When people think about improving their muscle performance through diet and nutrition (whether they are working out at the gym or playing a competitive sport), protein powders, protein shakes, and amino acid supplements typically come to mind. Unfortunately, increasing amino acids in the diet is just like “putting the cart before the horse.” Building a bigger, stronger, or faster muscle is useless if the muscle won’t contract effectively (or at all). The one nutrient essential to overall muscle function is … calcium.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and is necessary for life. This mineral is required for the proper functioning of the central nervous system, muscular tissue, kidneys, and the heart. Because all systems of the body are dependent on the central nervous system, calcium is considered one of the most important minerals in the body for proper function. The body maintains a consistent level of calcium in the body’s fluids and tissues so it can function efficiently (a.k.a. homeostasis).
Approximately 99 percent of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones and teeth (the other 1 percent is found in the blood, muscles and in the fluid in between cells). Bone, a storage vessel for both calcium and phosphorus, acts like a battery by holding the essential elements required to trigger a wide variety of metabolic functions and tissue repair. The greater the amount of bone mass, the greater the stores of nutrients readily available for use. In contrast, inadequate amounts of bone mass and mineral stores can have a negative impact on other organs and cellular functions. Osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia, can result from poor diet and inadequate mechanical loads applied to bone over time.
Calcium and Muscle Performance
Muscle performance can be thought of in terms of power (the maximum amount of tension produced by a particular muscle or muscle group) and endurance (the amount of time a muscle can perform a particular activity). Each muscle relies on calcium to do its job. Without it the muscles can’t physically contract. When calcium ions are released into the fluid within a muscle cell, it triggers it to contract. When calcium ions are removed, the muscle relaxes. In addition, calcium is also used during the secretion of hormones and enzymes, and is essential for the effective functioning of the central nervous system.
Calcium and Muscle Fatigue
Calcium is not only responsible for muscle contraction, recent studies have identified calcium as the reason why muscles also fatigue. For many years, muscle fatigue was largely ignored and misunderstood. A popular theory implied lactic acid was the culprit for causing muscle fatigue (discredited in cycling studies in 2005). Studies out of Columbia University have identified a problem with calcium flow inside muscle cells as the real reason.
Calcium ions move in and out of calcium channels within muscle cells to actively control muscle contractions. When muscles grow tired, these calcium channels begin leaking calcium, weakening contractions. At the same time, the calcium leaked into the muscle cell stimulates an enzyme that eats into muscle fibers, contributing to the muscle exhaustion.
Calcium and Sweat
When a person exercises, they sweat. Sweat is made up of primarily water and minerals, including calcium. As a result, the body can lose a significant amount of blood calcium during a longer and/or more intense workout. The amount of calcium lost in sweat may provide insight as to why some endurance athletes (i.e. marathon runners, competitive cyclists, basketball players, etc.) have low bone mineral density and a higher risk of osteoporotic fracture. Fortunately, taking calcium supplements 30 minutes prior to your workout may be able to offset some of the calcium loss through sweat (according to research presented at the 2013 meeting of the Endocrine Society).
Sources of Calcium and Vitamin D
Getting adequate amounts of calcium in your diet is essential for the overall health of your bones and total body function. Good sources of calcium include:
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products (ie. milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese)
- Certain types of fish (ie. sardines and salmon)
- Dark leafy greens (ie. spinach, kale, collard greens)
- Fortified cereals and baked products
- Drinks with added calcium (ie. orange juice and soy milk)
Recommended calcium intakes for youth 9 to 18 years is 1,300 mg/day, adults 19 to 50 years is 1,000 mg/day, and older adults 51 and up is 1,200 mg/day.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in healthy bone development. It helps the body absorb calcium (the reason why milk is fortified with vitamin D). Good sources of vitamin D are only found in a few foods (and in small quantities) including:
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (ie. tuna, mackerel and salmon)
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
- Foods fortified with vitamin D (ie. some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk and cereals)
Recommended vitamin D intakes for individuals after the first year of life is 600 IU/day.
Final Thoughts …
Before you head to your local Vitamin Cottage or GNC for the latest and greatest muscle building supplement, make sure you are supplying your body with the essential nutrients it needs to function properly. Calcium, the most important mineral in the body, should be your number one priority. Calcium availability in the blood and flow within the muscle cells can result in:
- More effective muscle contraction
- Decreased muscle fatigue
- Faster muscle repair
- Better overall results