Long-distance runner? These are the vitamins and minerals your body needs

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Hitting the road? These vitamins and minerals are crucial for your fitness journey.
Hitting the road? These vitamins and minerals are crucial for your fitness journey.

Running is a rewarding activity, whether it's part of your daily workout, or whether you do it on a competitive level. The rush of endorphins leading to the legendary “runner’s high” is a good reason to take up running – however, you need to be aware that as you increase your mileage, you put your body through a considerable amount of strain.

A healthy body requires good nutrition, which includes micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. These vital elements ensure that our bodies function as they should.

So, what exactly happens to your body while you're training for a long-distance race? You put a lot of strain on your muscles and joints through repetitive movements, and deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals can put you at a higher risk for stress fractures and lead to slower muscle recovery, which will have a negative impact on your fitness goals. You might also experience chronic fatigue, making workouts so much harder.

Many runners don't pay enough attention to what goes into their bodies and may therefore lack certain vital nutrients. Although it seems easy enough to add supplements like multivitamins to one's regime to make up for any deficiency, it's not quite as simple as that.

According to Dr Stephanie Howe, a running coach with a PhD in Nutrition, the best way to obtain crucial vitamins and minerals is by eating "real" food, as these are absorbed easier that way. This means that you should ensure that you are eating proper servings of protein, vegetables and healthy carbohydrates.

In a nutshell

“Foods offer not only micronutrients like vitamins and minerals but also contain phytonutrients, antioxidants and other compounds that most supplements don't provide," says sports dietitian Pamela Nisevich Bede, co-author of Run to Lose: A Complete Weight Loss Guide for Runners.

If you do suspect that you may have a deficiency (read up on what to do when you have an iron or vitamin B12 deficiency), a supplement together with a healthy, balanced diet could be very helpful. Speak to your doctor, who will perform blood tests and guide you through the process.

In a nutshell, here are the most important minerals and vitamins you should focus on while training:

1. Calcium

Why you need it: Calcium is not only crucial for healthy bones (to prevent stress fractures), but also for the most basic bodily functions such as muscle contraction and blood clotting.

What to eat: Focus on dairy products, but also on dark green vegetables such as spinach, as well as salmon.

2. B-vitamins

Why you need it: The B-complex vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, vitamin B12, folic acid and biotin) play an important role in keeping the brain and nervous system healthy. This will help to keep your mind sound and ensure you get proper sleep. Vitamin B12 also plays an important role in the formation of red blood cells, which is important to carry oxygen throughout the entire body. Read more here for a detailed explanation of the entire B vitamin group.

What to eat: Whole grains, meat, nuts, dairy and leafy green vegetables.

3. Iron

Why you need it: Iron is crucial for the formation of your red blood cells, which consists mostly of haemoglobin. This helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, which helps the heart pump blood and allows your muscles to work as they should. An iron deficiency brings about extreme fatigue and may lead to anaemia.

What to eat: Haeme iron (iron from red meat) is absorbed faster by the body, but if you don’t eat meat, non-haeme iron can be sourced from legumes such as kidney beans, as well as fortified cereal.

4. Zinc

Why you need it: Zinc is a mineral distributed throughout the body’s organs, tissues and fluids, and is crucial for the proper function of more than 70 enzymes. Without enough zinc, your immune system will be compromised and your muscles will not repair properly after a strenuous workout.

What to eat: Red meat and fortified cereals are good sources of zinc.

5. Magnesium

Why it’s important: One if the most important minerals for runners, magnesium helps to maintain strong bones, and is important for the proper balance of vitamin D and blood sugar in the body.

What to eat: Dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, beans, avocado, bananas, yoghurt – even dark chocolate contains magnesium. 

Image credit: iStock

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