By Larry Carroll
We’ve been on the receiving end of the same message since we were little children, sitting in front of the TV during Saturday morning cartoons being promised that a glass of white liquid does a body good. Calcium, we were told, helps your bones.
Now we’re grown-ups and, as athletes, depend on our bones in increasingly more punishing ways. All those countless miles of running, pounding step after step, aching feet and splintered shins. And so, the question has evolved: Does extra calcium help fortify and repair our trail running bones?
It’s certainly not going out on a limb to say that bones are of vital importance not only to an athlete but to any human being with the goal of simply being upright. As such, the structural framework of the human body has to be looked after – and although it might not seem that way, your bones are a constantly evolving mechanism.
With each passing day, your body removes calcium from some areas of the bone and places it elsewhere. Think about Captain Kirk in “Star Trek,” ordering that emergency power is rerouted to the deflector shields – at a time of crisis, your body can deal with stresses by rerouting the calcium, but it may leave other areas at risk.
This becomes a particularly dangerous scenario for runners, whose repeated foot strikes see the same parts of the bone being punished time and time again. If enough time is allowed for recovery, the body will adapt to these stresses and cells will adequately resorb. If you aren’t giving yourself enough time to recover – or if your calcium intake isn’t enough to make up the difference – that’s when your body finds itself facing the stress fracture equivalent of a Klingon starship attack.
Planning your intake accordingly, however, can be trickier than you’d think. One factor to consider is age: According to Runner’s World, adults need about 1000 mg of calcium per day, a typical high school runner requires about 1300, and older adults need about 1200 mg ( Fueling the Runner: Bone Health ). If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, that number needs to go even higher.
Then there is the poster child for calcium itself: Milk. As the years go by, it seems less and less likely that your average American is enjoying a glass of cow’s milk with their meal, as it is increasingly viewed as a children’s beverage and supplanted by the far-trendier and infinite alternatives: soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk and on and on.
To avoid weakened bones and an increased risk of fractures, you need to look beyond milk and into alternative sources that you can sneak, Trojan-horse style, into your meals.
Stocking yourself up with calcium (and its partner in crime, vitamin D) in healthy doses can be achieved through yogurts, cheeses (start with mozzarella and muenster) and other dairy staples. If you’re trying to avoid dairy, look to certain fortified cereals, soy products, tofu and spinach, and fish such as sardines and salmon.
Another great idea is working seeds – tiny, nutritional superfoods – into your dishes. Poppy, celery, sesame and chia seeds all boast an impressive calcium punch and can be sprinkled onto something like yogurt or an acai bowl without your tastebuds noticing much of a difference. The same goes for beans and lentils, potentially prepared in a variety of delicious ways as a stealthy side dish for your typical meal. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try winged beans – which contain 24% of the recommended daily intake for calcium.
Edamame is a rich calcium source that is so easy to prepare and snack on like it’s popcorn, while tofu could provide 86% of your RDI is just half a cup and is so famously malleable that it could be substituted for meat in many dishes.
Whenever possible, both runners and non-athletes alike should strive to get their calcium from food, not supplemental tablets. In fact, researchers at the University School of Medicine in St. Louis ( Dietary Calcium Is Better Than Supplements At Protecting Bone Health ) found not only that 34 million Americans were at increased risk for osteoporosis, but also that only about 35% of the calcium in supplements ends up being absorbed by the body.
If you do have a calcium deficiency developing, be on the lookout for frequent muscle cramps, poor clotting, and dreaded stress fractures. But the good news is that if you can get your calcium intake to its proper level, you can look forward to some wonderful side effects – including healthier hair and nails, a better-regulated heartbeat, and more. So, if you want to be a better runner – and one that might turn a head or two on the trail – reach for that yogurt!