Food, food everywhere, but what the heck to eat? It’s a question most of us have asked at least once, if not three to four times every day of our lives because it’s an important one. What we eat directly affects how we feel and, for athletes, it can make the difference between a great workout and throwing in the towel halfway through. Exercising in different conditions, however, calls for different nutritional preparation. If you’re headed out for a long-distance sweat sesh, here are six key nutrients to help get you across the finish line.
BEFORE YOU RUN
Antioxidants. We know they’re good. But why? What are they (really), and why is everyone telling us to eat them all the time? Put simply, antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals – molecules that can damage our DNA and lead to a host of unpleasant health conditions. Free radicals are generated from environmental and lifestyle factors including stress, pollutants, cigarette smoke, sun overexposure, and even exercise! When you’re running long distances in the sun, you’re exposed to free radicals. The best way to defend yourself is to wear a high-quality sunscreen and eat a daily diet that’s filled with antioxidants.* You can find these magical compounds, primarily, in fruits and vegetables. But while most antioxidants are damaged by light and heat – i.e. cooking – lycopene, the free radical fighter found in tomatoes and our SmartyPants Men’s Complete gummy vitamins, actually increases when cooked! This particular nutrient has also been shown to help reduce sunburn by up to 40%. All the more reason to carb-load some of mama’s spaghetti Bolognese.
If you’re not already riding the coconut oil bandwagon, perhaps it’s time you jump on. This fat can be used for everything from cooking to removing stubborn eye makeup to improving oral hygiene, and research shows that it can help protect your skin from both inside and out. When we eat fat, it becomes incorporated into our cell membranes, which are made up of lipids, or, fats of varying degrees of saturation. Saturated fats, such as coconut oil, help provide strength and stability for these membranes. Since coconut oil is nearly 100% saturated, it is heat-stable and ideal for cooking at high temperatures. You don’t want to overdo it, especially with saturated fats – just because something’s good for you doesn’t mean you should down an entire jar in one sitting – but, once you’re done cooking, feel free to slather some all over your body. As coconut oil is an effective skin moisturizer that delivers a natural SPF of about 8, and, thanks to its anti-bacterial properties, it can also help fight microbes that thrive in sweaty conditions.
AFTER YOUR RUN
As an athlete, you might be more familiar with the term “electrolytes.” Electrolytes are minerals with an electric charge and we lose them when we sweat, particularly magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Runners need to pay special attention to replenishing these minerals, as calcium and magnesium work together to carry out muscle function, while sodium balances potassium to help us stay hydrated. The good news is that you don’t need a fancy, neon-colored sports drink to get electrolytes. You can keep your mineral stores high by eating a nutrient-rich diet that includes lots of potassium and magnesium-packed fruits and vegetables and seasoning your food with a high-quality sea salt.
Smarty Tip: After runs, try making your own all-natural Gatorade by mixing water, sea salt, lemon juice, and a bit of blackstrap molasses.
Vitamin C is like the Beyoncé of vitamins. Multitalented. A few of vitamin C’s many functions are particularly important for runners, especially those who run in the sun. The first is vitamin C’s role in supporting our adrenal glands. When we exercise, our adrenal glands produce adrenaline as part of our “fight or flight” response – the process that prepares our bodies for action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and the amount of oxygen to the brain. During this process, our adrenal glands also secrete vitamin C. Our bodies need vitamin C to absorb iron, a trace element which plays a major role transporting oxygen to our muscles, and produce collagen – the most abundant protein in the body, which gives our bones, joints, and skin strength and structure. Lastly, vitamin C is an antioxidant that has been shown to be protective against UV damage. Research shows that it’s most effective when paired with vitamin E. *
Smarty Tip: Whole food sources of vitamin C and E include broccoli, bell peppers, and Brussels sprouts, but heat easily destroys vitamin C, so try and eat these foods either raw or lightly cooked.
While vitamin C helps our bodies make collagen, you can also eat collagen for double the benefits. Research shows that oral supplementation with collagen can help improve skin texture, reduce signs of aging, and promote bone, joint, and ligament health 1, 2,.* How do you eat collagen? You can take it as a supplement, add collagen powder to your post-run smoothie, or brew up some bone broth. Bone broth is made by boiling bones, skin, joints, and any other part of an animal that is left over after the meat is consumed, for 12 to 48 hours. This lengthy brewing process gives the bones a chance to break down and release their structural components, which include those all-important minerals, collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, and other glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) – compounds that have been shown to stimulate cell growth in joints, tendons, and ligaments.*
OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS
Like antioxidants, you’ve probably heard a lot about “omega 3s”. They’re good. But why? Omega 3 fatty acids, which include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), all help promote a healthy inflammatory response.* This is crucial for athletes and anyone exposed to the sun, as both exercise and UV rays can cause inflammatory markers to be released. Research shows that a diet rich in fish oil can help protect against UVA and UVB rays. The best dietary sources of EPA and DHA are wild-caught fish, such as salmon and sardines, and some types of sea algae. You can get ALA from plant sources such as flax and chia seeds, but it must be converted by our bodies into DHA and EPA, and the rate of conversion can be less than 5%. If the thought of adding a nice helping of sardines to your post-workout smoothie isn’t exactly appealing, you can get your omega 3s by supplementing with a high-quality fish oil like the kind we use in SmartyPants, which comes from wild-caught, sustainable small fish.