They say it takes a village. A true statement—especially when it comes to the nutrients that best power our workouts. While all humans require a balanced diet, athletes often need more fuel and sometimes require more specialized diets, as well. Read on for a basic guide to the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that enable us to push our bodies to the max.
Want to Fuel Your Workouts? Get These Nutrients
By Dina Cheney
Macro vs. micro
Nutrients are broken down into two categories: macro and micro. Both are equally important, says Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and certified natural chef. Macronutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) are required in larger quantities, and they provide our bodies with energy. Carbohydrates are our main energy (and fiber) sources, while fats regulate body temperature and help us absorb certain vitamins. Proteins are composed of amino acids, which enable muscular and cellular growth, repair and function.
Meanwhile, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are needed in smaller amounts. “They assist in facilitating the many functions of the body and have very specific roles,” Begun says. There are two types of vitamins, both of which are essential. Water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and the eight B vitamins) dissolve in water, while fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) dissolve in fat.
While vitamins are organic and break down when exposed to heat, light and chemicals, minerals are inorganic and more stable. (Though they can bind to other substances, such as sodium, which can lead to a loss in their absorption.) There are two types of minerals: major (which are needed in larger amounts) and trace (which are needed in smaller amounts). A few of the minerals essential to the functioning of the human body include calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium (major) and iron, zinc and copper (trace).
Top macros fueling exercise
So how many of these nutrients do you need? “Non-athletes and athletes all need the same basic nutrition; athletes just need more of some: carbohydrates, proteins and fats,” says Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN, author of “Fueling Young Athletes” (Human Kinetics, 2016). While vitamin and mineral requirements do not increase with activity, deficiencies may be more noticeable in athletes, she adds.
Athletes should fuel up pre-workout with carbohydrates paired with some protein, says Jim White, RD, ACSM, a health fitness specialist. “The carb choices should be quicker-digesting ones that are lower in fiber so as to not slow down digestion. [That way, you] get that quicker release of glucose.” For example, he suggests Greek yogurt with fresh or dried fruit and nuts. Meanwhile, post-workout, he often recommends carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, brown rice and bananas to help replenish our bodies’ glycogen (or carbohydrate) stores.
As to which macronutrients are most important for different types of athletes, Mangieri says the ideal strategy varies depending on individual goals and training regimens. That said, experts agree about protein’s essential role in building muscle. For high-intensity workouts, Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD, a sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons, stresses the importance of carbohydrates
MVP micronutrients for athletes
Several vitamins and minerals are particularly key for our bones and muscles. On the vitamin front, vitamin B1 (thiamin) promotes healthy muscles, while biotin, vitamin D and vitamin K help with bone health. Among minerals, potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium are essential for muscle contractions, while iodine assists with muscle function, reproduction and growth. Calcium, fluoride, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus boost bone health. White points out that iron (which helps hemoglobin in our red blood cells and myoglobin in our muscle cells transport oxygen throughout our bodies) is extremely important for female endurance athletes.
How nutrients work together
A symbiotic ecosystem, macronutrients and micronutrients collaborate in a variety of ways to bolster well-being. Here are a few examples, with ideas for pairing them up in the kitchen:
- Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium from food, while vitamin K aids in directing the mineral to our bones and teeth (for skeletal health). Prepare salmon cakes, top with a sauce based on plain nonfat Greek yogurt and serve over sauteed spinach.
- Vitamin B12 works with folate (vitamin B9) to assist in cell division and replication, Begun explains. Prepare a creamy dip with nonfat plain Greek yogurt, kale sauteed with garlic in olive oil,and fresh lemon zest. Serve with cut-up fresh veggies, such as bell pepper strips and sugar snap peas.
- Vitamin C helps the body absorb the iron in plant foods. Whip up a bowl of quinoa, broiled tofu, and roasted bell peppers and broccoli. Drizzle with a dressing of tahini, fresh lemon juice, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil.
- Since vitamins A (beta carotene), D, E and K are fat-soluble, they are best absorbed by the body when consumed with fat. While many foods with these vitamins already contain fat, those with beta carotene (such as carrots, squash, spinach and sweet potato) do not. So cook or serve them with fat. For instance, roast carrots with extra-virgin olive oil, ground cinnamon, salt and pepper, and drizzle with fresh lemon or orange juice.
Supplements & sports drinks
Don’t stress too much about gleaning all these essential nutrients—as long as you eat a balanced diet. “Eating all the food groups and a variety of types and colors within each food group, plus the carbs, proteins and fats that make up the foods we eat, sets us up for optimal nutrient intake,” White assures. He also notes that supplements lack the wealth of phytochemicals found in fresh produce.
Still, a multivitamin can be a smart strategy when diets are less balanced, he continues. Mangieri recommends multivitamins for athletes who consume few calories. That said, as Begun points out, “It’s important to know that everyone’s nutrition needs are unique, and which supplements to take and how much varies greatly from person to person.”
White believes that replenishing electrolytes is key after running marathons to avoid hyponatremia (a condition in which the amount of sodium in your bloodstream is too low). He recommends sports drinks with sugar after more than an hour of strenuous exercise, explaining that carbohydrates counter hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
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