As an endurance athlete, trying to focus on more than the three disciplines of triathlon: swimming, biking and running can be challenging, I get it. Sometimes there’s just no time or energy left over for the extra things that can support your efforts to be a more well-balanced triathlete. Extras like stretching, sleeping, strength training, mindset and nutrition. There’s no doubt that optimizing your nutrition, specifically your micronutrient intake, can take your athletic performance and recovery to that next level you might be searching for.
The importance of better nutrition is becoming more well-recognized and more accepting. Heck, these days we’re even talking about how a more predominantly plant-based diet can elevate your athletic endurance, performance and let’s not forget about recovery. Making nutrition a priority in your triathlon training can be the difference between an amazing finish or an upsetting one.
Micronutrient testing is a tool to help individualize your athletic nutrition plan to improve your speed, strength and precision so you have more amazing finishes to celebrate!
What are Micronutrients?
Endurance athletes are typically ultra focused on the macronutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat. Frequently ignored and forgotten about are the micronutrients. What are micronutrients? In short they’re vitamins and minerals that you get through eating a variety of different foods. For the most part, your body cannot make micronutrients so they must come from the foods you eat.
So what foods do you have to eat to get your micronutrients; lots of plants…plant-based foods are popping with a variety of micronutrients but you can find them in animal products as well. Every food has it’s own design or make-up of micronutrients making it notably important to work in variety.
Why do Triathletes need Micronutrients?
You know protein is important for rebuilding muscle you know carbohydrates are important for energy BUT what do micronutrients do and why are they so important? Micronutrients are necessary for optimal health. Each vitamin, each mineral playing its part in the overall picture of health.
Vitamins regulate metabolic and neurologic processes, energy creation and they prevent the destruction of our cells. Minerals are needed for a host of metabolic processes, they make up the structure of our tissues, they make up important components of enzymes and hormones and they regulate metabolic and neuralgic control.
In short, they support growth, immune function, brain development, energy production, bone development, electrolyte balances and collagen formation. They also aid in the formation of red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles, work to reduce inflammation and so on. Micronutrients are critical and a part of almost every process in your body including protecting you against disease. So, can you see how being deficient might disrupt not only your day to day function but also your athletic performance?
5 Ways Vitamins and Minerals can Support the Triathlete
- Minimize oxidative stress
- Improve mental focus and brain injury protection
- Enhance immunity
- Boost cellular energy
- Accelerate muscle recovery
Minimize oxidative stress
Y’all ask your body to do BIG things. You train, you race, you train some more and then you race some more. Putting your body through intense physical activity provokes stress, specifically oxidative stress.
Okay, what’s that?
Oxidative stress shows up when there’s an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body.
Why should you care about free radicals? When there’s more free radicals moving around the body they tend to start doing damage that lead to diseases like heart disease, inflammatory conditions, atherosclerosis, muscular fatigue and aging.
So, how do you prevent high levels of oxidative stress in the body?
Maximize your antioxidant status to heal post-workout damage.
Antioxidants are molecules that fight those free radicals that lead to oxidative stress or disease inside your body. Have you heard of vitamins C and E before? I know you have, these are two major antioxidants. Other antioxidants you may have heard of, but are not limited to, are coenzyme Q10 and selenium.
You can see how important it is to keep your level of antioxidants high, especially during race season when your physical activity is at its peak, right? How can you do this? Focus on your nutrition, make sure you’re including….can you guess?
YES, lots of plant-based foods! Foods such as fruits and vegetables but other plant-based whole foods such as nuts and seeds, high quality complex carbohydrates as well as beans and legumes.
Improve mental focus
Your brain demands increased amounts of fuel, much of that coming from carbohydrates but micronutrients definitely play their role. Antioxidants, B vitamins, coenzyme Q10 and omega-3 fatty acids all influence mental energy.
Staying on top of your mental energy allows you to make good judgement calls during your training sessions but especially on race day. Being able to make calculated moves when your exhausted can make or break a race.
Evidence suggests intense or heavy load training sessions can deplete glutamine, an amino acid playing a critical role in immunity. Low glutamine levels can leave the athlete with a subpar immune function and susceptible to illness.
