7 Essential Micronutrients for the Athlete

Mass Building Essentials

It is well understood that those looking to build significant muscle size must predominantly focus on creating a calorie surplus.

A calorie surplus is where you consume more calories than your body requires to maintain function. This surplus is required for the recovery process after training sessions.


When the body is subjected to a training stimulus, microtears appear within muscle fibers. These additional calories are needed to allow the body to repair itself and increase muscle fiber size.

In addition, for optimal changes in body composition, macronutrient balance must also be considered. Macronutrients simply being carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Specifically, a high protein diet is important for building muscle size. As with a calorie surplus, ample protein is required to allow for optimal recovery and consequent muscle growth.

A calorie surplus and proper nutrition helps form a solid foundation for muscle building. However, this evidently must be combined with a tailored hypertrophy oriented training program.

These three things are often seen as the only components that influence muscle growth. However, there are many other nutrients that play an influential role in the muscle building process.

Micronutrients for the Athlete

This article will highlight the role micronutrients play within the body and, more specifically, their role in muscle development, recovery and performance.

Because the majority of individuals already consume a vast quantity of common vitamins and minerals, the focus will be on compounds which many fail to consume enough of.

Typically, if you consume a healthy athlete’s diet, one that delivers in both terms of calories and macronutrients, it’s highly unlikely that they will be deficient in vitamins such as vitamin B and C.

However, unless you eat a wide range of different foods every single day, it’s likely that there are certain nutrients which you require more of.

In addition, the need for a number of these nutrients is even greater for those who are extremely active.

The compounds in question are: sodium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin K, vitamin D, zinc and selenium.

1) Sodium

In order to cause muscle contraction, maintain fluid balance and blood volume, an ample amount of sodium must be consumed daily.

The FDA recommends that sodium is limited to 2.3 grams per day, however, for those who are heavily active, a higher dosage will be required.

This is because sodium is lost in sweat and must be replaced in order to maintain performance and keep the body functioning optimally.

Sodium is an electrolyte which means that it is a compound that works to maintain fluid balance within the cells of the body.

Sweating is a mechanism designed to keep you cool during exercise, however, during this process a great amount of sodium and other electrolytes are excreted.

To put it into perspective, it is thought that a liter of sweat contains approximately 900 milligrams of sodium – more than any other electrolyte (200mg potassium, 15mg calcium and 13g magnesium).

Because you lose such a great quantity of sodium in sweat, consuming more of it should be prioritized in order to aid recovery and rehydration.

Sodium also plays a crucial role in maintaining blood volume. When the body becomes dehydrated, blood thickens which makes it more difficult to deliver oxygen and filter through the kidneys.

Consuming enough sodium will cause an increase in blood volume and therefore improve efficiency of the cardiovascular system.

This will have a positive knock on impact on performance, endurance capacity and recovery from training.

A recent study reviewed the impact that sodium supplementation had on endurance runners. The results clearly indicated that supplementation significantly improved running performance (1).

In addition to maintaining fluid balance and blood volume, sodium is required to bring about muscular contractions.

Considering the quantity of sodium excreted during exercise, it is important to recover sodium lost to maintain a high level of performance and to keep the muscles working.

2) Magnesium

Not only does magnesium play a significant role in metabolizing energy, it can be hugely useful for improving sleep quality and stress management – both which are key for the athlete.

Research on magnesium has found it to have links to lowering stress, anxiety, blood pressure and improving sleep quality. As a result, many refer to it as the “relaxation nutrient”.

The effects that magnesium has on the body may lead to a better all-round recovery from training. The greater the recovery, the better we are able to perform.

Studies investigating magnesium have found that, alongside playing a role in energy metabolism and muscle function, magnesium can help to improve one’s cardiovascular capacity, power production and gait speed (2).

In addition to this, magnesium is used for a number of energy and cell production processes and therefore has an influence on endurance ability and recovery.

Despite all of this, many individuals are deficient in magnesium. Low levels of magnesium may cause an increase in fatigue and muscle cramps which will evidently have a detrimental impact on performance.

