The Runner’s Diet: What You Need to Know

As a runner, you know you need the right fuel to go the distance and run at your best. Whether you’re a casual runner or looking to improve your performance before your next race, you need to pay close attention to the foods you eat and the vitamins and minerals you’re consuming on a daily basis.

So, what’s the best diet for runners? If you’re looking to improve your performance, you need to look past protein and carbohydrates and think about the vitamins and minerals you’re getting from your diet. The ideal runner’s diet should include adequate amounts of the following nutrients.

Calcium for bone structure

Your body needs calcium to perform a variety of basic functions. It provides structure and hardness to bones and teeth, carries messages from nerves to the brain and other parts of the body. In terms of athletics, calcium is essential for muscle movement, aiding in muscle contraction and reducing risk of injuries like bone fractures.

There are several whole-food sources that can help you meet your daily calcium needs. Include more dairy, salmon and leafy greens in your diet, or consider taking a calcium supplement. Along with maintaining appropriate Vitamin D levels, boosting your calcium intake can help you maintain muscle mass, helping you stay lean and improving your performance.

Vitamin D to support bones

If you’re looking to increase your calcium levels, you should also take your Vitamin D levels into account. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that aids the body in absorbing calcium and regulating phosphorus to keep your bones healthy and strong.

If you regularly train indoors and have limited exposure to sunshine, consume more dairy to increase your daily intake of Vitamin D. If you follow a dairy-restricted diet, look for Vitamin D-fortified foods or consider supplementing. 

Iron for better oxygenation

Feeling like your energy levels are slipping? You might be iron deficient—it’s one of the most common mineral deficiencies around the world. This essential nutrient regulates your energy metabolism and carries oxygen to your muscles, helping them work efficiently and aiding in fat loss.

Lean meats are the richest source of iron, so if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to make some dietary changes. Eat more beans, nuts and iron-fortified foods to increase your daily iron intake or supplement for convenience and effectiveness.

Zinc for fortification

Athletes need a strong immune system, since being sidelined with an infection or other illness can quickly derail your training. Zinc supports many key bodily functions, including cell division and metabolism. Why should zinc specifically be included in a balanced diet for runners? Mainly because it repairs your tissues after exercise, reducing your recovery times and helping you get back in the gym, on the track or wherever you’re training. It also increases your aerobic capacity, helping send oxygen to muscles and improving your endurance.

A zinc deficiency will leave you feeling sluggish, and you may even be losing weight you don’t want to lose. Eat more zinc-rich foods like meat and poultry to increase your zinc intake. Again, vegetarians and vegans need to be more mindful of their zinc intake, eating beans, nuts and whole grains to maintain appropriate levels. Supplementing is usually a safe and effective way to improve your zinc levels, as well.

Magnesium for your cells

Keep your bones healthy and regulate levels of calcium and Vitamin D in the body by paying close attention to your magnesium intake. Magnesium promotes a whole host of functions that affect athletic performance. It helps maintain normal muscle function, heart rhythm, blood pressure and immune function. Magnesium is required by virtually every cell in the body, which means no one—athletes or couch potatoes alike—can afford to be deficient.

Since your body can’t make magnesium, you need to get it from your diet. There are several whole-food sources rich in magnesium, including almonds, roasted peanuts, spinach, broccoli and whole-grain bread. Most modern diets are low in magnesium-rich foods, which means that supplementing—as long as it’s safe for you to do so—is an ideal solution to low magnesium levels,

Athletic performance goes beyond willpower and determination

Whether you’re training for a triathlon or you’re just looking to stay fit and improve your everyday running performance, you need more than willpower—you need to make sure you’re getting your vitamins and minerals. If you’re concerned that you’re deficient in any of the nutrients listed above, consider making changes to your diet or talk to your doctor to determine if supplementing is safe for your particular situation.

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