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Performance Enhancement Part 1: Maximize Micronutrients


Sports nutrition is a huge business, which suggests that many people are drawn to the idea of using nutritional supplements or dietary modifications to enhance performance. Many of those drawn to the topic of performance nutrition are “weekend warriors” or “citizen athletes.” Each year when the Minneapolis Life Time Triathlon comes around, I’m approached by people inquiring about their pre-event nutrition plan in hopes that it will affect the outcome of their race. I always inform them that their plan for the morning before an event, or even the days leading up to it, should be based on the plan they’ve been following in the weeks and months prior. Trying something different the morning before such an event is a major gamble. This then leads to the larger question of “What does performance nutrition look like for a weekend warrior?”

To simplify things, we’ll break this up over several posts. The principles we’ll address in this series of articles are intended for those who want to improve in triathlon, compete in mixed combat arts, or train hard each week in programs like Boot Camp or Alpha. But in reality, they apply to anyone who really wants to make the most of his or her physical abilities. Of course, a well-designed training program is critical to success, but even the best training program provides minimal benefits to those who make poor choices in the time they spend outside their workouts. Performance nutrition and lifestyle practices can really be broken down into three major objectives. They are in the following order of importance:

  1. Build a solid base of nutrition and a healthy metabolism
  2. Optimize recovery
  3. Enhance individual workout performance

This is where so many eager individuals go wrong. They get the priorities mixed up, and end up spending a lot of money and wasted effort focusing just on training sessions without building a solid base of health first.

Build a solid base of nutrition and a healthy metabolism

Athletes are notorious for making poor diet and lifestyle choices. They often believe the 10 miles they ran or the 1,000 calories they burned in an hour of high-intensity training will offset bad dietary choices. Many of them who have “Type A” personalities convince themselves they can stay up late and wake up early without ill effects on their bodies. They justify enormous amounts of carbohydrates, thinking they need them to fuel their workouts. They may rely on gels and sugary drinks for 1- to 2-hour workouts, not knowing they’re often unnecessary. They may deal with digestive issues, not knowing they’re related to the volume of exercise and marginal-quality nutrition habits they practice.

There are some genetically gifted individuals. Michael Phelps’ diet got almost as much press time as the multiple gold medals he won during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Though some athletes can get away with eating enormous volumes of food due to their training volume coupled with amazing genetics, that’s not the case for most weekend warriors. With just an hour or two a day to dedicate to workouts, training sessions must be precise. So too must their diet and lifestyle choices.

I often think of the design of any skyscraper. Before you see the development of any building reaching for the sky, a solid base must be built well below the surface — a base most people never see. If that base is not built and stress is placed on the building, it will fall over. This is NO different for our bodies. If you neglect a solid nutrition and lifestyle base before adding additional stress, especially the considerable stress of intense training, your body may very well fall apart.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #1: Emphasize large amounts of vegetables at every meal and some fruit during the day.

Intense exercise places a demand on the body to use large amounts of oxygen to create energy. Whenever oxygen is consumed for energy, a byproduct is free radicals. Free radicals can create a cascade of problems with the body’s cells and are implicated in the development of cancer and heart disease. Fortunately, nature has provided us with nutrients to combat free radicals, which are called antioxidants.

Vegetables play a very important role in supplying vitamins, minerals, fiber and carbohydrate in the diet. There aren’t any long-term studies comparing athletes on diets high in vegetable and fruit consumption and lower in processed carbohydrates to those on diets low in vegetables and fruit and high in processed carbs like pasta and bread. However, it is well-established that high levels of activity increase the body’s need for antioxidants. Vegetables and fruit are the diet’s primary source of antioxidants.

The various colors seen in vegetables and fruit are a result of the various antioxidants and phytonutrients found in them. An ideal nutrition plan includes a wide variety of vegetables and fruit. Though most people fall short of the recommended vegetable and fruit levels, achieving 9 to 11 servings each day is easier than most people realize. A serving of vegetables is just 1 cup of leafy vegetables or ½ cup of other vegetables. A serving of fruit is 1 small to medium piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries or chopped fruit. Though athletes may be able to consume larger amounts of fruit than the average person and maintain low levels of body fat, it’s still best to eat at least 2 to 3 times as many servings of vegetables as fruit.

Coffee and green tea also provide antioxidants in the diet and can be used in moderation, not only for their antioxidant benefits, but also as a source of extra energy and a way to enhance fat-burning.

If you want to build a better nutrition foundation, make it a priority to eat plenty of vegetables with each meal and some fruit every day.

Performance-Enhancing Principle #2: Optimize nutrient intake with a high-quality multivitamin and a greens product.

There’s a good chance you’ll fall short of optimal vegetable and fruit intake on some days. Even if you eat large quantities of vegetables and fruit, it’s still possible to fall short of ideal nutrient levels. It’s been known for decades that the nutrient levels of today’s produce are much lower than in the past. For that reason, it’s recommended that citizen athletes, like the general public, fill any nutrient gaps they may have with a high-quality multivitamin as well as a greens product.

A high-quality multivitamin helps to optimize vitamin and mineral levels. Quality is important when choosing a multivitamin because cheap multivitamins use low-quality raw materials and are often manufactured with ineffective delivery systems, such as tablets. A good multivitamin supplies higher levels of energy-supporting B vitamins, vitamin E coming from mixed tocopherols, and natural folate rather than folic acid. Also, your multivitamin should contain nutrient levels in excess of the recommended daily allowance (RDA), which is the minimum level of nutrients needed to avoid disease for about 98% of the population.

