Whether you’re regularly acing HIIT sessions or hitting the trails for long runs, staying physically fit is a commitment. Thing is, it’s not just dedication to your actual workouts that you’ll need in order to thrive; to optimize your health and athletic performance, you need to take extra care to fuel up properly, because there are a few nutrients that active people may need more of.
“Proper nutrition is essential for athletic performance, so it only makes sense that the more active we are, the more our dietary needs—beyond just calories and hydration—also increase to meet the demands,” says dietitian Nancy Snyder, R.D., senior director of nutrition at MyMenuUSA.
Of course, your individual needs depend on your personal activity level and the types of training you engage in, but there are a handful of specific nutrients that all active people should keep top of mind. Here are seven to pay special attention to if you get after it day after day.
Salt is often villainized—and when it comes to piling on heavily processed foods or sprinkling a ton of it on every meal (even before you taste it!) it deserves the bad rap—but it’s also a building block of life and one of the nutrients active people may need more of.
“Sodium is an electrolyte that is essential in maintaining fluid balance, aiding carbohydrate and protein digestion, and supporting muscle contraction and nerve transmission,” explains dietitian Maddi Osburn, R.D.N., L.D., who works with athletes to fuel their sport through a flexible approach to nutrition. “You may need sodium (a.k.a. salt!) in higher amounts if you are expecting to do a workout longer than two hours, are exercising in extreme weather conditions (think heat and humidity), and if you are a heavy sweater.” Without ample sodium, many active people experience muscle cramps, headaches, and nausea.
“I recommend that physically active people not limit their sodium intake after a workout, especially if excessive sweating has occurred,” Osburn says. She recommends pretzels, baked chips, pickles (including the juice), or sports drinks for replacing sodium losses quickly.
If you’re a workout warrior, the importance of protein probably isn’t a foreign concept to you, but it bears repeating: “Athletes and very active individuals tend to have a slightly higher protein requirement than individuals that participate in lower levels of activity,” says Ricci-Lee Hotz, R.D.N., a dietitian at A Taste of Health and an expert for Testing.com. “[This is necessary to] help with muscle healing post-workout and allow for muscle growth.”
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
While your needs depend on your body and how much activity you do, Hotz recommends aiming for 1.0-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For someone that weighs 150 pounds, that’s between 68 grams and 109 grams.
Images of athletes loading up on pasta and bagels before competitions exist for a reason, folks. As our body’s go-to fuel source, carbs are a must for the highly active. “Super-active individuals need more carbs overall than sedentary individuals, as they need the fuel to energize their workouts, have enough energy for the rest of the day, and help their bodies utilize the protein they consume for recovery,” Hotz explains.
In fact, if you’re doing a significant amount of exercise or moving for an hour or more at a time, you’ll probably want to consume carbohydrates during and after your workout, in addition to before you get sweating, Hotz adds.
Her rule of thumb: Consume approximately 15 grams of carbs 30 minutes before your workout or between 30 and 45 grams within two hours before. Then, get in between 15 and 45 grams within 30 minutes of completing your session. If you think you might benefit from intra-workout carbs, talk to a registered dietitian, who can help you understand your needs.
In addition to being your pal for quality sleep, better digestion, and regularity, magnesium is a key player in athletic performance. “Magnesium is responsible for healthy muscle function, as well as bone health,” says dietitian Diana Gariglio-Clelland, R.D., consultant for Next Luxury. In fact, “some studies have found that elite athletes are deficient in magnesium, which can lead to muscle twitches and cramps,” she shares.
That said, there’s still some debate about active people’s magnesium needs. While some experts feel there isn’t enough evidence to support that regular exercisers need more than the RDA (310 milligrams for women and 420 milligrams for men), others do. “The research on needs for athletes varies, but it is clear that athletes lose more magnesium throughout their activities than the average person,” says Hotz. “An athlete may need 10 to 20 percent more magnesium on exercise days to prevent deficiency.” (There’s research to back up this number.) Basically, this means that male athletes may need up to 504 milligrams of magnesium on exercise days, while female athletes may need up to 384 milligrams.
In order to consume enough of this important mineral, incorporate foods such as whole grains, spinach, nuts, quinoa, and avocados. Check out these six magnesium-packed foods for more inspiration or talk to your healthcare provider about a magnesium supplement.
Embrace that milk mustache (even if it’s a fortified almond milk one!), fit friends. Another of the nutrients active people need more of? Calcium. “Calcium is necessary to promote bone strength and density and reduce the risk of fractures,” says Gariglio-Clelland. “Athletes can lose calcium through sweating, so it’s important to ensure adequate calcium intake, especially for vegan athletes or those who avoid dairy, since low levels can lead to bone degradation, which would be catastrophic for an athlete.”
While athletes may not need more calcium than the average person, it’s especially important that they meet the minimum daily requirement of 1,000 milligrams per day. Find calcium in dark leafy greens, nuts, dairy products, and soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame.
Women who work out, listen up. According to Snyder, iron deficiency is common among female athletes, since they lose iron both through sweat and menstruation. Not good considering this mineral is necessary for energy metabolism and for carrying oxygen throughout the body.
Some people don’t consume adequate iron in their diet. Plus, intense activity increases the body’s demand for it, Snyder explains. Symptoms of iron deficiency include chronic fatigue and increased susceptibility to injury and illness, which impact your athletic performance and overall health.
If you think you may be low on iron, visit your doctor for lab tests to confirm. The current RDA for adult men is eight milligrams of iron per day. Women, meanwhile, need 18 milligrams a day—and female endurance athletes, in particular, shoulder increase their intake even slightly beyond this, Snyder says.
Luckily, iron-rich foods run the gamut from fish and poultry to nuts and spinach. That said, vegans, vegetarians, and those with a deficiency may need to supplement with iron, since the iron found in meat (heme iron) is easier for the body to absorb than plant-based (non-heme) sources. You can also increase iron absorption by cooking with a cast iron pan, Snyder says. Pairing vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich foods is another winning strategy.