For endurance runners, it's what's inside that counts -- inside the body, and even inside the blood cells. That's what Scott Simmons of the American Distance Project taught attendees of FACA's annual conference last weekend in his session about managing athletes' diets and intake of iron.
Maintaining health is a balancing act, but it's more complicated than just burning as many calories as you take in. Simmons used studies by sports nutritionist Dan Bernadot throughout his presentation. He said that 90 percent of athletes report that they do not eat properly, and if you've seen how high school kids eat you know that number is probably true. So what is the best way to get a cross country team to balance its calorie intake?
"We think about 'How many calories did I eat in one day?' The traditional view only looks at the end point," Simmons said.
Instead he recommends that athletes eat six times per day, which may be hard for kids who have to sit in school more most of it. Many teachers will not allow students to eat or even drink during class.
"The school environment can really prevent them from actually getting the fuel they need," Simmons said.
When meals are few and far between, you get big spikes of energy right after meals. Then, your body swings into big deficits as you go about your day and expend that energy without replacing it.
"We can look at the magnitude of the surplus and the magnitude of the deficit," Simmons said. "This matters very much so, because it changes what our bodies do; it changes our metabolism and it actually changes the composition of our bodies."
These graphs below show how frequent food intake helps to balance energy levels throughout the day:
So, you get an athlete to eat six meals per day. What is he or she eating? If it's doughnuts for breakfast, a snack from the vending machine, Taco Bell for lunch, etc. your runner's heading down the wrong trail. Simmons recommended a diet that can be easily followed -- all you need is a hand.
Aside from the importance of an athlete's overall diet, Simmons stressed the need for endurance runners to have an adequate amount of iron. Fifty percent of males and 90 percent of females have iron deficiencies, which can cause major performance issues for runners.
Simmons believes that conducting blood tests to check iron levels should be a required part of a student's physical exam in order to be on an athletic team. While parents and administrators seem hesitant about blood tests, they could save an athlete a lot of hardship if he or she turns out to be anemic.
"If you're not testing there's a problem. You don't know about it but there definitely is a problem," he said.
As you train your body uses iron, which is why it is important to test iron levels before the season begins to catch the students who are starting out with low levels.
Iron is absorbed in the gut, but some substances inhibit this absorption. These include:
-Phytates (in nuts, seeds and grains)
-Tannins (in coffees and teas)
-Excess of iron
Some substances do not inhibit absorption, but they do compete with iron in the body. Some examples are lead, magnesium and zinc.
These inhibitors and competitors are part of the reason why it is not recommended that you take multivitamins. As Simmons said, some think of them as "silver bullets," but within your body, all these vitamins and minerals may be competing with each other or negating each other's effects.
"It's how you take iron and when you take iron that's important," Simmons said.
That's why it's best to take iron supplements on an empty stomach. The best source of iron is red meats, but there are other factors that increase absorption. An increase in elevation increases the body's absorption, as does a low level of iron. For those who need an extra boost, here are some iron supplements:
-Ok supplements: ferrous iron tablets (Feosol)
-Better supplements: liquid iron (pur-Absorb, Floradix)
-Best supplements: Hema-plex, Ultimate Iron
A word of caution: too much iron is toxic to the body. This is why it is dangerous to take supplements if you do not know whether or not you are actually deficient. Make sure you test before you start self-medicating. One example Simmons gave was a male runner who qualified for the Olympic trails, but was taking iron supplements. When tested he had incredibly high iron levels and type 1 diabetes. He had to stop running immediately to recover his health.
If this sounds like way too much information, try not to get overwhelmed. Start with small changes to the diet and eating habits, and work on getting blood tests. Even such baby steps can help athletes improve performance. Health and wellness are worth all the work it takes to achieve them.