In 2004 I attended a marathon as a vendor, handing out samples of whey protein, L-Glutamine, and shaker cups. Most of the attendees, race participants, and their supporters alike, had the same questions, “What are these, and what are they for?” My, how the knowledge and use of sports nutrition products for runners have evolved. Back then, sports nutrition was the domain of bodybuilders and strength athletes. Products like protein powder and creatine were anathema to elite runners and their coaches.
Fast forward to today, and those same running coaches and experts are recommending a host of sports nutrition products from BCAAs to Beta-Alanine, L-Carnitine, to L-Glutamine. In this “Best Of” article, we review today’s best supplements for runners from pre-workout to intra-workout to post-workout products. These products help you prepare for exercise, reduce your potential for injury, and aid in recovering from your workout. We will review the results of an exhaustive study by the International Association of Athletics Foundation and which supplements they endorse for runners.
With so many sports nutrition products on the market today and conflicting data about which is best, it’s easy to be confused. So, today we are going to discuss supplements for runners. We will look at what kind of supplementation runners may need and give you our choices for the best supplements for runners. Let’s dive in!
Vitamin And Mineral Supplements To Address Dietary Deficiencies In Runners
Whether you are a sprinter, middle-distance, or long-distance runner, your workouts can be exceedingly taxing on your body. To perform at a consistently high level, your body needs the appropriate nutrients. With today’s typical American diet, heavy in nutrient-poor processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars, many people have vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Even those who eat a healthy diet may have gaps due to today’s depleted farming soil drastically reducing our foods’ nutrient content. From a general wellbeing and maintenance point of view, you may want to consider a multivitamin/mineral as an insurance policy against any deficiencies in your diet.
Certain vitamins and minerals play an essential role in the runner’s body and may help with endurance, injury-avoidance, and recovery:
- Vitamins C and E are both potent antioxidants that protect against free-radical cell damage from exercise.
- Vitamin D3, along with calcium, is essential for healthy bones. D3 also supports your immune function, muscle performance, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
- B12 produces energy from carbohydrates, plays a role in red blood cell production, and aids in recovering from workouts.
- Calcium helps ensure you have strong bones able to withstand workouts and prevent stress fractures.
- Magnesium is vital for bone health, energy production, muscle contraction, and hormonal balance – it helps transport energy to your muscles for endurance performance.
- Zinc, along with C and D3, is essential for a healthy immune system. Endurance exercise seems to reduce zinc levels in the body and may stress the immune system.
- Iron will improve performance, stamina, and speed recovery by increasing oxygen to your muscles. Runners tend to have lower levels of iron, thought to be attributable to repetitive impact.
Sports Nutrition Supplements For Runners
Sports nutrition supplements are considered ergogenic aids, substances that enhance energy production, reduce the potential for injury during training, and improve recovery to provide athletes a competitive edge.
The products detailed below have transitioned from the weight room to the track and open road.
For background, amino acids are organic compounds that are the building blocks of protein. Your body requires twenty different amino acids to develop and function properly. Of these twenty, nine are considered essential as they cannot be made in your body, so you must get them through your diet or supplementation.
BCAAs, Branched Chain Amino Acids are three essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAS are crucial for muscle development. They are required for the synthesis of other amino acids and proteins. The BCAAs, particularly leucine, stimulate protein synthesis and reduce the rate of protein breakdown.
BCAAs are essential for runners to help maintain their muscle mass. Endurance athletes tend to operate in a calorie-deficient state, and the leaner they become, the more muscle they burn. BCAAs used pre-workout or intra-workout help to spare muscle and aid in repair and recovery.
When considering a BCAA supplement, we recommend a product with the correct ratio of 2:1:1, 2 parts Leucine, 1 part Isoleucine, and 1 part valine.
Caffeine is an evidence-based aid for cognitive function, energy, and to boost endurance performance. Although caffeine is often a component of pre-workout and energy drinks, you can readily achieve your caffeine intake through your favorite coffee or tea. Cautions: Health experts recommend no more than 400 mg/day of caffeine, roughly the equivalent of four cups of brewed coffee, and caffeine is a diuretic, not ideal for staying hydrated during a long run.
When supplementing with caffeine, we recommend either capsules or tablets versus powder to ensure the proper dosages.
