classic signs and symptoms of low magnesium. Dizziness and confusion are also signs.

Key food sources: green leafy vegetables, brown rice, nuts, fish, meat, dairy foods and bread – especially wholegrain.

Vitamin B12

Why it’s important for runners: B12 is used to keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, it also helps prevent a type of anemia which causes tiredness and weakness. 

How do I know if I have low B12? Vegans are at higher risk of this deficiency. Signs include, extreme tiredness, lack of energy, weak muscles, a sore tongue, pins and needles and depression.

Key food sources: meat, salmon, cod, milk, cheese, eggs and some fortified breakfast cereals.

Zinc

Why it’s important for runners: Zinc is key for immune function, it also helps your body process carbohydrate, fat and protein in food.

How do I know if I have low zinc? Symptoms can include hair loss, loss of appetite and a compromised immune function.

Key food sources: meat, shellfish, milk, dairy products, bread and cereal products.

Jo Scott-Dalgleish is a Nutritional Therapist who works with endurance athletes to optimise both performance and health, find out more here.


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