Adequate glutamine levels are also instrumental in decreased fatigue and recovery. Its other jobs include cell growth and multiplication, energy production and reduced ammonia accumulation in the muscle among other things.
Although the body can make glutamine, when participating in exhaustive exercises such as endurance sports glutamine is considered essential. It’s thought that because the bodies demand is extremely high it cannot keep with the demands and deficiency may occur.
Boost cellular energy
Do you think about how your body functions on a day to day basis? What about when you’re putting it through the stress of a hard training session or a race? Each cell in your body is a powerhouse ready to generate energy to your muscles, heart and nerves.
But your performance depends on what you feed your cells. It’s going to predict whether you hit your peak performance or you hit your all time low. One micronutrient deficiency can compromise the way energy is produced and how your muscles are fueled.
Accelerate muscle recovery
When your body uses micronutrients from the food you eat it’s going to help support muscle health. Your nutrition plan is going to dictate how fast you can recover from intense workouts and races.
Do you suffer from muscle soreness or an injured muscle, how’s your muscle endurance? Focusing on specific micronutrients can enhance the health of your muscles thus improving outcomes.
Most Important Micronutrients for Athletes
Most common micronutrients of concern when assessing the triathletes diet include but are not limited to calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, glutamine as well as antioxidants vitamins C and E, selenium and B-carotene .
This mineral is especially important for growth, maintenance and repair of bone tissues, maintenance of blood calcium levels, regulation of muscle contraction, nerve conduction, and normal blood clotting.
When calcium and vitamin D levels are inadequate this can increase the risk for low bone mineral density. In athletes, especially endurance athletes this can lead to a higher risk for stress fractures.
Zinc’s role in the body is the growth, building and repair of muscle tissue, energy production and immune status. Interestingly, survey data indicates that a large number of Americans have zinc levels below the recommended levels. Of note, decreases in muscle strength, endurance and cardiorespiratory function have been documented in individuals with low zinc levels.
This micronutrient or mineral has a multitude of jobs just as the others do. It’s responsible for a variety of roles in cellular metabolism, it regulates membrane stability and neuromuscular, cardiovascular, immune and hormonal functions.
Reports suggest athletes consume this micronutrient in inadequate amounts. Magnesium deficiencies increase oxygen requirements to complete sub-maximal exercise and because of this can lead to impaired endurance performance.
B vitamins is instrumental for optimal energy production, building and repair of muscle tissues and brain health.
Stress, whether it’s environmental, personal, physical etc. can have an effect on your body depleting B vitamins more rapidly.
As a stand alone, evidence isn’t strong when drawing a direct correlation between vitamin D and its effect on endurance, performance or recovery. There is very strong evidence showing that vitamin D is required for adequate calcium absorption and therefore has a direct effect on promoting bone health and decreasing risk for stress fractures.
As mentioned before, various antioxidants including vitamins C and E, selenium and B-carotene play a significant role in decreasing oxidative damage that can occur from prolong exercise.
Which athletes are at the greatest risk? Those who tend to restrict calories, fat intake or limit intake of plant-based foods.
Micronutrient Testing as a Tool for Triathletes
Micronutrient testing is a great tool for you, the triathlete. It allows you to asses for any deficiencies and/or borderline deficiencies you might have. This gives you an opportunity to correct them. There isn’t enough evidence to show that supplementation without deficiencies will boost performance, endurance and/or recovery.
Enough evidence suggests that if you’re deficient in a specific micronutrient especially a nutrient that is directly tied to performance, endurance and/or recovery (and there’s many of them), replenishing into a normal range can make a difference in how you show up as an athlete.
Recently, Don had his micronutrient levels tested through SpectraCell Laboratories. This is what he uncovered.
- Manganese – boarderline deficient
- Pantothenate (B vitamin) – boarderline deficient
- Selenium – boarderline deficient
- Vitamin B2 – boarderline deficient
Using SpectraCell testing gives a picture of the past 6 months and the impact of micronutrient performance. During the 6 months prior to testing, Don had been taking max dosage of a high quality multivitamin and he had also been supplementing with high quality glutamine. During those 6 months he was also in the midst of heavy training preparing for Ironman Chattanooga.
