When you consider that we require over 50 nutrients to stay healthy, it’s hardly surprising that most of us are confused about whether we’re getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals. But the good news is that you don’t have to memorise tables of dietary data – by focussing on 10 key nutrients, you’ll get enough of the other 40 too.
So, here in alphabetical order, are the top 10 nutrients for runners.
Calcium is, and always will be, the mineral for healthy bones – and if you think this only applies to 50-something women, you’re wrong. While osteoporosis is a bigger concern for females, both men and women lose calcium from their bones as they age. Elite cyclists and runners should be especially careful, as some studies have shown them to be extra susceptible to bone-mineral loss because of their intense training.
To keep your bones in peak condition, eat plenty of dairy products, or up your intake of calcium-fortified soya milk, tofu, salmon or broccoli.
It’s no surprise that you need energising carbohydrates to replenish spent muscle-glycogen stores. It’s simple – if you’re not well stocked with carbs, you aren’t going to run well. And this is often a problem for busy runners who find it hard to maintain a consistent eating routine.
Aim for 400g (about 1600 calories) as a daily goal – more if your mileage is high, or you eat over 2500 calories a day. To work out a daily average, keep track of your carbohydrate servings for two or three days in a row. You’ll know you’re on the right track, if you come close to the following amounts each day: 10 servings of grains (one serving equals a slice of bread or a large handful of cereal or pasta); seven servings of fruit (one serving equals one medium-sized apple or half a glass of fruit juice); four servings of vegetables (one serving equals a large handful of raw, or half as much of cooked vegetables); and one to three servings of dairy or soya produce (one serving equals a small glass of milk).
Yes, you do need a certain amount of fat in your diet. In fact, many people aren’t getting enough of a particular group of fats called omega-3s, despite the fact that deficiency may contribute to the development of heart disease and arthritis. Omega-3s are found primarily in fish, especially sardines and salmon. In the body, these fats are transformed into hormone-like substances that help to regulate blood-clotting and menstruation along with several other processes.
Try to make fish a regular part of your diet by including two or three servings a week, or try dressing your salad with flaxseed oil, which is also rich in omega-3s. Don’t use this oil for cooking, though, as omega-3s are easily destroyed by heat.
Folate (folic acid)
Researchers have been extolling the virtues of this B-vitamin for years, and for good reason – women who don’t get enough folate before and during pregnancy increase their risk of having babies with birth defects, while men who skimp on the nutrient are more at risk of heart disease. In addition, folate keeps blood cells healthy and fights off a severe form of anaemia.
Folate is often added to breads and cereals, so it’s not difficult to ensure you meet the Recommended Nutritional Intake (RNI) of 200ug (or 600ug if you’re pregnant). Other good sources include leafy green vegetables, lentils and citrus fruits.
If you don’t have enough iron in your blood to carry oxygen to your working muscles, you’ll suffer from extreme fatigue, poor race performances and often an intolerance to the cold. As you may be losing this vital mineral through sweat and urine, and because running itself can affect your ability to absorb it, you need to watch your intake.
To ensure you’re hitting your RNI (8.7mg for men, 14.8mg for women), try to get iron from a variety of sources. Meat is probably your best bet, as it contains haeme iron which is more readily absorbed by the body than non-haeme. However, other good choices include iron-fortified cereals, lentils and broccoli. Combine a vitamin C-rich food or drink with your iron source (such as a glass of orange juice with your breakfast cereal) to improve absorption. One caveat – don’t take supplements containing more than 15mg of iron, as too much can hamper zinc absorption.
Technically, these disease-fighting dynamos aren’t nutrients. However, they’re so important that they’re worth including on the list. Occurring in fruits, vegetables and grains, there are some 500 phytochemicals which help to fight cancer, heart disease, arthritis and even wrinkles.
Polyphenols found in grapes and tea, for example, blunt the effects of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and are thought to have antioxidant properties up to 20 times greater than those of vitamin C. In soya beans, isoflavones ward off osteoporosis and breast and prostate cancers, and help to control menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night-time sweating.
The best way to fill up on phytochemicals is to eat a wide range of fruits, vegetables and grains, as no one food contains all the different kinds. So don’t get into a rut where your only vegetable is broccoli and your fruit apples – try a new fruit or vegetable every week to boost your health.
This is the stuff that we’re made of – literally. Every part of the body contains protein, from muscles, blood and the immune system to tendons, ligaments, skin and hair. Sedentary people need 50-70g of protein a day to keep them going, while runners need a good 25-50 per cent more than that to cope with muscle repair and their increased energy requirements. However, because runners tend to eat less meat and dairy produce than their sedentary counterparts, they often end up lacking in protein.
Skimping on protein can lead to fatigue and slow recovery from injuries and infections, so eat high-quality sources, such as lean meat, soya beans (in the form of soya milk or tofu), fish and low-fat dairy products. Each day, try to have 150-180g of lean meat or two to three servings of soya products, plus two or three servings of low- or non-fat dairy produce and several of grains.
This antioxidant helps to protect the body from the oxidative damage caused by exercise and other stresses such as pollution. It is also essential for maintaining a strong immune system, which can be taxed by a high weekly mileage. In a study carried out at the University of Cape Town Medical School in South Africa, runners were given 600mg of vitamin C a day (15 times the RNI) during the three-week run up to an ultramarthon. After the event, their incidence of upper respiratory tract infections was significantly lower than that of those who had been taking a placebo.
You can get plenty of vitamin C from foods. For example, an orange and a kiwi fruit each supplies almost twice the RNI, while many other fruits and vegetables (such as strawberries, green peppers and tomatoes) are also rich in the vitamin.
Many researchers believe that this powerful antioxidant protects against age-related ailments, such as heart disease and cancer. As with vitamin C, studies show that vitamin E supplements may safeguard against the oxidative damage caused by endurance exercise. It is this free-radical-induced damage that causes any post-exercise muscle stiffness and soreness.
It would be nice to think that we could get all the vitamin E that we need from food, but that’s very difficult to do (although there is no official RNI, the research suggests 400IU a day is needed). Therefore, it could be worth taking a vitamin E supplement. If you’d rather not get your nutrition from a jar, the best food sources of vitamin E are almonds and wheatgerm. Fortified cereals are also a good choice.
Zinc keeps your immune system healthy and makes wound healing and injury recovery possible. It’s also vital for male sexual functioning.
Despite its importance, however, studies have shown that runners often don’t consume the RNI for this mineral (9.5mg for men, 7mg for women). As you also sweat out small amounts of it as you’re running, you can quickly become deficient in zinc. The tell-tale signs that you aren’t getting your quota include frequent colds and infections.
As with iron and protein, the zinc which is found in beef, poultry, lamb and seafood is well absorbed by the body. However, vegetarian options include fortified cereals, beans, black-eyed peas, wholemeal breads and wheatgerm.