Whether you’re a beginner or veteran, you’ll know that nutrition is vital to a runner’s health and well-being. Runners need more calories to sustain themselves because of the energy they’re expending.
While most of us know we need to eat more, do you know what other nutritional needs your body has? Many of us don’t, and this often leads to nutritional deficiencies. Being deficient in certain nutrients is very common in runners, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
There are plenty of ways you can help your body by topping up your nutrients and knowing the warning signs. If you leave nutritional deficiencies unchecked, you could struggle with running injuries, poor performance, and serious health issues.
7 Common Nutritional Deficiencies For Runners
Nutritional deficiencies are fairly common in runners, especially when focusing on running for weight loss or increased mileage. Here are the most common nutritional deficiencies and what you can do to fix them.
Recommended Daily Intake: 8 – 10 mg (men), 15 – 18 mg (women)
Why It’s Important: Iron helps metabolize carbohydrates to give your muscles energy. It also produces hemoglobin, which helps your red blood cells carry oxygen to your muscles. When you have an iron deficiency, your body has less oxygen fed to it. It affects your stamina and strength, especially during intensive exercise.
Sources: The best sources of iron are red meats, but some of the other great sources of iron include:
- Poultry and meats (beef, pork, lamb, etc.)
- Seafood (oysters, clams, muscles)
- Egg (with yolk)
- Fortified grains (quinoa, bulgar wheat, barley)
- Lentils, beans, and legumes
- Dried fruit and raisins
- Seeds and nuts
- Soy products
- Vegetables (dark greens, peas, potatoes)
NOTE: Avoid milk and dairy products if you’re iron-deficient, as calcium suppresses iron absorption. Vitamin C aids in absorption, so include this in your daily diet.
Symptoms of Low Iron: Some of the signs and symptoms of low iron include general fatigue, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, decrease in performance, dizziness, increased heart rate, headaches, pale appearance, cold extremities, and dry, cracked lips.
See more: How much iron do runners need?
Recommended Daily Intake: 1,000 – 1,200 mg
Why It’s Important: Calcium is vital for bone density maintenance and development. When you have calcium deficiency, you’re at an increased risk of stress fractures due to low bone density. Your muscle contraction may also be impacted.
Sources: Most of us know the best source of calcium is dairy products, but the other sources you can get it from include:
- Orange juice
- Dark leafy greens
- Nut milks
- Winter squash
- Tofu and edamame
- Canned salmon and sardines (with bones)
Symptoms of Low Calcium: Some signs and symptoms of low calcium include extreme fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, lightheadedness, brain fog, muscle twitches, tingling or numbness in the hands, feet, or mouth, and cramps and spasms.
3. Vitamin D
Recommended Daily Intake: 600 IU
Why It’s Important: Vitamin D, despite its name, is a hormone produced in the skin. It’s absorbed from food (10%) and sunlight (90%). It’s critical for metabolizing calcium, so it impacts the musculoskeletal system. It’s also important for a strong immune system, weight management, and mental health.
Sources: The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight, but there are a few food sources you can include, such as:
- Fatty fish (tuna, sardines, salmon, catfish)
- Fortified foods (milk, cereal, yogurt)
- Cod liver oil
- Fortified orange juice
Symptoms of Low Vitamin D: Some symptoms of low Vitamin D include low mood, bone aches, muscle cramps and weakness, fatigue, insomnia, hair loss, and loss of appetite.
4. Vitamin B12
Recommended Daily Intake: 2.4 mcg
Why It’s Important: Vitamin B12 is critical for keeping your body’s blood and nerve cells healthy. It also prevents low iron levels and a certain type of anemia.
Sources: The best source of Vitamin B12 is a supplement, but some food sources contain small amounts of B12, including:
- Fish (cod and salmon)
- Fortified soy products
Symptoms of Low Vitamin B12: Signs of low B12 levels include depression, extreme fatigue, lack of energy, pins and needles, mouth ulcers, sore tongue, vision issues, muscle weakness, and confusion.
