The 11 most important nutrients for athletes

Important nutrients for athletes
Important nutrients for athletes

Everyone needs a diverse range of nutrients to keep their body functioning. But athletes are a special case. Their bodies are regularly pushed to perform at peak levels, using up essential nutrients in the process. 

To avoid nutrient deficiency and low performance, athletes must get a substantial amount of key nutrients through their diet and supplements. From iron to vitamin B, here are the most important nutrients for athletes to stay healthy and perform at their personal best. 

What nutrients are most important for athletes?

1. Iron

Iron is responsible for making hemoglobin—a protein that helps your red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body. As you probably guessed, oxygen is crucial for exercising. Endurance, energy, muscle strength, and lung capacity all rely on oxygen. That’s why iron deficiency has been shown to impact athletic performance. Low iron can reduce endurance and cause your body to exert more energy than normal.

Iron deficiency tends to be more common in women. One review found that 52% of teen female athletes had an iron deficiency. 

2. Vitamin A and E 

Vitamins A and E are both powerful antioxidants. Vitamin A improves vision, supports the immune system, and metabolizes iron. 

Vitamin E helps to protect cells from free radicals and oxidative stress that can lead to chronic disease. Exercise can put a lot of oxidative stress on your muscles, so you need more antioxidants to counteract it. 

3. Vitamin B

Like a burst of energy, in vitamin form. B vitamins help to release energy in the body by metabolizing carbs, fats, and proteins. They also maintain brain function, form red blood cells, repair tissues, synthesize protein, and prevent anemia and iron deficiency. 

Vitamin B12 is an especially important member of the B family—and also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Learn more about the health benefits of vitamin B12 right here

4. Vitamin C

This famous vitamin is known for fighting off colds and keeping your immune system healthy. But vitamin C can also help with recovery after a training session or returning to your sport after an injury. 

Since vitamin C is an antioxidant, it helps protect your cells from any damage that could be caused by exercise (for example, inflammation). It also increases iron absorption, which is another essential nutrient for athletic performance. 

5. Vitamin D

An important nutrient for strong bones and muscles, Vitamin D can maintain your power and stamina. It also helps your body absorb calcium, which is an important nutrient for athletes. The higher the absorption rate, the more benefits the calcium will provide.

6. Calcium 

Speak of the devil. Calcium is essential for strong and healthy bones, teeth, and muscles. Athletes need calcium to maintain muscle mass, improve bone density, and protect against bone fractures and other injuries. 

7. Potassium 

This vital mineral stores carbohydrates to be used as fuel for muscles. It’s also important for balancing fluid in the body and supporting muscle contractions. Without a healthy amount of potassium, your nervous and muscular systems can’t function at their best. 

8. Coenzyme Q10 

Let’s go back to high school science class for a sec. The mitochondria is the part of each cell that generates energy—also known as the powerhouse of the cell. Coenzyme Q10 is an enzyme inside the mitochondria that helps it function. 

Low levels of coenzyme Q10 have been shown to increase fatigue and potentially cause serious health conditions, like diabetes, cancer, fibromyalgia, and neurodegenerative diseases. 

9. Creatine 

If you’re an athlete, chances are you’ve heard about this one. Creatine is an amino acid typically found in your muscles and brain. It’s proven to significantly enhance strength and muscle mass when combined with the proper training schedule.  

10. Ashwagandha 

There are so many potential benefits of this ancient Ayurvedic herb. Ashwagandha can soothe anxiety, lower blood pressure, and enhance brain function. For athletes, it has been shown to improve endurance, specifically by boosting maximum oxygen consumption. 

11. Magnesium 

One of the key nutrients responsible for energy metabolism, muscle function, and healthy bones. Magnesium helps to transport glycogen to the muscles and break down lactate, which can cause fatigue if it builds up during exercise. Naturally, low magnesium can be bad news for muscle performance and contraction.  

What other nutrients can improve athletic performance and recovery? Here are a few more notable mentions: 

  • Iodine 
  • Selenium 
  • Copper
  • Zinc
  • Chromium 

What happens if athletes don’t get enough of these nutrients?

