Written by Paul Kriegler, RD/LD, CISSN – Life Time Weight Loss
As a nutrition professional advising athletes on what and when to eat, it is very easy to go overboard with advice. This information overload, whether a client is ready and eager for it or not, is a great way to make people less likely to make the right changes. Instructing a person to change several things about their eating habits and educating them on why they should change places an unnecessary amount of pressure on them. The result is often a continuation of their current habits because the new ways felt so unnatural.
As an endurance athlete who has experienced stride-crippling calf cramps and hamstring knots at the end of long runs or cycling sessions, I know firsthand the feeling of low confidence in my performance nutrition plan. After a little research and self-experimentation with a simple focus, I believe I have found my key to boosting performance for the long haul. The focus of my experiment is the question: What can I eat to help my muscles relax?
After researching a bit about nutrient impacts on muscle function, I was delighted to find that a simple mineral, commonly deficient in the American diet, and required by endurance athletes in higher amounts due to higher sweat losses, was nearly absent from my diet (at that time). A few years ago I noticed a few extra minerals appeared on the label of the “endurance formula” sports drink I was using but hadn’t given it much thought. But it may be helpful to replenish this mineral since prolonged exercise and low dietary intakes were my norm.
I was failing at eating enough of this elusive mineral, but succeeding at gushing it out of my pores: magnesium. Magnesium, a macro mineral which participates in hundreds of chemical reactions is also a major component of healthy bones. This magical mineral is also essential for maintaining proper blood sugar regulation, cellular oxygen uptake, blood pressure, cardiac rhythm and muscle relaxation. Ah ha!
The key to muscle relaxation and less cramping for me was increasing magnesium intake. Taking a singular, simple focus on increasing my magnesium intake was accompanied by a host of other complementary benefits. Below is an example of how I boosted my magnesium intake and reduced the cramping episodes I experienced in the late miles of my long workouts.
Step one: I learned which foods contain the most magnesium (especially the foods in this group that I like). It turns out I liked a lot of magnesium-rich food. However, wheat bran, which doesn’t sit well with me, is rated as the top magnesium-containing foods on the USDA’s nutrient database list. That was out. Instead I focused on those listed in the table below (the complete list can be found at http://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Magnesium.pdf):
Step two: I included one to three of the above foods every day. Once I knew which magnesium-rich foods I liked and wasn’t eating enough of, it was easy to add them in as snacks or to meals I was already eating. Sure, many of the foods added calories, but they also took the place of other foods that weren’t giving me many nutrients to speak of. The tricky thing is, eating the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) of 400mg for men (or 320mg for women), only protects already healthy people from deficiency symptoms. However, I was deficient. I had to strive for the higher intakes of magnesium demonstrated in research to replenish low levels. My goal intake was 1000mg per day, divided into smaller doses, of course, to avoid the negative side effect of too much magnesium (loose bowel movements). It would prove difficult to achieve, even with my singular focus on this nutrient!
Step three: As an insurance policy, I added a magnesium-containing supplement to ensure I made up for sub-par food intake days. There really is no easier, more consistent behavior to implement than to take a supplement of something that is missing or inadequate in one’s diet. I already took a daily, high-quality multivitamin, but knew that a mineral like magnesium is always lacking in even high-quality multivitamins.
You see, magnesium, like calcium, is a large mineral. It takes up too much space to fit in a high-quality, nutrient-dense multivitamin formula. Fortunately, Life Time offers a pharmaceutical-grade product from Douglas Labs, which is a professional line of products. I began taking Cal/Mag 1001 for its balanced calcium-magnesium levels and multiple forms of highly absorbable mineral complexes. Now, I could eat as well possible, and take 3 tablets a day to reach at least 1000mg daily. There are certain times when taking tablets is not the best choice, such as during a marathon or iron-distance triathlon, which led me to step four.
Step four: I looked at using a sports drink that has the highest possible mineral & electrolyte content to use for my long workouts and races. EFS (Electrolyte Fuel System) by First Endurance was that product for me. First Endurance somehow managed to produce an easily mixable electrolyte powder that tastes great and can be mixed to my preferred potency. Each scoop contains 150mg of magnesium along with higher levels of sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium than any sports beverage on the planet. Since incorporating EFS into my long training and racing days, I no longer experience those pesky cramps, even in hot weather! I use about a scoop per hour, and have found this to be the only necessary fuel for me for distances up to an Ironman.
Step five: I had to share my experience. I hope you see how a singular focus on one nutrient led me to enough improvements in my daily eating, supplement strategies, and race fueling to make the last few miles of any arduous event more pleasant. Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments below!
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.