Photo: Davide Angelini

The Vital Nutrients and Supplements Every Runner Should Know

From macros to micros, these nutrients will keep your body healthy mile after mile.

Everyone needs to consume a wide range of nutrients to maintain a healthy body. That’s especially true for runners, because running adds an additional level of stress to the system. Getting the right nutrients is imperative to not only helping you run better, but also feeling strong and healthy in your day-to-day life.

It’s generally better to get all your nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, from real food as opposed to taking supplements in powder or pill form. Unprocessed foods deliver beneficial nutrients more easily to your body’s various systems. Real food is also less expensive than powders and supplements. Even so, runners with dietary restrictions may want to use supplements to make sure they’re covering all their nutritional bases.

Here’s a closer look at the specific nutrients that are vital to keeping runners healthy.

What’s a Nutrient?

Nutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Nutritionists and dieticians refer to carbohydrates, proteins, and fats as “macronutrients” because they’re the main sources of fuel for the body. Vitamins and minerals are classified as “micronutrients” because, while also important, they’re required in smaller quantities.

Macronutrients

These are the major nutrients that the body needs. Here’s a look at why they’re important for runners.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates break down into glucose, and glucose is what your body uses for energy (which is why energy foods, like gels and chews, mostly deliver carbohydrates over other macronutrients). Simple carbohydrates are the easiest for your body to break down, which is why simple carbs are recommended as pre-running fuel. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, take longer to digest. Your body needs both. If you don’t have enough carbohydrate stores, your body starts burning fat and protein, which can lead to injuries and other health problems.

Sources of simple carbohydrates: plain breads, bananas, dried fruit 

Sources of complex carbohydrates: whole wheat or whole grain breads, brown rice, legumes

 Fats

Healthy fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, including omega-3 fatty acids—lubricate your joints and help your body absorb other essential nutrients. Fat also helps you feel satiated, and can help you recover—those same omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to reducing inflammation. Even runners looking to lose weight should keep some fat in their diets for a healthy balance.

Sources of fats: nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados

Proteins

Protein is what your body uses to build and repair muscle—that’s why it’s important to ingest protein following your runs, especially after particularly long or hard efforts. It’s also important to consume some protein throughout the day to constantly support your tissues, keep cells healthy and build new ones, and maintain energy levels. Protein powders and pre-mixed recovery drinks can be an effective way to ingest protein post-run; they also tend to contain beneficial micronutrients. Powders will be either made of whey protein (animal-based), or soy protein (plant-based).

Sources of protein: meat, fish, beans

Photo: Rasulov

Micronutrients

These refer to vitamins and minerals, the chemical elements required in small amounts for proper growth and development. The effort of running depletes the body’s micronutrients—research from 2019 suggests vegan or vegetarian runners may need to supplement iron, and vitamins B6 and B12 lost through sweating, for instance. Running, and working out in general, creates inflammation in the body and can even make us immunocompromised. (It’s why we feel run-down following hard workouts.) Therefore, runners need to make sure they’re replenishing those stores to stay healthy. There’s a wide range of micronutrients necessary for proper health, but the five key micros below make a big impact.

Electrolytes

These minerals allow your body to produce the electrical impulses that cause muscles to fire and stabilize blood pressure, for example. Electrolytes also help maintain proper hydration. Electrolyte chemicals include sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonates. Runners lose electrolytes through sweat, so it’s very important to replace them during and after a run. Energy drinks, powders, chews and gels contain electrolytes (and other micronutrients) for this reason.

Sources of electrolytes: pickles (sodium), bananas (potassium), beets (magnesium), chloride (tomatoes), yogurt (calcium). Electrolyte replacement products, like pills, powders, tablets, and pre-mixed drinks, often contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.

Iron

This mineral helps red blood cells transport oxygen from your lungs to your muscles and the rest of your body. Iron is essential for forming new blood cells and maintaining your energy. Female runners, in particular, often have low iron levels.

Sources of iron: red meat, shrimp, spinach   

Vitamin C

This is an antioxidant, which means it helps your body fight off the general wear and tear caused by running and exercise. It aids in the growth and repair of tissues; it can also help decrease inflammation and help your body absorb iron.

Sources of vitamin C: citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli

B Vitamins

B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and B-12, affect your overall metabolic system. They help maintain your energy levels, form new red blood cells, and repair muscle tissue.

Sources of vitamin B: eggs, beans, fish

 Vitamin D

While we do get vitamin D from sun exposure, runners need to make sure they’re getting some through their diet, too. Vitamin D helps absorb calcium, which is essential for bone health (and avoiding stress fractures). Additionally, it helps with nerve stimulation and proper immune system function.  

Sources of vitamin D: eggs, salmon, milk

To get all the micronutrients you need, make sure you’re eating a well-rounded diet that includes the foods mentioned above. If your energy levels are particularly low, or you get sick or injured often, consider getting bloodwork done to see if you have any underlying nutrient deficiencies.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.