Keeping your head in the game: Mineral supplementation and focused athletic performance

Minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium are important contributors to optimal physical and cognitive sports performance across multiple biological systems.

Stephen Ashmead, Senior Fellow

October 24, 2018

6 Min Read
Keeping your head in the game: Mineral supplementation and focused athletic performance


In athletic performance, minerals play extremely important and well-known roles in physiological processes, including normal heart rhythm, nerve conduction, oxygen transport, oxidative phosphorylation, enzyme activation, antioxidant activity, bone health, immune function, acid/base balance and muscle contraction. There is also an increasing awareness of the connection between athletic performance and cognitive health.

In sports, a significant amount of brain function is needed to recognize, adapt and respond to a fluid and dynamically changing environment. It is important to keep a balance of both physical and mental strength to perform optimally. When formulating sports nutrition products, it is important to consider the cognitive aspects, along with the physical benefits of the ingredients.

Minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium are important contributors to optimal physical and cognitive sports performance across multiple biological systems.

Strong as Iron – Mentally & Physically

Iron is critically important for sports performance as a component of hemoglobin, myoglobin, cytochromes and other enzymes in the muscle cells. These substances are involved in transport and metabolism of oxygen for energy during endurance exercise. Studies have shown athletes can experience depletion of iron due to hematuria, myoglobin leakage, gastrointestinal losses and sweat losses (J Int Sports Nutr. 2005;2(1):43-490.) An hour of weight training can deplete 5.7 percent of this mineral and losing too much iron can lead to iron deficiency, which causes fatigue and saps endurance. Iron deficiency impairs favorable adaptation to aerobic exercise (AJCN. 2002;75:734-42). Athletes who train for six or more hours/week often have iron deficiency anemia and should be checked yearly for the condition (Med Sci Sports Exer. 1992 Sep;24(9 Suppl):S 315-8). Iron deficiency, with or without anemia, is also emerging as a risk factor for negative bone health (Nutrients. 2015;7:2324-2344).

Iron also plays a vital role in cognitive function and is an important component of hundreds of proteins and enzymes involved in cellular metabolism. Iron is needed to develop oligodendrocytes, the brain cells that produce myelin (white matter). The myelin layer is the protective coating surrounding axons (The Scientist. Jan. 2012). Myelin contains high iron content and increases the speed at which impulses propagate along neurons. Iron is an important component of several enzymes that synthesize neurotransmitters. Iron-transport proteins are important to the hippocampal neurons, which play a large role in learning and memory (Adv. Nutr. 2011;2:112-121). A recent meta-analysis of iron supplementation indicated evidence that it improves attention and concentration (Nutrition J. 2010; 9:4).

Think About Zinc

Maintaining optimal zinc levels is imperative to maximize athletic performance. Many athletes are reported to have low zinc levels. Zinc is needed by more than 300 enzymes to repair the body and protect against immune invaders. It helps synthesize proteins and support cell reproduction. Zinc plays important roles in hormone production, including testosterone, insulin growth factor and growth hormone. All have significant impact on muscle building, increased strength and improved recovery time in both men and women.

Zinc is also essential in neurological function. Its deficiency could interfere with neurotransmission and subsequent neuropsychological behavior. Zinc is present in the brain at high levels and plays an important role in neurotransmission mediated by glutamate and GABA, which play roles in cortical excitability. (Balance of cortical excitability affects every aspect of human behavior, from abstract thinking to emotional responses). There is also evidence zinc may have a prophylactic effect in increasing resilience to traumatic brain injury, making it potentially especially useful for athletes (Nutr Rev. 2012;70(7):410-413).

Exercise events can acutely deplete zinc stores (Curr Sports Medicine Reps. 2008;7(4):224-229).  Research showed endurance runners lose twice the zinc in their urine on running days, as compared to days they do not run. Many athletes load up on carbohydrates while limiting protein and fat intake prior to competitive events. This has been shown to render up to 90 percent of these athletes zinc deficient, resulting in a decline in energy and endurance.