Stress can negatively influence macronutrients. Unfortunately, the body can’t distinguish between the different stressors we encounter. Being a new mother, becoming an entrepreneur, being in a motor vehicle accident, suffering from burns or participating in endurance sports. Although all different they can have the same effect on the body.
Despite there not being enough data to convince us that using stand alone supplements will enhance performance and endurance for the athlete there are recommendations for the use of a high quality multivitamin.
More likely than not the usage of a high quality multivitamin at max dosage was helpful in replenishing micronutrient levels for Don. Especially during very high intensity training and difficultly keeping up with the high nutrition demands in those couple of months prior to racing Ironman Chattanooga.
We don’t know what Don’s test looked prior to training but we know what it looked like afterwards. His glutamine levels are optimal, even after training heavily and racing a full Ironman. Don credits the use of a multivitamin and supplemental glutamine to improvements in his training efforts, quick recovery, decreased muscle soreness, his overall energy and endurance levels and his performance at Ironman Chattanooga despite a crash on the bike and a fractured bone in his shoulder.
Currently, Don’s goal is to replenish deficient micronutrient levels and retest in 6 months to see where his levels are at. It’s important to see if his nutrition and supplementation are working so his body can be in top-notch working order for race season.
Always Food First, Supplements Second
The main issue seen with endurance athletes is underconsumption of nutrition. More times than not athletes are either purposefully restricting food, consuming an unbalanced diet, not meeting their nutritional needs because of being in the midst of training and racing when nutritional needs are exceptionally high and they just can’t keep up or restricting one or more food groups from their diet due to intolerances or personal preference . Following a predominantly plant-based diet falls under personal preference and although following this type of diet has great benefits this nutrition plan can decrease or eliminate certain micronutrients from the diet.
Hands down focusing on creating a well-balanced, whole foods, predominately plant-based diet is the way to go.
No persons diet is perfect. Typically diets eb and flow with what life is handing us at the moment.
For example, we all get crazy busy during the holidays and with less time for meal prep and more goodies everywhere our diets are typically off from the norm or maybe it’s vacation time or you’re in the thick of training and racing and although this is when your diet should really be spot on it’s actually lacking overall and your lacking consumption of enough nutrients.
Don’t supplement to just supplement. From what the data tells us more times than not supplementing without deficiencies doesn’t improve athletic performance. But supplementing when deficiencies are present is a different story. A deficiency is more likely to affect your athletic performance versus using supplementation to enhance athletic performance when no deficiency is present.
When deficiencies are already present using only food sources to get levels up into the adequate range can be a challenge. To boost repletion many times high quality supplements, devoid of fillers, is needed.
The goal with micronutrient testing is to gather data, correct any deficiencies and re-test in 6-8 months. Supplements are meant to improve the overall function of your body they’re not meant to be taken forever without a goal in place.
Because of the way our food is grown and sold in today’s world it’s thought that whole foods although still very nutritious don’t embody the nutrients they once did. We also know that athletes typically under consume nutrients and that our micronutrients are very interconnected (another reason for a multivitamin). For example, if a certain enzyme needs to do its job but it relies on 3 micronutrients to get that job done and 1 of the micronutrients is deficient the job cannot get done or done as well. This is when you may see energy, strength, endurance and performance suffer. It’s like a domino effect.
Because of the stress on the body from intense physical training, imperfect nutrition habits, less nutritious whole foods, health issues and so on it’s recommended that athletes take at minimum a high quality multivitamin for starters and then test from there .
Interested in Micronutrient Testing?
Interested in micronutrient testing and using this tool to replenish any deficiencies you might have to improve energy, strength, endurance and overall athletic performance? Reach out for a FREE 20-minute discovery call via phone by emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s always good practice to work with a qualified health professional when testing or adding supplements. I would enjoy being that person for you.
If you have any questions or comments about nutrition or micronutrient testing leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!
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Dietitian Kathleen and Kona-Qualifier Don Oswalt
Welcome to Eat Love Triathlon! We’re Don and Kathleen your go-to dietitian and triathlete. Together, we’re here to share our latest and greatest tips, with you, on how to be a well-balanced triathlete with nutrition, triathlon and keeping harmony in your relationships. We’re excited you’ve stopped by, happy reading and don’t be shy about reaching out. We’d love to hear from you!