Optimal nutrition is important for everyone’s health. But when it comes to those training for ultra-endurance events, you need to double down on that advice.
Ultra-marathons, iron-man competitions, triathlons - basically, anything at or above 6 hours of constant physiological stress goes in the books as an ultra-endurance event. These require long, intense training regimens to increase strength and aerobic capacity while avoiding negative health risks like muscle tears, stress fractures, gastrointestinal complications, dehydration, and a host of others.
A critical part of training and race-day performance not to be overlooked is nutrition. And while many athletes and trainers are well aware of this, often the discussion ends at the macronutrient level (i.e., fats, carbs, and protein).
But micronutrients - vitamins and minerals - can sometimes get lost in the discussion. This is a mistake. These key building blocks are necessary for bone and muscle health, as well as energy production and immune health. They are also important for adaptation and recovery.
Published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine, Eric Williamson has reviewed the scientific literature regarding proper nutrition encountered during ultra-endurance events. Here are some micronutrients for ultra-endurance athletes to help them maintain peak health and performance.
Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health and have been shown to reduce stress fractures when taken at adequate intake levels. Much of our vitamin D gets synthesized from sunlight, so those training in northern latitudes or mostly indoors should consider supplementation.
B-vitamins are critical for energy metabolism and repairing muscle tissue. But two that are particularly noteworthy are vitamin B12 and folate. A lack of either of these vitamins can result in anemia and dramatically reduce an athlete’s time to fatigue. It’s important to remember that vitamin B12 is only present in animal products, so vegetarians (and especially vegans) should consider fortified products or supplementation.
Low iron is another culprit for anemia. Iron helps hemoglobin transport oxygen and is commonly low in ultra-endurance athletes. Both meats (heme iron) and vegetables (non-heme iron) can be sources of dietary iron.
Zinc is important for muscle repair, energy metabolism, and immune health, while magnesium is important for proper functioning of the nervous and musculoskeletal system. Athletes typically need more of these key minerals, but taking too much of either of these can potentially produce negative health consequences. Be sure to ingest adequate levels, but consider checking intake levels to avoid overconsumption and toxicity.
Although more studies are needed, there currently is not much evidence to suggest supplementing your diet with antioxidants prior to a race provides any benefit. However, vitamins C and E and selenium can help protect against oxidative stress that is prevalent among ultra-athletes and can potentially lead to negative health consequences like cardiac dysfunction or injury.
Three important insights come from this review:
Maintain a consistently healthy diet, especially during training. Certainly pay attention to your macronutrient plan, but don’t forget to mind your micros!
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