Vitamins and Minerals for Peak Performance
Getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet may seem like a straightforward affair. Eat a bowl of fortified cereal, have a big leafy salad, maybe pop a multivitamin pill if you’re feeling particularly dedicated. Though your body only needs them in trace amounts, these micronutrients can have a serious impact on your muscle strength, bone health, and overall energy levels. Recent research shows that athletes have specific vitamin and mineral needs—and that neglecting them can lead to slower race times, increased fatigue, and even heightened chance of injuries.
These vitamins and minerals are proven to be the most critical for athletic performance, and are ones athletes need in extra doses. Experts advise getting your micronutrients from food sources, but when that’s not practical (or compatible with your diet or schedule), excellent supplements are available as well.
You know you need calcium to build strong bones, and that calcium is essential for weight-bearing exercise like running and hiking. One study showed that runners who drank a cup of lowfat milk each day had up to a 62% reduction in stress fracture risk! But this mineral also helps regulate your heartbeat, your nervous system signaling, and activates enzymes that perform hundreds of bodily functions. Not getting enough calcium may put you at risk of serious bone density problems, including osteoporosis.
What You Need: 800 milligrams/day for adults; 100 milligrams/day for women 50+
Food Sources: Dairy foods, leafy greens, salmon, citrus fruits
Folate, B12, and other B-Complex Vitamins
This group of nine related vitamins is critical for both energy production during exercise and for replacing blood cells and repairing tissue damage after a workout. Deficiency in B12 or folate can lead to anemia and fatigue, impairing performance in endurance sports. Recent research suggests that athletes may need up to two times the RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) of many B-vitamins, and they are frequently lacking in athletes’ diets.
What You Need: 320 micrograms/day of folate; 2 micrograms/day of B12
Food Sources: Dairy foods, shellfish, legumes, fortified soy and rice drinks, fortified grain foods
Plagued with cramps during or after a long-distance run or ride? Low magnesium levels may be to blame. This mineral also plays key roles in metabolizing fat, protein, and carbohydrates for energy. Working up a sweat and drinking plenty of water also flush magnesium from the body, meaning athletes are at greater risk of magnesium deficiency than couch potatoes.
What You Need: 420 milligrams/day for men; 320 milligrams/day for women
Food Sources: Leafy greens, fish, beans, almonds
This trace mineral affects basal metabolic rate, protein metabolism, and tissue repair—all critical issues for athletes. Since zinc is found almost exclusively in high-protein foods, high-carb training diets are low in this essential nutrient. One study suggested that up to 90% of athletes may not be getting enough zinc from food alone. Loss of appetite, fatigue, and osteoporosis are all associated with insufficient zinc.
What You Need: 9.4 milligrams/day for men; 6.8 milligrams/day for women
Food Sources: Oysters, beef, lamb, lentils, quinoa
Not only does Vitamin C have energy-producing effects, but it repairs cellular damage from free radicals in the environment and can lessen the symptoms of a cold (even if it’s been proven not to prevent one). Strenuous, prolonged exercise has been shown to boost the need for this vitamin, and many experts recommend 100 or more milligrams a day for endurance athletes.
What You Need: RDI is 60 milligrams/day, but some sources recommend more
Food Sources: Peppers, citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts, kiwi
Essential for red blood cells’ job of supplying muscles with oxygen, this mineral is readily depleted in athletes. One study showed that just one hour of weightlifting produced nearly a 6% drop in the body’s iron levels. Women athletes need to be extra-conscious of their iron intake, since blood loss during menstruation also causes iron levels to dip. Without sufficient iron, you may experience fatigue, cold hands and feet, or shortness of breath.
What You Need: 6 milligrams/day for adult men; 8.1 milligrams/day for women ages 19–50
Food Sources: Beef, organ meats, eggs, soy foods, lentils
If you workout outdoors and your skin is often exposed to sunshine, you’re unlikely to be deficient—but, sadly, wearing clothes, using sunscreen, or spending training time indoors all lessen your body’s production of this vital nutrient. Low levels impair calcium absorption, putting you at risk for low bone density and stress fractures, and may contribute to fatigue and depression. Many health professionals suggest that those living in a temperate zone (that’s you, Utahns!) have their Vitamin D levels checked and consider supplementing at least in the winter months.
What You Need: 600 IU/day for adults
Food Sources: Canned tuna or sardines, cod liver oil, egg yolks, cheese
Pick a Pill
- Walk into any pharmacy or health food store, and you’ll find shelves packed with vitamin supplements that promise everything from a healthier heart to faster-growing hair. To sort through the hype and find out which micronutrients are most critical for you, don’t rely on marketing pitches, but on solid information backed up by recent research.
- If you’re already eating healthy, look for multivitamins that contain no more than 100% of the RDI for any nutrient.
- Keep all supplements out of kids’ reach, especially those containing iron. Iron-containing formulas is a leading cause of poisoning in children.
- Always discuss your vitamin intake with your doctor, especially if are pregnant, nursing, or taking prescriptions.
- Look for products made in the US. Foreign-made supplements may not contain the advertised concentration and may even be tainted with prescription drugs.