As an athlete my body is always being challenged and is in a constant state of repair. Recovering from a run or workout in a short time is important to me. One of the ways I speed recovery is by eating healthy everyday. Many sports nutrition articles focus on supplements and how to eat right before a race or on race day; while this is important we stand to benefit more on a whole from how we eat on a daily basis. Personally I feel like the best foods come from nature in the form of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and quality proteins such as fish, nuts, beans, legumes, and seeds. As a runner and triathlete the need for antioxidants, quality protein, iron and water is greater than a regular person. There are many antioxidants, but one I feel has particular importance for a runner is ascorbic acid or Vitamin C. Vitamin C helps to synthesize the protein collagen and is important for tissue healing and immune function. Vitamin C is an antioxidant which can help clean up free radicals produced from exercise. Free radicals are believed to initiate the cancer process and Vitamin C can help limit our exposure to them by donating the electron they are seeking (this topic deserves its own blog post – so check back). Cardiovascular exercise challenges the immune system so it is important to give the body the nutrients it needs to function optimally. Major sources of Vitamin C include green peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries, papayas, romaine lettuce and citrus fruits. While the adult RDA is 60 milligrams per day, an endurance athlete may require up to 200 milligrams per day. Consuming Vitamin C also helps with non-heme iron absorption making it alkaline in the small intestine.
Another important nutrient is iron which forms the hemoglobin of the red blood cells and myoglobin in muscle cells. This is important for respiration, immune function and compounds of energy production. Low levels of iron in the body can result in anemia which decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Anemia can also cause fatigue, loss of appetite, poor temperature regulation and a weakened immune system. Obviously this would be a very hazardous condition for any athlete. Getting enough iron is important and being careful not to over consume foods that decrease its absorption are key. For instance polyphenols (tannins) found in tea can reduce iron absorption.
In an effort to get enough iron we may be tempted to use iron supplements, however we must remember that high levels of iron at once can affect the absorption of other important minerals such as calcium and zinc. The best way to ensure nutrient balance is getting enough quality protein, fruits and vegetables in your daily diet, which is not as difficult as some might think. Iron can be found in red meat, legumes or beans, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, peas, bran and enriched foods (bread).
A great way to ensure a balanced diet is to keep a food journal. By logging what we eat daily it is easy to see where adjustments need to be made. Focus on increasing water and fruits and vegetables gradually. The goal is to consume and combination of 7 (women) to 9 (men) servings of fruits & vegetables per day. This may sounds like a lot, but it is really quite reasonable to get this amount. Generally a serving size is ½ cup or small piece of fruit. I suggest getting 2 fruits and 5-7 servings of vegetables per day. However, if you are not even close to that, just add 1 or 2 servings a day and work up to that level. Honestly sudden changes in diet can cause a lot of gastric distress and intestinal issues. Small improvements over time allow your body time to adapt to the increased fiber.
So in short, incorporating more quality protein, fruits and vegetables into the daily diet and maintaining the proper hydration levels will help speed recovery and help you perform better as an athlete.
Lora Erickson aka Blonde Runner is a competitive runner and triathlete with over 25 years of experience. She is the owner of Blonde Runner Health, LLC in Bountiful, Utah where she currently resides with her husband and four children. As a USATF certified running coach since 1996. She is also a certified personal trainer, health educator and nutrition consultant. Lora welcomes comments and questions. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.