Glutamine is another of our favorite amino acids for runners. Glutamine is the most prevalent free amino acid found naturally in the body. Although running experts contend glutamine is not beneficial for distances or endurance, alongside creatine, glutamine is one of the most widely used ingredients in the gym. It is a favorite for repair and recovery and helps alleviate muscle soreness after intense exercise. Glutamine also plays an essential role in gut health and immune function.
Another amino acid included in many pre-workout supplements due to its ability to buffer lactic acid. Beta-Alanine increases endurance by lowering the muscle’s acidity level, allowing the runner to go harder, longer.
The recommended dosage is 2 – 5 grams per day, up to 6.4 grams for the elite athlete, typically taken either pre-or intra-workout. Beta-Alanine is the ingredient in pre-workout drinks responsible for the tingling feeling (paraesthesia).
Whey protein has finally made it onto the recommended supplement list for runners. That said, the debate rages between registered dieticians, nutritionists, and athletes as to how much protein you should consume. The RDA for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight. (To determine your RDA, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36). The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements.
Strength athletes have argued for eons that you need at least double that amount to build and maintain muscle and recover from intense exercise. We concur and believe it applies equally to runners. Endurance athletes run the very real risk of burning hard-earned muscle. Supplementing with protein aids in recovery, repairs the micro-trauma incurred in muscle during exercise, and helps build and maintain lean muscle mass.
We also agree your primary source of protein should be from your diet; however, most people do not consume sufficient protein from the foods they eat, making supplementation necessary. We recommend a post-workout shake of twenty grams of a fast-acting hydrolyzed whey. If you still are not meeting your targeted intake, a slower digesting protein such as casein is an excellent choice before bed.
As a runner, we assume you are aware of the importance of staying hydrated. Hydration is more than just H2O. During exercise, when sweating, your body is eliminating essential electrolytes; see list below. The electrolytes, sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium help maintain the body’s fluid balance.
Supplementing with electrolytes in combination with BCAAs is an excellent strategy for the distance runner. The combination supports everything from muscle function to regulating your fluid balance to your immune function and cell growth.
Caution: Simply rehydrating with water, in the absence of electrolytes, during a long race, can even lead to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia, where blood sodium levels drop too low.
L-Carnitine has long been a popular supplement in the bodybuilding domain for weight loss. This chemical, which is similar to an amino acid, helps to build muscles and breaks down body fats for ATP/energy. L-Carnitine helps your body to produce maximal oxygen consumption by creating more red blood cells. For distance runners, L-Carnitine is rapidly gaining credibility for increasing energy and expanding endurance.
Creatine is the most clinically tested supplement ingredient of all time. It is and has been the number one performance supplement in the gym. Bodybuilders use creatine to improve exercise performance, gain muscle, and enhance strength. Although there is little evidence, creatine benefits lower intensity, endurance training, creatine does improve performance in more explosive, higher intensity exercises, such as sprinting.
Nitrates improve blood flow through vasodilation, delivering more oxygen to the muscles and enhancing athletic performance. NO is another staple in the strength athlete’s arsenal. L-Arginine, beet juice, and Montmorency Tart Cherry Extract are examples of nitrates being used to initiate vasodilation and improve endurance.
L-Arginine is one of the most popular forms of Nitric Oxide in supplements. In addition to being a vasodilator, Arginine stimulates the release of growth hormone, insulin, and other substances in the body.
Given the repetitive nature of running and stress on the joints of the feet, ankle, knees, and hips, we consider joint supplements a worthwhile area for exploration. Some of our favorite joint supplements include:
- Hyaluronic Acid
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)
Many of the more popular joint relief brands will formulate their products using several of the above ingredients in combination.
The IAAF’s Take On Supplements For Runners
The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) recently published their Consensus Statement on Nutrition for Athletics. Not surprisingly, the statement begins with, “Runners are encouraged to get the bulk of their nutrition from whole foods and to avoid excessive supplementation, but the report does outline five supplements that have an evidence base of contributing to performance. Those five supplements are: caffeine, creatine, nitrate/beetroot juice, beta-alanine and bicarbonate. For distance runners (5,000m and over), caffeine and nitrate are the two supplements that the consensus review recommends.”