The simple answer? Your performance will take a hit. These nutrients are essential for anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not. But factor in the high-intensity output of training, competing, and pushing your body to the max, and they become even more important. 

Low levels of essential nutrients can hurt your endurance, energy, stamina, and strength. It can only get worse if the nutrient deficiency is left untreated, sometimes leading to serious health complications. 

Some research also shows that intense training can increase your need for essential vitamins and minerals. Athletes must pay attention to their nutrient intake not only to perform well, but to stay as healthy as possible during training. 

Why is iron deficiency common among athletes?

Did you know 56% of joggers and endurance runners have an iron deficiency? There are a couple of reasons why—and they don’t just impact runners.

First: hormones. Exercise can cause inflammation, which releases a hormone called hepcidin that stops iron from being absorbed in the body. 

Sweat also plays a part. Iron and other essential nutrients can seep out through your sweat. This could become an issue if you’re an endurance athlete, especially in hotter climates. 

Iron can also be depleted by your foot hitting the ground. Seriously. It’s called foot strike hemolysis and it’s especially common in runners. The repetition of your foot striking the surface can damage red blood cells and cause hemoglobin levels to drop. 

High-intensity training can also cause conditions that deplete iron, like mechanical hemolysis, intestinal bleeding, and hematuria. 

Additionally, some athletes train at higher altitudes to increase their red blood cell density. While this improves endurance, it also puts you at a greater risk for iron loss and iron deficiency anemia. It’s a smart idea to start taking an iron supplement before this type of training, especially if you’re anemic or prone to iron deficiency. 

(Want tips for how to exercise safely if you have iron deficiency anemia? We have a whole blog about it.)

How can athletes incorporate essential nutrients into their diets?

The ultimate athlete’s diet can be summed up in one word: balance. Eating a diverse range of nutritious foods can provide a good amount of the nutrients you need to train hard and stay healthy. 

Here are the top nutrient-rich foods to consider adding to your weekly meal plan.

  • Calcium: dairy products, dark green vegetables, fish (especially sardines and salmon), and fortified non-dairy products.
  • Creatine: red meat and seafood.
  • Magnesium: leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and beans. 
  • Potassium: bananas, citrus fruits, leafy greens, broccoli, fish, red meat, sweet potatoes, and legumes. 
  • Vitamin B: red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, leafy greens, and fortified cereals or grains. 
  • Vitamin D: seafood (especially salmon, herring, catfish, trout, and oysters), milk, eggs, shiitake mushrooms, and lots of sunlight. 
  • Vitamin A: carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, cantaloupe, apricots, spinach, kale, and collard greens. 
  • Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, bell peppers, and asparagus. 
  • Iron: meat (especially chicken, beef, and lamb), seafood (like shrimp, oysters, and clams), beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, dark molasses, green leafy vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals, grains, and breads. 

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, it can be difficult to get enough iron from your diet. Click here for our guide to iron deficiency anemia and plant-based eating. 

Since vitamin C is known for boosting iron absorption, pair it with your iron-rich meals. Foods high in vitamin C include tomatoes, citrus fruits (like oranges), and dark leafy greens. 

Are there supplements that athletes can take to get their nutrients?

Yes! Just about every essential nutrient is available in supplement form, from pills to powders. The trick is to find supplements that are high quality and, most importantly, effective

Take Ferosom Forte, for example. Unlike other iron supplements that cause awful gastrointestinal side effects, Ferosom Forte has a patented LCE coating to protect it from acid breakdown in the stomach and intestines. 

Best of all, it’s microencapsulated in Liposomal form and infused with vitamin C for extra-high absorption. 

Liposomal is an advanced nutrient delivery system that increases absorption and bioavailability. The absorption rates of Liposomal iron are similar to certain doses of IV iron. That’s what makes Ferosom Forte one of the best iron supplements for athletes. 

Special mention: the sachet form contains Vitamin D, C, B6, and B12—all nutrients that are key for athletic performance. 

Learn more about Ferosom Forte here and talk to your doctor about the best iron supplements for your unique body and training schedule.