Ever since "King Vitaman" touted his cereal to me as a kid in the 70s, I've all known the importance of vitamins, but somewhere along the way, we began to think those vitamins and minerals needed to come in the form of supplements instead of from the foods we eat. It's always seemed kind of odd to me that you should have to supplement your diet when we live in a country that has such good access to different varieties of foods. I guess the fast-paced, drivethru lifestyle has a lot to do with the change. (King Vitaman's also the cause of an entire generation of kids [myself included] misspelling the word vitamin for most of their lives! LOL!)
We probably all know a supplement junkie or two. Supplements have their place, especially if you're not eating a good balanced diet, or if you're deficient in a vitamin or mineral due to chronic illness or some other health-related condition.
Runners do, however, require more nutrients than sedentary individuals. Endurance training demands a lot of the body and as a result increases the body's nutritional needs. But popping a bunch of over-the-counter supplements may not be the best solution. In many cases they may just not do any good, because the body will only use a certain amount and the rest will be voided (that's expensive pee!) And then on the flip-side, too much of some vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium and Vitamin E can sometimes damage vital organs such as the liver.
The body does need certain micronutrients and macronutrients. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that are very important in supporting bodily functions, but the body only needs tiny amounts of them. But, becoming deficient in any of the micronutrients can lead to illness or disease. Macronutrients are nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats that the body needs in larger quantities. And, like micronutrients, if you become deficient in any of the macronutrients, it can lead to illness or disease.
Protein is easily one of the most overused supplements. When you ask most people what protein does, they'll reply, "It makes your muscles bigger." Well, this is not quite accurate. Protein doesn't zoom to your muscle and POOF! magically make them bigger. Protein does, however, help build and repair body tissues. So after a hard workout, protein is a key element in the muscle rebuilding process which makes the muscle stronger. Protein is found in muscles, bone, blood, hormones, antibodies, and enzymes. Protein also helps regulate the water balance in the body, helps transport nutrients, is used in brain function, and helps make muscles contract. Protein also helps keep the body healthy by fighting off diseases. Important for runners, protein helps produce stamina and energy which can keep fatigue at bay.
Protein is definitely a key ingredient for a strong healthy body especially if you're in training. Research has shown, however, that the body has a limit at which it stops using extra protein. Studies have shown that the body maxes out at 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you take more than that, your body doesn't use it and it just becomes expensive waste material. And...only individuals doing heavy resistance training need that higher level of 2g per kilogram of body weight. Endurance runners need more in the range of .8-1.5g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Sedentary people only need .8g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
That still may seem like a lot of protein to get in a day, but remember that 1 cup of tuna has almost 40g of protein. A cup of black bean soup about 12g! It doesn't take long to get enough protein just by eating a healthy diet.
Long story not so short....if you're eating a well balanced diet and eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats, then you're probably getting everything that bottle in the kitchen window has to offer, if not more. I don't think there was a GNC on every corner at the time of the ancient Olympics. And from the art of that time period, it looks like those first Olympians were pretty buff.
So, now that you know that the best "supplements" are in your fridge and cupboard and not in a bottle, you may be asking, "What are some key vitamins and minerals runners need to make sure they're including in their diet?" Listed below are some of the ones I think should be on every runner's "Include-In-My-Training-Diet List." (Remember, to get these from the foods you eat, not from a bottle!)
Vitamin B6 - aids in the manufacturing of amino acids. Amino acids are needed to build proteins. Proteins are essential for the repair and growth of muscle tissue.
Sources: almonds, almond butter, liver, tuna, wheat germ, chick peas, bananas, fortified cereals, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, tomato juice, chicken breast, tuna, peanuts, peanut butter, walnuts, edamames, lima beans, etc.
Vitamin C - helps the immune system as well as in the making and maintaining of strong bones, teeth, and cartilage as well as helping increase the absorption of iron.
Sources: asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, prunes, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, etc.
Vitamin D -helps in the absorption of Vitamin C and calcium which helps maintain healthy bone density; insures a strong immune system
Sources: almonds, almond butter, fortified milk and other dairy products, wild salmon, shrimp, exposure to the sun, etc.
Vitamin E - an antioxidant that helps protect cells from oxidation damage. Vitamin C does this too, but Vitamin C is water soluble and Vitamin E is fat soluble, so together they can better help protect against cell damage. Research shows that when you up your mileage like in marathon training, runners need more vitamin E.
Sources: asparagus, avocado, eggs, milk, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, spinach, wheat germ, whole-grain foods, unheated vegetable oil, etc.
Omega 3 - have many health benefits, but one of the most important for runners is their anti-inflammatory attributes. Omega 3s also support good blood circulation.
Sorces: flax seeds, flax seed oil, dried ground cloves, walnuts, salmon, halibut, cod, cauliflower, cabbage, dried ground oregano, mustard seeds, Brussels sprouts, cooked soybeans, etc.
Calcium - vital for building strong bones in younger runners and maintaining bone density in older runners
Sources: almonds, arugula, avocados, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, walnuts, cashews, edamames, greens beans, kale, milk, dairy products, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, spinach, etc.
Iron- needed for hemoglobin production. Oxygen attaches to Hemoglobin which acts like little transporters that carry the oxygen from the blood to the into the muscles. If you're low on hemoglobin, fatigue sets in because you can't get as much oxygen to the muscle where it's needed to make muscle-moving energy. (Usually women need to be more aware of their iron levels than men)
Sources: lean cuts of red meat, clams, oysters, sardines, brown rice, lentils, quinoa, fortified cereals, chick peas, green peas, broccoli, black beans, kidney beans, pumpkins, etc.
Magnesium - plays a part in providing for a strong immune system and making bones strong; helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function; keeps heart rhythm steady and promotes normal blood pressure. It also plays a role in energy metabolism and protein synthesis.
Sources: almonds, almond butter, artichokes, brown rice, cantaloupe, carrots, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter, walnuts, edamames, yogurt, green beans, etc.
Potassium - works with sodium to maintain water and electrolyte balance in the body. A deficiency of potassium can contribute to dehydration which can cause fatigue, lack of energy, and muscle cramping
Sources: 100% coconut water, apricots, bananas, apples, guava, artichokes, pumpkin, cashews, eggplant, grapes, honeydew, oatmeal, green beans, chick peas, figs, edamame, beets, etc.