Recommended Daily Intake: 8 – 11 mg
Why It’s Important: Zinc plays a large part in the repair and growth of muscle tissue. It helps your body process protein, carbohydrates, and fat in food. It’s been proven to fortify the immune system and aid in wound healing. Being deficient in zinc may lead to a decrease in endurance and strength.
Sources: The best sources of zinc include:
- Shellfish (oysters, crab)
- Milk and other dairy products
- Meat (especially beef)
- Fortified cereal
- Grain breads
- Pumpkin, spinach, and squash
- Seeds and nuts
- Dark chocolate
Symptoms of Low Zinc: Some of the things to look out for with low zinc levels include hair loss, appetite loss, impotence, eye issues, unexplained weight loss, grogginess, feeling irritable, diarrhea, open sores, and a decreased sense of taste or smell.
Recommended Daily Intake: 400 – 420 mg (men), 310 – 320 mg (women)
Why It’s Important: Magnesium helps your body convert food into energy. It helps relax your muscles after hard runs and promotes bone health. When you exercise, your magnesium requirements increase by 10 – 20%.
Sources: Some of the foods high in magnesium include:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Brown rice
- Wholegrain bread
- Dairy products
- Tofu and other soy products
Symptoms of Low Magnesium: Some of the signs of low magnesium levels include muscle spasms, tics, cramps, anxiety, seizures, dizziness, confusion, and irregular heart rhythms.
Recommended Daily Intake: 3,400 mg (men), 2,600 mg (women)
Why It’s Important: Potassium plays a significant role in our hydration levels by maintaining normal fluid levels in our cells. It also supports normal blood pressure.
Sources: Below are some of the best sources of potassium to include in your diet:
- Dried fruits (apricots, raisins)
- Lentils and beans
- Winter squash (butternut, acorn)
- Beet greens
- Broccoli, spinach
Symptoms of Low Potassium: Common signs of low potassium are muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, constipation, confusion, numbness, tingling, increased urination, and irregular heart rhythm.
Other Deficiencies Runners May Experience
While the above deficiencies are the most common among runners, here are some additional factors to look out for:
Believe it or not, the average adult eats around 12 – 15 grams of fiber per day. But women need a minimum of 25 grams, and men at least 38 grams daily to ensure optimal health. Fiber reduces the risk of colon cancer, maintains healthy cholesterol levels, and aids in weight management. Include 8 to 10 vegetables in your daily diet as well as whole grains and legumes to boost your fiber.
This mineral is needed in small amounts but is critical for normal thyroid function. Iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism, which has symptoms that include weight gain, fatigue, dry skin, constipation, depression, and cold intolerance. The best way to avoid iodine deficiency is to regularly include seafood in your diet and add iodized table salt to your food.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Our bodies cannot produce the Omega-3 acids DHA and EPA, so we must get them through our diet. But the average diet contains small, if any, amounts of these nutrients. The average intake of EFAs is only 130 mg, but the daily requirement is 1 – 3 grams.
Omega-3 deficiency can cause depression, eczema, diabetes, memory loss, and bipolar disorder. EFA-rich foods include fatty fish like tuna and salmon, walnuts, flax (seeds and oil), and soybean oil. You can also take a supplement.
Also called folic acid, folate is a B vitamin that is especially important for women but shouldn’t be ignored by men. Folate deficiency decreases the number of red blood cells in the body. Folate deficiency symptoms include irritability, diarrhea, sore tongue, and fatigue. Several foods are good sources of folate, including beans, peanuts, dark leafy greens, whole grains, sunflower seeds, eggs, and fortified cereals.
Cue the shock!
Yes, water is one of the common deficiencies for runners, especially those who train in hot climates. Runners are at an increased risk of dehydration due to sweating and not adequately replenishing their fluid losses. The simplest way to ensure you’re drinking enough is to include a mix of sports drinks, electrolytes, and pure water.
A good rule of thumb for runners is to drink around 30 milliliters of water per kilogram of body weight, so if you weigh 75 kilograms, you should aim to drink around 2.25 liters of liquids per day. This liquid amount shouldn’t include your intake of coffee, tea, sodas, milk, etc.