Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The majority of injuries for runners are an extension of improper nutrition. Yes, you heard that right. Even when they appear to be related to a specific trauma or overuse, in a lot of instances a solid nutritional program could have provided the support necessary to minimize or even prevent them, says orthopedic physical therapist Sinead Fitzgibbon.
No matter how much training you do, it’s only as good as the nutrition you have to support it. Zero in on these four power players to keep your body running strong and healthy.
Vitamin C and Antioxidants
Our bodies don’t produce these, so it’s essential to incorporate them into the diet on a daily basis. Vitamin C helps to maintain cartilage and bone tissues, and it also builds proteins for scar tissue, blood vessels, collagen, skin, and tendons. Vitamin C helps prevent damage to amino acids and glucose, both of which are important to athletic performance, and facilitates the production of norepinephrine, which is essential to the nervous system.
Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, and along with other nutrients, it helps protect the body from free radical damage that can result from high-intensity and aerobic workouts. You can get both from berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, goji berries), cherries, lemons, oranges,sprouts, spinach, peppers, and broccoli.
Foods rich in vitamin A—such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash—are important for white blood cell production. Although the body produces white blood cells to prevent foreign substances from infecting the body, they also play an important role in nutrition for runners for maintaining a healthy immune system and keeping the body functioning at its best.
Calcium and Zinc
Calcium is also an electrolyte that contributes to muscle functioning and hydration. Raw dairy, eggs, cheese, and leafy greens are all good sources of this important nutrient. Zinc helps maintain the immune system as well as break down fats and proteins for the body’s use. (Zinc deficiency has been linked to increased injury rates.) This can be found in red meats, shellfish, sprouted nuts, and seeds. Again, ideally neither should be taken in supplemental form, or any nutrient for that matter, but calcium is crucial to bone maintenance and formation and needs vitamin D to be effectively used.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Our bodies can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. But Omega-3s are essential fats—the body can’t make them from scratch, and instead we must get them from food. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate inflammation. (Inflammation leads to the breakdown of the body’s immune system and the destruction of its building blocks for athletic performance.)
Maintaining a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids from sources like fish oils, flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, almonds, and cold-water fish can help off-set that inflammation. Grass-fed beef is also a good source of Omega-3, but it’s important to take in plenty of protein from other sources such as chicken and eggs, and plant-based sources like beans, in order to offset the breakdown and inflammation that occurs during and after running.