Micronutrients & Sports Performance

WNBF Pro Dr. Andrew Chappell

As a sports nutritionist, one of the common problems I come up against is trying to get people to eat more balanced and varied diets. People get stuck in a habit of eating the same things regularly, largely because it’s easy, a lack of cooking skills, or a lack of understanding around the importance of diet diversity. With that in mind check out this article I put together on micronutrients below.

Vitamins and minerals are essential micronutrients that play a key role in maintaining optimal health and performance in athletes. Micronutrients support a vast array of physiological processes including, but not limited to: energy metabolism, muscle function, and immune system function. Adequate intake of vitamins and minerals is crucial for athletes to sustain intense training, prevent injury, and improve overall athletic performance. A failure to consume adequate amounts of micronutrients, particularly during periods of intense training can result in a drop in performance or in extreme case nutritional deficiencies.

Vitamin D, for example, is essential for bone health, as it helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are necessary for strong bones. Athletes who are deficient in Vitamin D are at risk of stress fractures and other bone injuries. Female athletes, particularly those who take part in weight restricted sports, or those that emphasis lighter athletes e.g. running are at a greater risk because of their lower peak bone mass compared to male athletes. Vitamin D can be found in foods such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms, and can also be synthesized by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. It’s recommended during the winter months in northern parts of Europe that athletes supplement with Vitamin D. Whereas during the summer months levels can be topped up via sunlight exposure.

Sunlight aside, fatty fish, mushrooms, dairy and eggs are all great dietary sources of vitamin D

Iron is another important nutrient for athletes, as it plays a key role in oxygen transport throughout the body. Iron deficiency, known as anaemia, is a common nutritional deficiency seen in athletes, particularly in female athletes and vegetarians. Iron can be found in foods such as red meat, poultry, and seafood, as well as in plant-based sources like beans, lentils, and leafy greens. It’s worth noting however that there are different types of iron, and that haem iron has a much greater capacity for absorption compared with non-haem. Haem iron is found within animal-based products compared to non-haem. As a result, vegetarian females may still suffer from iron deficiency despite having a diet high in plant-based sources and supplementation may be advisable.

Meat aside, leafy green vegetables, pulses, nuts and eggs all contain iron

Vitamin C is also important for athletes, as it helps to support the immune system and promote wound healing. Although many of the issues around wound healing and immune function may be more associated with a lack of vitamin C rather than taking on additional amounts. As the are common problems seen in scurvy a vitamin C deficiency that was common amongst sailors during the 16th to 19th century where there was a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables during long haul voyages. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that helps to protect the body against free radical damage which if left unchecked may result in inflammation. Vitamin C can be found in foods such as oranges, strawberries, kiwi, and bell peppers. Athletes who are deficient in Vitamin C may be more susceptible to infection and injury. There is limited evidence to suggest that vitamin C may also be useful during the common cold for the aforementioned reasons, however, data on this suggest the effect may be limited if indeed there is any.

Citrus fruits are good sources of vitamin c, Kiwi in particularly high in the anti-oxidant

Calcium and magnesium are also essential micronutrients for athletes, as they play a critical role in muscle function and bone health. Calcium is more commonly known for it’s role in bone health as it forms one of the major constitutes of bone. However less well known is its role as an electrolyte and in muscle function. Calcium is necessary for muscle contraction and relaxation, while magnesium is necessary for muscle function and energy metabolism. Most sports drinks contain a mix of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium to help ensure optimal function and to replace any lost solutes during exercise. Athletes who are deficient in calcium and magnesium may experience muscle cramps, fatigue, and an increased risk of stress fractures. Calcium can be found in dairy products, leafy greens, and fortified foods, while magnesium can be found in nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.

Dairy, nuts and green leafy vegetables are the best sources of Calcium

Athletes should meet their micronutrient needs through a balanced and varied diet. Current UK recommendations suggest a minimum of 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day, with a portion equivalent to 90g. However, an intake of between 9 to 12 per day is suggested in North America. However, if an athlete has a specific deficiency, a dietary supplement may be recommended. It is important to note that individual needs do vary depending on age, sex, activity level, and overall health status. Taking multivitamins or greens powders can be a useful addition to an athlete’s dietary regime, however athletes who meet their needs through a healthy balanced diet will likely perform better, and build habits which will stand them in good stead for the duration of and beyond their athletic career. As I often state to many of my clients “A healthy diet is a high performance diet”

Common nutritional deficiencies seen in athletes and their food sources

Nutritional DeficienciesFood Sources
Vitamin DFatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms
IronRed meat, poultry, seafood, beans, lentils, leafy greens
Vitamin COranges, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers
CalciumDairy products, leafy greens, fortified foods
MagnesiumNuts, seeds, leafy greens