Avocados, leafy greens, nuts and legumes are all great food sources for boosting magnesium levels.

If you decide to supplement magnesium, ensure to choose magnesium citrate or glycinate.

3) Calcium

Many of you will already be aware of the main function of calcium in the body which is to build bone strength. In addition, calcium plays a role in hormone balance and may also increase fat excretion.

If you drink a lot of milk or eat cruciferous vegetables, both of which are high in calcium, you may already consume enough. However, many fail to consume an appropriate amount each day.

Calcium is highly important for maintaining bone health. Any athlete involved in a contact sport or any individual lifting heavy weight should ensure they are getting enough calcium.

Proper calcium consumption will help to maintain a healthy testosterone level. If you know anything about testosterone, you’re likely to be aware that it plays a significant role in muscle gain.

Furthermore, a recent study found that there is a link between calcium and fat excretion (3). Therefore, consuming enough calcium may assist in improving body composition.

4) Vitamin K

Although limited vitamin K research exists, it has been found to contribute towards improving both bone and heart health.

The reason that little research has been conducted into vitamin K is that it was only discovered back in the 1920’s.

It appears that vitamin K allows proteins to bind with calcium and ensure that calcium is directed to bone rather than to soft tissue.

Therefore, although vitamin K is not directly involved in bone remodelling or growth it facilitates this process.

Evidence does exist which indicates that a combination of calcium, vitamin K and vitamin D can enhance bone strength (4). Therefore, monitoring your intake of these 3 is recommended.

Vitamin K may also have a positive impact on heart health by reducing arterial stiffness and consequently reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart related diseases.

Research has determined that there are actually two types of vitamin K – K1 and K2.

It is known that both are fat-soluble vitamins and therefore are best absorbed when eaten alongside a source of fat. Doing this will enhance the benefits of vitamin K.

K1 is found predominantly in leafy greens whereas K2 is found in fermented products and animal fats. K1 appears to help with blood clotting while K2 is more involved with bone health.

With this understanding, if you are looking supplement vitamin K, select a K2 based product.

While it is true that there are limited scientific studies looking into vitamin K, consuming a healthy dose of it certainly does appear to be beneficial.

5) Vitamin D

As mentioned, vitamin D has a positive impact on bone health. In addition to this, it may also support a healthy testosterone level and boost mood.

Vitamin D is so essential that the body actually creates the nutrient of its own accord. Exposing the skin to the sun will produce vitamin D.

Approximately 15 minutes of full body sun exposure will produce enough vitamin D for the day.

Therefore, individuals who live in countries that don’t experience regular sunshine throughout the day may be deficient in vitamin D.

It can be challenging for most people to get enough vitamin D solely through diet alone. Therefore, supplementation is often recommended – especially during the winter months.

Ensuring that you consume (or generate) a good quantity of vitamin D is essential as it has been linked to improving mood and maintaining good mental health.

If you are unsure whether or not you should be supplementing vitamin D, speak to your doctor.

As with calcium, there is also a link between vitamin D and boosting testosterone.

One control trial found that supplementing vitamin D lead to a 20% increase in testosterone levels (5).

As discussed, getting enough sun exposure every day can be challenging and therefore many will have to find other sources.

Vitamin D can be found in some food sources. Foods such as eggs and salmon contain vitamin D, however, only in small quantities. Keeping this in mind, it may be wise to supplement vitamin D.

When selecting a supplement, look for D3 as this appears to be the most effective form of vitamin D supplementation.


6) Zinc

The mineral zinc is associated with boosting immunity, efficient nutrient absorption and inflammation reduction.

Specifically for the athlete, zinc is useful as it helps with nutrient absorption. Many athletes have to consume many calories and nutrient dense diets, therefore zinc plays a huge role in fuelling the body adequately.

Furthermore, zinc may help to reduce inflammation which will impact recovery from physical training (6).

As well as boosting immunity, zinc, like many other compounds, may also have an impact on testosterone production.

The impact that zinc has on the body and athletic performance is often overlooked. Athletes will use up a lot of zinc and therefore, it is crucial that zinc intake is prioritized to boost immunity, performance and recovery.