Like us, the IAAF recognizes that the knowledge and practice of nutrition for endurance athletes have evolved. The report states a range of new developments in sports nutrition, recognized by expert bodies such as the American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietitians of Canada. The study identified strategies used by competitors to enjoy a long, healthy, and successful career in their chosen event.
The chart below is a synopsis of their findings by type of activity, the needs/demands of the activity, and supplements that may be beneficial.
|Sprints||Performance determined primarily by reaction time, acceleration, maximum running velocity, and the ability to sustain this in the presence of increasing fatigue||Some evidence to support the use of a small number of supplements (e.g., caffeine and creatine, plus beta-alanine and bicarbonate for longer sprints) to assist in the training and/or competition environment|
|Jumps/throws/combined events||An emphasis on speed and explosive movements along with technical proficiency to convert forward or rotational movement into the highest jump or longest jump or throw||Appropriate use of ergogenic aides, such as creatine, beta-alanine, and/or caffeine, depending on event, stage of season, and performance goals|
|Middle Distance||Exceptional aerobic and anaerobic bioenergetic development, with emphasis on sprint biomechanical/ structure performance components||Potential use of exogenous (sodium bicarbonate) and endogenous (beta-alanine leading to carnosine) buffering approaches|
|Distance||Key factors for success are high aerobic power, the ability to exercise at a large fraction of this power, and high economy of movement||• Event-specific hydration plan before and during race to find individual balance between rates of sweat loss and opportunities to drink – electrolytes
• Well practiced use of evidence-based performance supplements (e.g., caffeine)
|Ultra-Distance||Large dependency of endogenous fat energy substrate but requires a constant supply of exogenous CHO energy substrate for synergistic energy provisions and prevention of metabolic fatigue||Ad libitum fluid intake for protection against dehydration and overhydration. Assess gastrointestinal tolerance to race food and fluid, and adjust accordingly|
Protein Statement By IAAF
In addition to those supplements highlighted in the above table, the IAAF study addresses the athlete’s protein use. To summarize:
“There is now clear evidence of the benefits of consuming high-quality proteins (those providing relevant amounts of all essential amino acids).
Overall, dietary protein intakes of 1.3–1.7 grams/kg per day represent optimal targets for the physique and adaptation goals of weight-stable Athletes.
Athletes who wish to achieve effective weight loss, which promotes the retention or even an increase in lean mass, are advised to engage in resistance exercise and to consume dietary protein in quantities of 1.6–2.4 g/kg.
Protein-rich whole food sources are the preferred source of protein; however, protein supplements may sometimes provide a valuable option when it is impractical to transport, prepare, or consume food sources of protein.
It all means that protein consumption from sources high in amino acids is beneficial – that protein supplementation may be a valuable option. More importantly, it indicates that athletes that wish to be weight stable should consume 1.3 – 1.7 grams/kg of protein per day; and that those wishing to maintain or gain lean muscle should consume 1.6 – 2.4 grams/kg per day. This is opposed to the current RDA of .08 grams/kg per day. Perhaps the strength athletes have been right all along.
IAAF’s Position On Electrolytes
In addition to recommending sodium bicarbonate (an electrolyte) for sprints and distance runners, the IAAF acknowledges the need for (re)hydration by replacing the electrolytes lost in sweat universally. They also suggest sports drinks and gels may be used to achieve hydration and fueling strategies.
In Summary: Supplements For Runners
Running of all types tests the limits of your body’s endurance and requires that you receive the proper nutrients. What are the best supplements for runners? We think you need to assess your needs, identify those supplements that best address those needs, and try one or two so that you can monitor results. As we stated early on in this article, no runner needs all these supplements.
Some needs to consider and our supplement recommendations:
- Energy Caffeine – Vitamin B12
- Endurance – Beta-Alanine, Beet juice, Tart Cherry Extract
- Hydration – Electrolytes
- Addressing Dietary Deficiencies – Multivitamin/Mineral, specific vitamins, or minerals
- Maintenance/Injury Avoidance – Vitamin D3, Calcium, Magnesium
- Repair & Recovery – L-Glutamine, BCAAs, Protein
- Body Composition – BCAAs, Whey Protein, L-Carnitine, Creatine
- Immune Function – Zinc, Vitamin D3, Vitamin C, L-Glutamine