The subtle elements of training, such as stretching, strength training and sleeping, often get neglected because we’re so focused on swimming, biking and running. This is also true of your nutrition plan. It’s easy to focus on the big picture of the typical endurance macronutrients—carbohydrates, fats and proteins—but sometimes it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference. Micronutrients are the true building blocks of nutrition, and are essential to an athlete’s performance.
The intake of micronutrients is something that Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D., director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Lab at the University of Colorado Denver, advises his athletes to emphasize in their nutrition. “Most micronutrients are involved in so many physiologic and metabolic parameters that their deficiency can cause problems and interfere with performance,” San Millán says. Allen knows this firsthand after experiencing a noted deficiency in his endurance and performance. He says, “Without micronutrients, your cells function at only a fraction of their potential.”
So what do micronutrients actually do? Plenty.
• Provide a solid foundation for basic health and functionality
• Enhance and support the immune system, bone growth and strength (vitamins A, E, C, D and K and calcium)
• Aid in the formation of hemoglobin to carry oxygen (iron)
• Support hydration (sodium, calcium, magnesium)
• Reduce inflammation (vitamins A and D)
• Regulate energy and nerve conduction (vitamin B)
Beyond the common vitamins and minerals, there are some other key micronutrients you should work on incorporating into your meals.
Phytonutrients are compounds that naturally occur in edible plants and, although not classified as “essential nutrients,” are recognized as a major asset to human health. While many phytonutrients have been identified, probably thousands more are yet to be uncovered—meaning that there are health reasons for consuming plant-based foods that we don’t even know about yet! This complexity is also the reason that vitamin pills can never replace the real thing—you are only ever going to get a fraction of the nutrients that scientists have been able to isolate, analyze and replicate. The best way to boost your phytonutrient intake is by concentrating on incorporating as many colors and varieties of plant foods into your diet.
Best food sources: Carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, dark leafy greens (carotenoids); onions, apples, blueberries and tea (flavonoids); soy (isoflavones)
Trace minerals are required for the proper functioning of biological processes including muscle contraction, bone health, nerve conduction, hormone production and energy metabolism. Trace minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, selenium and chromium are needed only in small amounts (less than 20mg/day, as opposed to the macrominerals such as calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium, which are required in quantities of more than 100mg/day). However even though only small amounts are needed, do not discount their importance. The consequences of a lack of iron may be well known, but also consider, for instance, zinc and its importance for immune function; selenium, which is essential for thyroid function and manganese and its role in a healthy nervous system. Athletes lose these minerals mostly through sweat and increased free-radical production caused by the stressors of training.
Best food sources: Nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, red meats (especially for iron) and seafood (such as oysters for zinc)
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are necessary fats—ones that the body cannot synthesize itself— classified as omega-3 and omega-6 fats. They are important for many aspects of health, including heart health and function, the maintenance and integrity of cell membranes and optimal functioning of nerve cells. Additionally, they have an essential role in reducing inflammation and regulating blood pressure. Getting the proper amount of fatty acids can help an athlete by improving aerobic capacity as well as recovery time.
Best food sources: Fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies), algae, flax oil, hemp seed and oil, sunflower seeds and nuts.