“Tell me what I should be eating!”
At some point during our careers, we have all heard this query from motivated clients. As a health coach as well as a trainer, I frequently assist clients in designing meal plans appropriate for their goals as well as their lifestyles. Most clients claim that they wish to clean up their diets, and of course it can be accomplished. However, as we are well aware, desire and contemplation are not the same as integrating and taking action.
Change is tough for so many individuals, myself included. If a goal is going to be achieved, especially one heading toward improvements in athleticism or body composition, wherever the client’s status quo lies will have to be altered. When addressing an individual’s nutritional requirements for adding lean muscle mass, we are all well versed in the need for adequate protein intake, timing of carbs before and after strength -training sessions, and the importance of adding healthy fats and eliminating saturated fats. This is a typical framework for embarking on any new, healthier lifestyle.
Clean meal plans go much deeper than simply considering micronutrients. Essential vitamins and minerals are often lacking in a client’s current diet, and this too must be addressed. Since every activity level utilizes the body’s supply of such elements differently, the individual’s preferred method of exercise comes into play. Research has indicated that runners in particular often suffer from vitamin deficiencies without even realizing it. Simply adding clean calories is often not enough. Recently, the field of Nutrition Science has cast a light on the vitamin needs of athletes and the consequences of deficiencies. A recent study from the University of Oregon found that such decreased levels were common in athletes and runners, and that these deficiencies will most likely diminish athletic performance over time.
Before being told by a doctor or dietitian or health coach that deficiencies need to be addressed, runners typically complain of the following symptoms:
- Reduction in performance energy
- Perception of increased effort being spent during training
- Taking longer to recover between runs
- Becoming prone to infections and injury
- Injuries taking longer than usual to heal
While many seasoned athletes will often attribute these symptoms to merely “overdoing it” and choose to take a few extra rest days, these issues will flare up again once regular training is resumed. Few if any runners will first and foremost jump to a conclusion of lacking essential vitamins!
Some of the most common deficiencies seen in runners are low levels of iron, magnesium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and zinc. Often an over-the-counter multivitamin designed for mainstream use falls painfully short of the demands that a distance runner places on his body. By making a few key shifts while still focusing upon healthy eating, these deficiencies can rectify themselves.
The function of iron is to help the red blood cells deliver oxygen to all parts of the body. Iron also plays a vital role in the body’s production of energy. As one can imagine, depleted iron stores lead to overall body weakness, shortness of breath, and in severe cases, heart palpitations. All of these can spell disaster for a distance runner. Fortunately, there are many clean food sources that provide a generous helping of iron. In addition to red meat (especially liver), nuts, beans and dark green leafy vegetables will fit the bill, which is comforting for many vegetarian runners whose diets tend to consist largely of legumes and variations on a dark green leafy theme!
Vitamin D controls phosphate and calcium in the body, helping to regenerate bone mass and strengthen the body’s current bone integrity. A review published in the journal Molecular Aspects of Medicine, December 2008, revealed that Vitamin D actually increases the size of fast-twitch muscle fibers as well as muscular strength. Many outdoor distance runners operate under the assumption that training in adequate sunlight is sufficient enough for the body to produce good amounts of Vitamin D. My husband is one of those runners diagnosed with low Vitamin D levels, much to his surprise! Easily remedied, to ward off achy muscles and joints, we began to include greater quantities of foods such as salmon and eggs. As it turns out, mushrooms contribute one of the highest amounts of Vitamin D of all food sources.
Similarly to Vitamin D, magnesium is responsible for the health of a runner’s bone density. It also is a key player in the process of turning food into usable energy. Cramps, muscle spasms and dizziness are among the more commonly reported symptoms of magnesium deficiency, three components that will quickly sideline any runner. By including whole grain bread, brown rice, dairy products, fish and nuts in a weekly meal plan, magnesium stores should remain in an ideal range.
Vitamin B12 deficiencies are fairly common, even in non-athletes. Contributing to the well being of blood cells and nerve cells, low levels of Vitamin B12 may result in weakness, fatigue, anemia, and frequently depression as well. Since these attributes are vital in human performance, especially for runners, it may be prudent to include more salmon, cod, meat, and fortified cereals. Vegetarians and vegan runners are very susceptible to deficiencies in this vitamin, so close attention must be paid to the adjustment and adequate intake of plant sources of Vitamin B12.
Zinc is one of those elements that often slip through the cracks of a typical healthy diet. While helping to boost the body’s immune system, zinc also facilitates the processing of macronutrients. Runners who become aware of a dip in appetite, an increase in hair loss, or suddenly being unable to fight one infection after another may be experiencing a zinc deficiency. Meat, dairy products, and shellfish contain potent amounts of zinc, and may be easily incorporated into a runner’s clean diet.
In addition to the aforementioned vitamins, Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) are vital for optimal athleticism. Since the body is incapable of manufacturing its own supply of omega-3 EFA’s, these must be obtained through food sources. Lack of inclusion in a runner’s diet of foods rich in EFA’s can cause depression and loss of memory. While these symptoms by themselves may not immediately signal alarm for a runner, depression over the course of time can lead to decreased levels of motivation. An easy nutritional remedy is to add fatty fish to the menu, such as salmon and tuna (my personal favorites). If your athletic client has a fish aversion, EFA’s may also be obtained through the consumption of walnuts, flax oil, and ground flax meal.
Having never considered myself to be a runner, preferring bodybuilding as my hobby of choice, I was surprised when a client asked me to join her in running a 5K. I trained for 3 months, and the event was held December 13th. While doing the training runs 3 times a week, in addition to my already full schedule of teaching aerobics, personal training, health coaching and bodybuilding, it was fascinating for me to observe my body’s reaction to this increase in caloric expenditure. Some days I was very sore, and other days I felt fabulous. However, I did need to alter my meal plan to include more of the foods listed above, and in greater quantities. Much to my surprise — really stunning to me, actually — I completed my very first 5K in about a half hour, in the rain. While I still cannot consider myself to be a runner, I conquered a goal I had set for myself, and learned much about the human body’s nutritional requirements in the process.
Time to lace up!