Why Searching for a “Magic Bullet” Might be Shooting Yourself in the Foot

As a Spartan dietitian, I love when my fellow Spartans ask about nutrition.

The most common question I get, by far, is this: “What do you think about x food? Should I be eating it?”

As a rule, I answer with questions.

“Why do you think you should eat it?”

“What are you hoping it will do?”

“When in your day do you plan on eating it?”

“What is your exercise schedule? And for how long? And at what intensity?”

”What is your overall goal?”

Get the picture?

The truth is that there is never a cut-and-dry, yes-or-no answer.

Spartans know that a spot on the podium, or even a strong finish, is not made by training on a single exercise or obstacle. Instead, it requires a combination of strength, speed, agility, endurance, obstacle specific training, and downright painful training sessions.

The solution to nutrition is this same demanding regimen that makes Spartan racers some of the best-rounded athletes out there.


This is one of my favorite quotes. What you eat throughout the entire day, week and month is going to determine how well you perform on race day. And there isn’t a magic pre-race fuel out there that will undo in one hour the damage done in a month.

If you ignore your daily nutrition while searching for the magic pre-race bullet, you may just be shooting yourself in the foot — nutritionally.


What should you be looking for beyond the basic carb, protein, and fat talk? Can we eat foods that support energy metabolism and nerve function? Can what we eat improve red blood cell production, thereby increasing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles? Prevent cramps? Aid digestion? The answer to all of these is yes.


1. | B Vitamins

More specifically, B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), and B6, and B12.

Why? | We’ve seen B Vitamin enhanced drinks pop up everywhere. B Vitamins support energy metabolism and nerve function, digestive system health, red blood cell production, and amino acid and fatty acid metabolism (Skolnik and Chernus, 2010).

Some energy drinks boast 100-percent (or more) of your daily B Vitamin needs. While this is helpful during exercise, you can’t get all your daily Vitamin B from a sports drink. B Vitamins are water soluble, so we can only utilize so much of them before the body decides to lose the rest in urine.

The best approach is to eat foods that have B Vitamins throughout the day to provide a steady supply and support all of these great benefits. Many food sources provide the benefits of B Vitamins with other vitamins and minerals mixed in, too. Add fiber to the equation and you have a built-in way to stay fuller, longer.

What to eat: | Great sources of Vitamin B include spinach, broccoli, tomato juice, watermelon, sunflower seeds, soy milk, mushrooms, eggs, milk, and chicken breast to name a few.

2. | Vitamin E

Why? | An antioxidant, Vitamin E inactivates harmful free radicals generated during exercise. Free radicals are charged molecules that can cause damage to other healthy cells (Skolnik and Chernus, 2010). With Vitamin E going to work to inactivate free radicals, cells have less damage, which may assist in reducing post-workout soreness and muscle damage. Less damage means faster recovery, allowing you to hit your training harder and with more frequency.

What to eat: | Sunflower seeds, wheat germ, avocado, sweet potatoes, and shrimp.

3. | Vitamin C

Why? | Vitamin C aids in amino acid metabolism, is an antioxidant, supports immune health, and assists with iron absorption. It’s especially important for Spartans who are always pushing their bodies to the max. During exercise, the increased oxidative stress can put our immune system at risk. (You don’t need a cold when you’re trying to get up at 4:30AM to hit the trails.) Vitamin C intake can help reduce the symptoms of your nagging cold.

As an antioxidant, Vitamin C is also working twofold to fight cell damage. (We all know the importance of muscle repair.) Vitamin C assists the body with amino acid metabolism so that it can go to work to repair the muscle damage that occurred during a workout.

What to eat: | Spinach, broccoli, red peppers, kiwis, mangos, oranges, and strawberries.

4. | Sodium

Why? | Sodium regulates fluid balance within and on the outside of cells. Through this process, sodium plays a key role in muscle contractions and nerve impulses (Skolnik and Chernus, 2010).

Now, we all love a good 300-foot barbed-wire crawl. But you may be less excited to hit that 8-foot wall jump after you stand up and find your legs are cramping enough to hinder your run, let alone take a jump up on that wall. If your sodium levels are low, this may be a common theme for you on race day. Help avoid this added obstacle by making sure your daily sodium levels are in check.

I highly recommend getting a sweat analysis at a local conditioning center. While having a lactic acid threshold test done, I opted to add a sweat test to the list. What I found was that I sweat at a higher sodium rate than most. As a result, I was able to search for race gels with a higher sodium content as well as add a sodium-rich drink tablet to my hydration pack. I am happy to say that cramps are a thing of the past.

What to eat: | Bread, milk, and meats can provide some sodium. I recommend including a salty snack, such as pretzels, in your post workout refueling when you find you’re sweating a lot. Sports drinks like FitAid are also a great option.

5. | Potassium

Why? | As the complement to sodium, potassium helps with electrolyte balance, nerve impulse, and muscle contractions. A less known benefit of potassium is that it helps to transport glucose into muscle cells and store glycogen. What this means is that the body is better able to convert ingested food to fuel, and also helps to store energy (aka glucose) within the muscles and liver for use later (say, during a 3-hour obstacle race).

What to eat: | Bananas, potatoes, carrots spinach broccoli, avocados, watermelon, milk, artichokes, green beans, tomatoes, and strawberries

6. | Iron

Why? | Now this is the big one.

Iron is an essential component that the body needs in order to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein that transports oxygen from the lungs to the working muscles. (Clark, 1997) Lack of oxygen to the muscles can result in feelings of fatigue.

A diet that lacks adequate Iron may be the answer to the question “Why am I always feeling tired?” It may also be just the boost needed to increase your endurance and push through those long runs.

Don’t wait. Low Iron can take months to improve. Always seek the approval of your doctor before starting any supplement, and always try foods as your first line of defense. I recommend having a full blood panel of labs drawn 3 months prior to the start of your race or running season. This will allow adequate time to improve your numbers as well as blood volume and use.

Certain groups are at risk for developing Iron Deficiency Anemia (Low red blood cells or hemoglobin). They include:

  • Female athletes who are experiencing menstruation
  • Vegetarians who do not eat red meat or Iron-enriched breakfast cereals
  • Endurance runners who may damage red blood cells by pounding their feet on the ground during running
  • Endurance athletes who may lose Iron through heavy sweat losses (Clark, 1997)

What to eat? | Red meats (best source), artichokes, spinach, broccoli, tomato juice, enriched cereals, clams, tofu, and shrimp

For a complete list of Vitamin and Mineral Recommended Daily Intake and additional food sources, visit the National Institute of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements or seek the help of a Registered Dietitian.

Many of the foods mentioned should look familiar. You probably even noticed that some foods appear on more than one list of sources. This is why food is such a magic bullet. We have to eat, and we want to push our bodies to the limit day after day (with planned rest days of course). If the foods we eat each day aren’t providing the nutrition we need to replenish and repair, we can’t possibly conquer that next race.

Are we going to have soreness? Yes.

Will we get the random cold? Perhaps.

But if there were a magic bullet that could help us reduce these symptoms, it would be flying off the shelves. The good news? These bullets are on the shelf at your local grocery store right now. So what are you waiting for?



Skolnik, H., & Chernus, A. (2010). Nutrient timing for peak performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Clark, N. (1997). Nancy Clark’s sports nutrition guidebook. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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