Supplements For Runners: Do You Need Them? And If So, What?
Today I am going to address a topic that I’m often asked about: supplements. But before I dive in on which may be beneficial for runners, I think it’s important to define what exactly are we talking about when we say ‘supplements?’
What is a Supplement?
A supplement is considered a food, food component, nutrient (like a vitamin or mineral), or non-food compound that is purposefully ingested in addition to the habitually consumed diet to achieve a specific health and/or performance benefit (reference).
There are tons of reasons someone might consider a supplement, and the supplement industry is a big one that can often be quite confusing to navigate. I am a big believer in a food first approach to nutrition and fueling our bodies. Why? There is plenty of research to suggest that the nutrients in food work together in ways that when isolated and delivered via a supplement, just do not have the same effect. I think most of us could benefit from a simple multivitamin (MVI) as an insurance policy—but not a replacement for whole foods.
Picky eaters, vegans/vegetarians, women of child-bearing age or that are pregnant, and anyone with a specific nutrient deficiency may also benefit from certain supplements and need to pay special attention to how they are feeling and how their body is responding to those. Working with a doctor and a dietitian to ensure you are not deficient in any one or more nutrients – may be necessary. For runners, there are some vitamins/minerals and potential performance-enhancing supplements that have a decent amount of research to support their benefits, which I have included in a quick summary below.
What to Consider Before Supplementing?
Before I dive into that, when considering whether to take or choose a supplement, it is important to first ask yourself:
whether or not the expense is worth it to you
if you could get the nutrient from food
whether or not it’s effective
if there are any side effects
Further, some collegiate and professional athletes need to think about whether it is even legal to take. Supplements do not have the same level of scrutiny and restrictions when it comes to labeling as food does. That means they may or may not contain what they say they do - and even worse - could be contaminated with other ingredients/byproducts you want to steer clear of. Fortunately, there are several third-party groups that have taken on the task of certifying supplements to ensure they contain what they say on the label and I always recommend looking for one of them. The two certifying bodies symbols that I recommend looking for are U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) and/or NSF International. In particular, I recommend looking for the NSF Certified for Sport symbol for any of the athletes I'm working with to ensure that none of the banned substances for the particular athlete's sport are contained within the supplement they are choosing.
So, with that, here is a list of a variety of different supplements you might consider taking as a runner. This list is not exhaustive and there are many more I could have highlighted. But I wanted to focus on the ones I most commonly get asked about. I also did not get into dosage or amount, as I recommend following the manufacturer’s recommendation for that. If you think you may be deficient in a nutrient or are having health issues like fatigue, it’s best to talk to your doctor before checking out the supplement aisle to make sure you aren’t missing another underlying issue and to correctly diagnose a deficiency. As always, I am here to help! Shoot me your questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calcium: is important for maintaining bone health as well as a host of other bodily functions. Our main source of calcium in the diet is dairy foods. If you omit dairy entirely, you will want to ensure you are meeting your daily requirements (1,000 mg for those 19-50 years old and 1,200 mg for those over 50). Plant-based sources include calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified beverages (e.g., orange juice, plant-based milks), broccoli, kale, leafy greens, almonds, tahini/sesame seeds, and legumes. Be sure to take your calcium supplement separate from your MVI and in smaller doses throughout the day versus all at once to enhance absorption. Your body cannot handle more than about 500-600 mg at a time. Bonus points if your calcium supplement contains vitamin D as that also aids absorption. AVOID the following with calcium supplements because they can interfere with absorption: caffeinated soda and coffee, high salt foods, iron-rich foods.
Iron: the type of iron in non-meat foods is not absorbed as well as the type in animal foods. So, it’s important to ensure adequate amounts of iron are included in the diet – especially for females and vegans/vegetarians. Vegetarian sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole/enriched grains, enriched/fortified cereals and pasta, leafy greens and root vegetables, and dried fruits. You can also enhance the absorption of iron in your foods by eating them with something containing vitamin C or vitamin A – like broccoli, red peppers, or oranges/orange juice. Avoid eating iron-rich foods with the following as they can inhibit iron absorption: calcium supplements or foods rich in calcium like milk/dairy foods, tea, coffee, some herbal teas, wine, and cocoa.