Athletic performance also leads to the production of harmful free radicals. Zinc functions as a powerful intracellular antioxidant, aiding in the reduction of free radicals to support athletic recovery. Zinc also has a positive impact on insulin release in response to increased blood glucose and aids in improved insulin sensitivity, helping the uptake of glucose by muscle cells.

3 Ms of Magnesium for Athletes – Mind, Metabolism, Muscle

Magnesium is a component of more than 300 enzymes involved in energy metabolism. Magnesium is involved in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from fatty acid oxidation. ATP stores energy and is present in all cells, especially muscle cells. Low magnesium levels can contribute to early fatigue, nausea and muscle cramps. Magnesium is involved in a multitude of processes that impact muscle function, including oxygen uptake, electrolyte balance and energy production. According to USDA scientists (Magnes. Res. 2006 Sep;19(3):180-9), “Research has shown that exercise induces a redistribution of magnesium in the body to accommodate metabolic needs.” There is evidence marginal magnesium deficiency may impair exercise performance and amplify the consequences of strenuous exercise, such as immunosuppression, oxidative damage and arrhythmias. Magnesium is noted for being the only divalent mineral (sodium and potassium are monovalent) lost through perspiration and should be a consideration for replacement during long periods of strenuous activity or elevated temperatures.

A double-blind randomized study evaluated competitive triathletes (Cardio Drugs and Ther. 1998;12(2):197-202). The subjects were studied after 4-week supplementation with either magnesium or a placebo. Results showed magnesium supplementation reduced the stress response in the body for these athletes.

Creatine and Cognition

Creatine has been called the ultimate ergogenic aid. As a supplement, creatine is believed to exert its influence by increasing muscle creatine and phosphocreatine concentrations, creating a higher rate of ATP resynthesis, which results in delay of muscle fatigue onset and facilitates more rapid recovery during repeated rounds of high-intensity exercise. Creatine has been found to be most effective as an ergogenic aid for athletes engaging in repeated bouts of brief, strenuous, high-intensity, maximal exercise. It may enhance strength and power performances, leading to increased repetitions and power output.

Creatine has also been demonstrated to support cognition (Proc R Soc Lond B. 2003;270:2147-2150). A study at the University of Sydney examined creatine supplementation on memory and intelligence (Proc Biol Sci. Oct 22 2003;270(1529):2147-50). Researchers found individuals supplementing with creatine had improved working memory, reduced mental fatigue and improved intelligence. Studies continue to demonstrate the ability of creatine to boost brain function, as well as improve focus and mental productivity.

Balchem brought magnesium and creatine together in a single molecule in Albion’s Creatine MagnaPower® ingredient. A number of scientific studies have shown creatine can increase strength, energy and muscle mass, and enable faster recovery time. Magnesium is involved in more energy-producing systems than creatine, and creatine requires magnesium for its energy-producing cycle. Co-supplementation of magnesium and creatine is a logical choice for athletic performance. Combining magnesium and creatine brings together two separate nutritional forces that have shown positive effects on the heart, energy and muscular performance.

A Win/Win Situation

Minerals have multiple, vital, biochemical and physiological roles in supporting the optimal performance of our bodies in sports activities and active lifestyles. A good bioavailable mineral supplement, such as glycine chelates, should be a serious consideration to help ensure minerals are absorbed and properly utilized by the body.


Want an in-depth look at ingredients that enhance cognitive health and performance? Join us for the Neurosports: Inside the Brain for Improved Performance workshop on Saturday, Nov. 10, at SupplySide West 2018.



Stephen Ashmead, MS, MBA, is a Senior Fellow for Balchem Corporation. His area of specialty is in mineral amino acid chelates and their functions.



About the Author(s)

Stephen Ashmead

Senior Fellow, Balchem Corporation

Stephen Ashmead, MS, MBA, is a Senior Fellow for Balchem Corporation.  His area of specialty is in mineral amino acid chelates and their functions.

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