"When everything else is equal, nutrition can make the difference between winning and losing.”
There is no doubt that the foods we consume not only affect our health but also directly influence our performance for fitness and sport. Proper nutrition provides the raw materials to function optimally under periods of intense activity. There are many 'silver bullet' approaches to sports nutrition which may result in small gains in performance, but the more significant benefits are more likely to result from normalising physical, psychological and physiological well-being. When we do this, we reduce bouts of illness and improve recovery. And it is this that provides the best foundation for adequate training and performance. While most of us have an idea of the importance of energy availability and macronutrient intake for sports performance, the role of micronutrients (vitamins minerals and phytonutrients) are often understated. But in the same way that physical activity increases demands for macronutrients, requirements for micronutrients as biological substrates also increases.
Undereating seems to be a common occurrence in athletes and makes it difficult to meet energy and nutrient requirements, particularly in endurance sports. This can lead to overtraining syndrome, overuse injuries and poor recovery overall. Eating both the right quantity and quality food to match your physical activity presents a practical challenge. Research has shown that the diets of athletes are often deficient in carbohydrate, folate, vitamins A, C and D, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Furthermore, exercise can increase the metabolism of micronutrients such as magnesium, riboflavin, B6 and others. This is the reason why these increased nutritional demands go beyond the recommended daily allowances (RDA) of vitamins and minerals – RDAs are population-based recommendations that have the primary goal of preventing nutrient deficiency. And these levels are just insufficient for the increased demands of athletic performance.
So, meeting micronutrient requirements is essential for optimal health performance and recovery. The question then is, do we supplement and with what? I am a great believer in "testing, not guessing", and there are now advanced functional-nutrition lab tests that will give you an accurate nutrient status from a simple urine sample.
The first thing to say is that nutritional supplements cannot replace a healthy, varied diet but they can support common dietary shortfalls. Core supplements include a high-quality multivitamin and mineral formula, extra Vitamins D and C, a probiotic and fish oil. Sport approved formulations, such as Biocare One-a-day Vitamins and Minerals, or Solgar Omnium high-strength multi-nutrient are a good place to start. Adequate vitamin D is also essential and there are many forms from capsules to simple oral spray – ideally, the dose should be based on a tested blood level, but most people would require 3-4000 units per day in winter and 1500-2000 units in summer. Gut support is also important for training, so a good multi-strain probiotic formula is a good idea, as is increased intake of antioxidants, particularly vitamin C (1-2000 mg per day). The final core supplement is an additional source of the essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6). Fish oils are the most potent source of Omega-3 (EPA and DHA) which are very beneficial in sport, primarily due to the beneficial effects on inflammation.
Beyond these core supplements, it is worth considering, or getting advice on, taking additional magnesium, as our soils and foods do not supply as much as they once did. Coenzyme Q 10 supports the release of energy and is a potent antioxidant – doses of 100 mg to 300 mg per day have been shown to increase performance in Olympic athletes. Inflammation support is also a strong consideration – one of the most studied group of compounds in this area are those extracted from turmeric root as Curcumin. It is important to choose a bioavailable form of this, as powdered root is poorly absorbed. Joint comfort, mobility and flexibility can also be supported with specific nutrients and botanicals – Solgar-7 being one particular product of note. Other more individual needs may point to adding additional specific nutrients for bone support or recovery.