‘Every drop makes an ocean’- professional and serious recreational athletes know how well this philosophy applies to training. The objective of training is to optimize every individual variant, no matter how small, to achieve the best performance. When it comes to nutrition, most athletes focus on nailing down the precise ratio of the right carbs, proteins and fats that they need to consume to meet their performance goals. However, it is equally important for athletes to learn how they can harness micronutrients to give themselves the competitive edge.
Micronutrients are chemical elements that are required in trace amounts for normal growth and development. On a biochemical level, micronutrients are crucial to various metabolic processes in the human body – ranging from energy generation, to ensuring the smooth functioning of our muscular system. Owing to their far reaching effects on human health, micronutrients have been the focus of studies to determine their impact on sports nutrition. There remains little doubt that supplementation of key micronutrients has a range of benefits for athletes and physically active individuals. In this issue, we look at three such micronutrients.
Magnesium is sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten micronutrient’ because of the relatively less attention it has received in sports nutrition. The awful cramps and crushing fatigue you sometimes feel after a particularly grueling workout – those could be the result of magnesium depletion. Magnesium is an important component in the energy production process in our bodies. In athletes, high levels of physical activity can result in the quick depletion of magnesium, which can further lead to cramping and general lethargy. Apart from its role in generating energy, magnesium’s antioxidant properties also helps lower the accumulation of lactic acid in muscles. Chronic magnesium deficiency has also been linked to increased risk of osteoporosis, low immunity and reduced bone mineral density, underscoring the importance of including magnesium in your diet.
Certain food sources like spinach, almonds, black beans, figs and bananas and pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium, and are easy to include in your diet. Athletes with deficiency can also consume whole grains and cereal fortified with magnesium. Given that magnesium is lost through sweat as an electrolyte, athletes need to be particular mindful about consuming sports hydration drinks which contain magnesium. Consuming magnesium enriched sports drinks after exercise can also relieve muscle soreness and fatigue.
Ain’t no sunshine without Vitamin D
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but despite the popular awareness of vitamin D, did you know that around 80% of the Indian population is deficient in this micronutrient?
The epidemic levels of vitamin D in India are a testimony to the fact that many of us are not getting the necessary exposure to sunlight needed for the synthesis of vitamin D. Vitamin D is synthesized naturally in our skin when exposed to sunlight. However, factors such as reduced skin exposure due to traditional clothing and long hours spent indoors can result in insufficient synthesis of vitamin D.
While vitaminD’s role in maintaining the health of connective tissue is well known, evidence suggests that athletes have higher requirements of this vitamin owing to the increased stress on their bones and muscles. The fact that many of our athletes and active individuals train in the early mornings or late evenings limits their exposure to sunlight and makes them particularly vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D plays a role in the effective absorption of calcium in the body, with low levels of vitamin D adversely affecting calcium levels. Vitamin D also plays a part in immune health by keeping common illnesses at bay. Evidence also suggests that adequate vitamin D levels can lower recovery times post-exercise.
While food sources like fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice, and fortified whole grain cereals can supply the body with some amount of vitaminD, supplementation is essential to ensure that athletes get the recommended intake commensurate with their levels of physical activity. Most supplements offer vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplementation as opposed to vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), as vitamin D3 is proven to be more potent. Studies have shown that when vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 was given to individuals in equal concentration, the absorption of vitamin D3 was much greater than that of vitamin D2.
While most vitamin D3 supplements are derived from inorganic sources, organic vitamin D3 supplements are now available in India. Organic supplements are sourced from Lichens, which are the only plant-based source of vitamin D3. Before starting on supplementation, it is important that athletes get their levels checked, and consult a healthcare professional to decide the best course to get their vitamin D levels to the normal range. Of course, apart from supplementation, athletes and non-athletes alike can benefit from getting some sun exposure. The vitamin D synthesized in the skin depends on the level of melanin (darker skin takes longer than fairer skin to generate the same amounts of the vitamin). However, 15-30 minutes of sun exposure at noon for 3-4 times a week is recommended. So, get out there and soak up the sun!
The heart of the matter – CoQ10
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) remains a relatively unknown nutrient to the athletic community in India, despite CoQ10 being one of the most abundant nutrients in the human body (it’s so ubiquitous that CoQ10 is also known as ‘ubiquinone’). Coenzyme is abundantly found in the body because of its role in the energy metabolism. CoQ10 also has strong antioxidant properties, and studies have demonstrated lower levels of oxidative stress and faster recovery times in athletes who supplemented with CoQ10. The most important benefit of COQ10 for athletes relates to its role in protecting the heart. CoQ10’s cardiovascular benefits are well documented, and studies suggest that this nutrient can boost endurance and capacity for aerobic exercise. Since CoQ10 has a major part in promoting the energy metabolism, supplementation can also significantly improve overall performance during endurance exercise.
However, it is extremely hard to meet your CoQ10 requirements from your diet. You would have to take 17 lbs. of peanuts or 206 cups of broccoli to acquire the daily requirement of 200mg of CoQ10! Moreover, supplementation becomes more important with age, as CoQ10 depletion in the body accelerates after 40.
The great news is that there are natural CoQ10 supplements now available in India that are derived from CoQ10 that is bio-identical to the CoQ10 produced in the body. Since such CoQ10 supplements are natural and organic, they are highly bio-available and are efficiently utilized by the body. With long-term supplementation, you should experience an improvement in your aerobic capacity and faster recovery times.
Along with these micronutrients, you should also be looking at micronutrients like omega-3 DHA and phytonutrients like Curcumin, which go a long way towards maintaining overall health and immunity. Including a balanced profile of micronutrients and phytonutrients in your diet can have long term benefits towards injury-prevention, preventing inflammation, and preserving the health of bones and muscles. Additionally, you should also regularly check your levels of nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin C and zinc, as low levels of certain nutrients might be a symptom that your body is under stress or an indicator of certain conditions. As much as possible, ensure that the supplementation you take is derived from organic sources.
Embrace these tiny molecules to experience big gains in your performance. When it comes to training and nutrition, every little increment matters. Happy training!
Kinita Kadakia Patel(Sports Nutrition Consultant)
BHSc, MSc. Dietetics
Dip Sports Nutrition Oxford College London
Cert. Sports Dietician by SDA Australia
Cert. Specialist in Peak Performance ISSA USA