Magnesium: a deficiency in this mineral can result in impaired performance and the inability to recover after a tough workout. We lose magnesium whenever we ‘stress’ the body, as running does, through our sweat and urine. Sources of magnesium include legumes, nuts/seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, cacao, and blackstrap molasses.
Vitamin B12: since this vitamin is found exclusively in animal foods, vegan athletes in particular need to ensure they are eating fortified foods daily like soy milk or other fortified plant-based milks, breakfast cereals, and meat substitutes, or taking a multivitamin with B12 added. B12 is essential for helping convert carbohydrates into energy when we are working out or being active.
Vitamin D: important not only for adequate absorption of calcium but also immune and muscle function, this vitamin is primarily obtained via sun exposure. But it is also important to get it from the foods we eat or a supplement – especially when/if you are not seeing the sunlight as often (e.g., a Chicago winter). Plant-based sources include fortified foods, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel (if fish is allowed) and mushrooms.
Additional Supplements to Consider:
Omega 3s: essential for eye, brain and heart health, this type of fat in the diet has also been shown to play a role in the inflammation process—making it important for recovery from tough workouts or injury. Fatty fish is the best source but if that isn’t an option you can get it from foods like walnuts, hemp seeds, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, or a fish-oil or algae-based supplement.
Probiotics: or good-for-your gut bacteria have a boatload of health benefits. This is one in particular that I recommend getting from food first (like fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut or tempeh) – but if you can’t – make sure your supplement has a variety of ‘live and active cultures’ listed on the label. Also, remember, for the probiotics to do their magic in the gut, you need prebiotics. They are a type of indigestible fiber found in many different fruits, vegetables, and grains including garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, artichokes, barley, oats, and apples. Prebiotics basically serve as food for the probiotics.
Performance Enhancing Supplements:
Beta-alanine: touted as a lactic acid inhibiting supplement, it may help muscle endurance during high-intensity activity – potentially increasing a runner’s lactate threshold. Most long sprinters to middle-distance runners will see the most benefit. Side effects may include a skin rash or transient paresthesia (feeling ‘pins and needles’) and the improvement in performance has been shown to be minimal (0.2-3%) so it is important to weigh the costs/benefits of supplementing.
Caffeine: you have probably seen caffeine added to gels or even electrolyte drinks lately. That is because it is a stimulant and has well-established benefits for improving performance, especially during endurance events. What I think is most important though is knowing your tolerance level as too much can lead to nausea, restlessness, anxiety, and even insomnia. Additionally, caffeine is a diuretic that can promote increased urine flow and ultimately contribute to dehydration when consumed in excess.
Creatine: may enhance short-term, high-intensity exercise capacity and the ability to perform repeat high-intensity bouts. While mostly used by weightlifters and sprinters to maximize explosive power and build muscle, newer research suggests it may provide some benefit to endurance athletes.
Nitrate/beetroot juice: Our bodies convert nitrate – naturally found in beets – into nitric oxide. This molecule enhances blood vessel dilation, increasing your blood flow capacity, and lowering the amount of oxygen your muscles need. In other words, you feel like you can go farther faster and for longer. I often recommend adding whole beets to smoothies or salads and/or downing a glass of juice before a hard, long workout. One caveat: eating too many beets can result in red-tinted urine.
Sodium Bicarbonate: aka baking soda is often used by athletes competing in short, hard races lasting between one and ten minutes. During these types of efforts, our bodies build up acid and because baking soda is a base, it may help counteract that acid build-up, allowing you to exercise a little harder and/or a little longer before exhaustion sets in. But side effects can include severe stomach upset and distress so again – you must weigh the pros and cons and practice this one before the meet or race to know how you will react.
Sports foods and drinks like electrolyte beverages, salt tabs, gels or gummies, and protein powders are technically considered a supplement and offer a practical advantage when consuming whole food equivalent nutrient sources just may not be possible (e.g., eating a banana in the middle of a long run).