Some excellent zinc-rich food sources are meat, eggs, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. If eating nuts and legumes, look to eat them along with vitamin C as this will encourage the zinc to absorb.

Zinc can also be taken as a supplement, if necessary.

7) Selenium

Finally, we have selenium which prevents cell damage, reduces oxidative stress and plays a role in hormone balance.

It is important to be aware of your selenium intake considering that it helps to repair body cells and reduce damage.

Selenium is an antioxidant which means that it works to mitigate the impact of oxidative stress.

In addition to this, a recent study suggests that selenium may lower the risk of developing breast, esophageal, lung, prostate and gastric cancer (7).

For the athlete, selenium will have an impact on recovery time. Proper selenium consumption will reduce cell damage and therefore lead to a more efficient recovery.

It appears that when selenium is taken with zinc, there is a positive impact on testosterone levels, which as mentioned, can help to increase muscle size.

Selenium can be found in high quantities in foods such as Brazil nuts and seafood.

Final Word

While a number of key micronutrients have been highlighted here, in reality athletes need practically every micronutrient available to perform at the highest level.

Providing you are consuming enough calories, tracking macro intake and using predominantly whole foods, it’s likely that you’re getting the majority of them already.

With that being said, it is not uncommon for athletes to still fall short with some micronutrients.

In this case, review your nutrition and look to eat whole foods as far as possible. If necessary, consider supplementation to boost specific micronutrient intake.

Always exercise caution and speak to a physician or nutritionist before making radical changes to your daily diet.

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References:

 

 

1-Freis, Tanja; Hecksteden, Anne; Such, Ulf; Meyer, Tim (2017). “Effect of sodium bicarbonate on prolonged running performance: A randomized, double-blind, cross-over study”. PloS One. 12 (8): e0182158. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0182158. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 5552294. PMID 28797049.

2-Zhang, Yijia; Xun, Pengcheng; Wang, Ru; Mao, Lijuan; He, Ka (August 28, 2017). “Can Magnesium Enhance Exercise Performance?”. Nutrients. 9 (9). doi:10.3390/nu9090946. ISSN 2072-6643. PMC 5622706. PMID 28846654.

3-Christensen, R.; Lorenzen, J. K.; Svith, C. R.; Bartels, E. M.; Melanson, E. L.; Saris, W. H.; Tremblay, A.; Astrup, A. (2009-7). “Effect of calcium from dairy and dietary supplements on faecal fat excretion: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”. Obesity Reviews: An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. 10 (4): 475–486. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2009.00599.x. ISSN 1467-789X. PMID 19493303.

4-Lanham-New, Susan A. (2008-5). “Importance of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K for osteoporosis prevention and treatment”. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 67 (2): 163–176. doi:10.1017/S0029665108007003. ISSN 0029-6651. PMID 18412990.

5-Pilz, S.; Frisch, S.; Koertke, H.; Kuhn, J.; Dreier, J.; Obermayer-Pietsch, B.; Wehr, E.; Zittermann, A. (2011-3). “Effect of vitamin D supplementation on testosterone levels in men”. Hormone and Metabolic Research = Hormon- Und Stoffwechselforschung = Hormones Et Metabolisme. 43 (3): 223–225. doi:10.1055/s-0030-1269854. ISSN 1439-4286. PMID 21154195.

6-Prasad, Ananda S. (March 1, 2013). “Discovery of human zinc deficiency: its impact on human health and disease”. Advances in Nutrition (Bethesda, Md.). 4 (2): 176–190. doi:10.3945/an.112.003210. ISSN 2156-5376. PMC 3649098. PMID 23493534.

7-Cai, Xianlei; Wang, Chen; Yu, Wanqi; Fan, Wenjie; Wang, Shan; Shen, Ning; Wu, Pengcheng; Li, Xiuyang; Wang, Fudi (January 20, 2016). “Selenium Exposure and Cancer Risk: an Updated Meta-analysis and Meta-regression”. Scientific Reports. 6: 19213. doi:10.1038/srep19213. ISSN 2045-2322. PMC 4726178. PMID 26786590.

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