The advantage of a greens product is being able to consume the key nutrients found in many of the so-called super fruits without the need to eat large volumes of the fruits themselves.

One final supplement that could be considered to maximize nutrient intake is a quality calcium and magnesium product. Both of these minerals play important roles in muscle contraction and bone health. Calcium is important for fat utilization. Magnesium is also critical for muscle relaxation. Optimizing magnesium intake can also reduce cramps and restless leg syndrome.

In the next post, we’ll address more foundational nutrition needs, including those that support repair and recovery from everyday stressors and physical activity. For the next week, take the challenge of eating 9 to 11 servings of vegetables and fruit (mostly vegetables), and remember your multivitamins and greens each day.

Share your thoughts, post questions, or let us know how you feel once you take on these new habits.

Written By Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition and Weight Management

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.

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Reader Comments (10)

Great post, thank you! Is magnesium well absorbed from food, and how much would you recommend taking in supplement form?

August 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMel

Great information - thank you! The article states that many multivitamins are "manufactured with ineffective delivery systems such as tablets." What is the best delivery system of a vitamin to achieve maximum efficacy?

August 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShana T.

Sounds like ALL multi-vitamins in tablet form are not good. Is this what you are saying?

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

This is the first time I've ever heard that exercise can lead to cancer and/or heart disease:

"Intense exercise places a demand on the body to use large amounts of oxygen to create energy. Whenever oxygen is consumed for energy, a byproduct is free radicals. Free radicals can create a cascade of problems with the body’s cells and are implicated in the development of cancer and heart disease."

Forgive me if I'm a bit skeptical.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

@Mel: It's difficult to make a blanket recommendation for how much magnesium one should take. A dose of the Douglas Labs version we use is 500 mg. Many athletes, active individuals, or those how deal with restless leg, tight muscles or cramps may benefit from more. I take it morning and night, so I get 1000 mg per day in total through supplements, along with 1000 mg of calcium. Excess amounts can lead to loose stool, so that can be a sign of someone overdoing it.

@Shana: Capsules are ideal because they break down quickly.

@Dennis: Capsules are best. The downside is it usually requires an individual take more than when the supplement comes in tablet form because tablets are pressed together, allowing for more nutrients to occupy the same area. However, the pressing and the binders and glues make them more difficult to break down and absorb. I would not say all tablets are bad, though some processes for tablet making are. However, if you had the option to take the exact same nutrients in a multivitamin in capsule or tablet form, the capsule would be the better way to go.

@Patrick: We'll talk more about this in later posts in the series. It's not as much of an issue when people get in enough antioxidants, and generally, exercise is very healthy. High volumes of high-intensity exercise does lead to more free radical production, though.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

I was in the Life Cafe yesterday and noticed a new product. My apologies as I forget the name, but it was solely a source of carbs made from a starch. It promotes itself as sustaining energy and not having an impact on insluin with its 22 g of CHO/ serving. Too, it made recommendations of servings size based on hours of activity. The lowest serving size, one scoop, was recommended for individuals with activity levels up to an hour. My question is, what individuals would you recommend that product? (I'm assuming you will know what I am talking about.)

August 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKM

@KM: It's called Generation UCAN. I'll go into detail in the future on it, but the brief answer is, it's a modified starch which has a minimal effect on raising blood sugar and insulin. It allows an exercising individual to maintain a better control of blood sugar without decreasing their rate of fat utilization. This works well with those following a reduced carbohydrate, or even a ketogenic nutrition plan but want to exercise with more intensity.

August 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Many times I have heard LTF boast about the quality of its supplement line (ie: multivitamins, fish oils) or the "pharmeceutical-grade" of Douglas Laboratories, mainly due to its "Good Manufacturing Practices." I've recently read in the 2012 Wellness Report put out by the UC Berkley's School of Public Health that the "GMP" does not necessarily denote quality and/or effectiveness of the overall product but rather only requires manufacturers to test the product's raw ingredients. I read that FDA lacks resources to complete full investigations, and if one is done, many times it is done through the inspection of the manufacturer's paperwork, not its facilities or final products... My question is this: why doesn't LTF and Douglas Labs pay a third-party, such as USP or NSF, to test the strength, purity and quality of the final product? Forgive me if I missed your products on those third-parties' "approved" lists, but as a consumer it would be comforting to know your products have went through a thorough investigation, more than just claiming to have followed "Good Manufacturing Practices" which really, according to this report, doesn't mean a whole lot.

August 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKM

Those are really good questions KM. Actually, each run is tested before it goes out, and then we'll periodically send product to another laboratory for confirmation. Both Douglas and Thorne have gone through more than the standard GMP certificaitons. The reason we selected them as our manufacturers is they produce very well respected healthcare practitioner lines, some products of which we carry. Because their brand is made for doctors and other healthcare professionals, the purity is critical or it would hurt their reputation. I hope that helps answer the question. You may also which to look at their website. Douglas Labs is the product line, which you can find at, but the "company" that produces Douglas is Alcrea-Health. It's really the same company logistically. You can learn more about their manufacturing standards at Thorne is at Hopefully that answers what you were looking for.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Looking forward to reading more. Great article post.Really thank you! Much obliged.

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