You are what you eat, and when you’re an athlete, your choice of fuel and how you eat on a regular basis can be the difference between a PR and a plateau or injury. Clean eating does more for your body than just help you maintain a healthy weight. When your diet includes the proper foods to meet the nutritional needs your body demands, your health and performances benefit—and micronutrients are a big part of that.
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients
Macronutrients are the meat and potatoes—literally—of the diet. Carbs, fats and proteins typically make up the bulk of runners’ meals, and while important to energy production, recovery and injury prevention, they often overshadow the just-as-important micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals. These vital nutrients are found in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. They are the “magic wands” that allow the body to properly produce enzymes, hormones and other important substances that aid growth and development, according to the World Health Organization. Not to mention they play a crucial role in repairing muscle tissue when recovering from exercise or injury.
As evident by their names, we need macronutrients in much larger amounts and micronutrients in smaller quantities. However small, the importance of micronutrients shouldn’t be overlooked, according to Eve Pearson, a registered dietician, certified specialist in sports dietetics and adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University, as different micronutrients serve varying, crucial roles in our bodies.
“The B vitamins are known for helping us access the energy we eat from carbohydrate, protein or fat,” Pearson says. “The electrolytes aid in fluid balance. There are specific micronutrients, such as magnesium, calcium and vitamin D, that aid in bone health.”
Eating the proper amount of micronutrients is crucial as they are not naturally produced in the body and must be obtained from diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pearson said a lack of vegetables is the most common nutritional deficit she’s seen in her experience working with various athletes. And it can lead to big problems.
“When an athlete isn’t consuming enough (micronutrients), it’s possible normal body processes aren’t occurring at the most efficient level,” Pearson says. “This can ultimately result in injuries, cramping, stress fractures among other things.”
Low consumption of vegetables, as well as fruits, appears to be a national problem. Less than 1 in 10 Americans eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day, according to a 2015 CDC report. The government recently responded by raising the daily recommendation for the average person from 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day to 5-9. That’s still low for athletes, however. In order to adequately keep athletes healthy, some experts recommend 13 or more servings! Sounds crazy, but let’s look at why.
What are Free Radicals?
We are exposed to a number of subliminal environmental stressors every day—from pollution and radiation, to mental and physical stress (including exercise)—that directly affect our health. Said stressors create free radicals in our bodies. Simply put, free radicals are molecules that lack an electron, and roam freely in our bodies searching for another electron. They can attack and damage our healthy cells in the process.
Escaping free radical production completely is unavoidable (we drive cars and use cellphones, for example), but nevertheless this exposure increases the number of free radicals we have, according to a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) study. Exercise is a huge creator of the molecules, which puts athletes at a greater risk of what’s called oxidative stress.
What is Oxidative Stress?
We all breathe in oxygen, and we, of course, need more of it when running. But oxygen, being a volatile molecule, has a propensity to create free radicals. If our bodies do not have the proper defenses to fight off these pesky radicals, the imbalance—known as oxidative stress—can be damaging. Our living cells can be harmed.
Oxidative stress is a natural process that everyone experiences and is healthy at low levels, but it occurs at much higher rates in athletic people, especially high-endurance athletes, according to a NCBI study; think the more oxygen needed to exercise, the more prone to oxidative stress. Therefore, high endurance athletes like runners are at a greater risk of experiencing the numerous effects of oxidative stress, from accelerated aging to damaged immune cells. Performance-prohibiting effects for athletes also include burnout, chronic fatigue, muscle soreness, inflammation, and muscle damage.
How could all of this come from what you put—or don’t—on your plate every day? The thing is, most of these effects don’t show up until later, when you experience them full on. You can’t immediately feel if a cell is being damaged or you’re not absorbing enough vitamins and minerals, for example. Good nutrition, just like being a good runner, is a lifestyle. Depriving your body of the essential nutrients it needs to stay active and healthy adds up over time. It’s important to be aware of the potentially negative effects that training and racing can have on our bodies and long-term health. The key is to balance it with proper nutrition. So how do you know that you’re protecting yourself and your performance?
Eat whole foods—and plenty of them. The vitamins and minerals, namely antioxidants, found in whole foods help decrease oxidative stress. Antioxidants help neutralize free radical production, which restores a balance and decreases the chance of cell damage. Remember, runners are at a greater risk of oxidative stress, and the negative effects that come with it. So eating more fruits and veggies can help keep free radicals at bay.
While 13 or more servings a day may sound intimidating and unrealistic, Pearson says to keep it simple: try to incorporate fruits and veggies at every meal and snack. There are a number of easy, and sneaky, ways to do so.
“Remember that for fruits and raw vegetables, a serving is only 1/2 cup. It’s easy to get more than one serving at each meal or snack! Vegetables can be incorporated into quiches or smoothies at breakfast…I also like to pick up a veggie tray each week at the grocery store because when life gets busy it’s easy to pull that out to snack on,” Pearson said.
Make adding more micronutrients into your diet a challenge. What creative ways can you include more fruits and vegetables to your snacks and meals? Your future healthy self and your athletic achievements will thank you.