3 Key Nutrients for Runners

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Nutrition is an important component of running performance. The foods we eat can fuel our working muscles and cardiopulmonary system both during the run itself and over extended periods of training.

While many nutrients can be highlighted, the three below — carbohydrates, sodium and iron — generally have the most-direct impact on runners’ performance.

Carbohydrates

Runners need carbohydrates. How much you need depends on how far or fast you’re running, but either way, you’re going to need some. Doing long-distance or high-intensity running while eating a very low-carbohydrate diet is like trying to drive a car for long distances or at high speeds without gas.

While simple sugars (i.e., sports drinks) may be helpful for longer runs, most of your carb intake can come from nutritious options like sweet potatoes, corn, oats, quinoa, rice, fruit, dairy and beans throughout the day. Of course, don’t forget about protein and fat, which are required to promote muscle repair, recovery and other essential body functions besides running.

Blueberry Blast Smoothie

How to Make Your Own (Deliciously Healthy) Sports Drink (pictured above)

Honey Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Sodium

Avid runners may not want to adhere to the conventional wisdom of consuming a low-sodium diet, as sodium plays two important fueling roles during running: It promotes adequate consumption of fluids by enhancing thirst, and it makes sure that the fluids you’re consuming get to the right places in your body. Furthermore, the primary electrolyte lost in sweat is sodium (potassium comes in second), so you need to make sure you’re getting enough sodium before, during and after training. This is doubly important for salty sweaters — you’re one of these if you get white streaks on your clothes or small gritty crystals on your skin, or burning when you sweat into your eyes.

Sports drinks, bread, pretzels, cheese and soups are some options for getting sodium. Getting adequate fluids is the other half of the equation, since losing more than 2 percent of your body weight to dehydration can lead to impaired performance. But since most runners know to drink water, sodium gets top billing today.

Iron

Sufficient iron stores are required for running (or any other endurance activity), as they are an essential component of red blood cells — which carry oxygen to your working muscles. Iron deficiency prevents your muscles from getting maximal amounts of oxygen, thereby compromising performance.

Unlike carbohydrates and sodium, iron loss is more gradual, and its effects are more subtle until it’s reached a more severe stage called anemia. Runners are at greater risk of deficiency due to losses through sweat, gastrointestinal disturbances and the repeated striking of the ground with every step (foot strike hemolysis). Furthermore, women of childbearing age are at greater risk due to menstruation.

While other minerals are involved with muscular function and recovery, like zinc, magnesium and calcium, iron is the one most directly linked to running performance. Foods rich in iron include red meat, beans, poultry, fish, tofu, quinoa and spinach. To enhance absorption, pair your iron-rich food with a food source of vitamin C, like red peppers, berries, broccoli or citrus.

Emerald Stir-Fry with Beef

Quinoa and Bean Pilaf

Greek-Style Stuffed Peppers

Through his book and blog, Death of the Diet, Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS, empowers people to live the life they want by integrating healthy eating and physical activity habits into their daily routines. You can follow him on Twitter @JMachowskyRDFit.