What Kind of Supplements Should Runners Take?
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition, L2 Strength and Conditioning Coach.
Running is an activity in which a person moves forward by placing one foot in front of the other at a quicker pace than walking. In this article we look at what supplements may benefit you as a runner.
We shall cover the following:
- Plant based diet
During running, the body repeatedly swings its rear leg forward and around towards the front. The leg pushes off from the ground to move forward, and then it swings back to put down the next foot.
The arms can be used for balance or to swing them forwards or backwards to gain momentum.
Running is a sport that was introduced in the 1800s and it has been one of the most popular for over 100 years.
Not surprisingly it has become a mainstream activity because of its accessibility and low-cost. What more do you need than some running footwear? Very little.
There are also health benefits associated with running such as weight loss, lower blood pressure, better heart health, and increased energy levels. No wonder it is popular.
But the form of competitive running has been around for thousands of years. The Olympic games are the longest running event in world history, and it has been going on for more than 2,500 years.
The games symbolize the important aspects of sportsmanship and internationalism to many people. And it has united them under one shared goal throughout history.
It is a great opportunity to bring together athletes from every corner of the globe to compete for gold medals in an international arena. It’s truly phenomenal what this event has done for our world over the years.
Events for runners
In its most simplistic form, you can start running from anywhere to anywhere, you can do it alone or part of a group…that’s the beauty of the sport.
However, there are lots of organised events that take place all over the world that gives most people an opportunity to get involved and achieve success.
Let’s take a closer look…
Events can range from a 5k to a marathon, with different events for all ages and skill levels. Some of the most popular types of events are:
- Fun Runs: A shorter distance race, usually less than 5 kilometers, for those who want to have some fun and not focus on an intense workout.
- Road Races: The most popular type of running event, which can vary in distance from 5k to marathons of 26 miles or more. They are organized by location and time frame.
- Obstacle Course Races: Enjoyed by many runners because they combine the fun aspects of an obstacle course with the challenge of a running event - these races usually take place over a short distance of 3-5km but include a range of obstacles such as mud.
A marathon is a long-distance running event, consisting of 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers).
The marathon was traditionally called a "stadium race" because the runners had to travel from one stadium to another, and the winner of the event received an olive wreath.
Extreme Events For Runners
However, some events are even more extreme to really test the physical and mental strength of the competitors such as the Marathon des Sables which is considered one of the most challenging events in the world of ultra-running.
The Marathon des Sables is a 6-day, multi-stage race through the Moroccan Sahara Desert. Each year, around 800 runners take on this gruelling challenge. The racers cover a total distance of 250km across some of the most difficult terrain on earth.
It takes about 12 hours for each competitor to complete one stage, with some stages being longer than others. There are six stages in total, crossing various remote regions of Morocco, which include deserts and mountains along the way.
The competitors will have to endure temperatures reaching 40 or even 50 degrees Celsius during the day and below freezing at night due to altitude changes in desert regions. They will be competing against sandstorms and westerly winds as well as some dangerous wildlife that can sustain themselves in the hospitable terrain.
In contrast there’s the North Pole Marathon which may be the most interesting marathon in the world. It is a small event with only around 400 participants, most of whom are from Canada's Inuit population.
The route goes from Resolute Bay to Alert, Nunavut, which is the most northern point in Canada. It’s not difficult to imagine how the environment presents a difficult challenge to those runners.
The Boston Marathon is the oldest, longest, and one of the most prestigious annual marathon races in the world. It has been held every year since its inception in 1897, except during World War I and World War II when it was not held due to restrictions on public assembly.
One of the most popular marathons is the Berlin Marathon. It is held annually in Germany and attracts around 45,000 participants every year.
The London Marathon is also one of the world’s most popular marathon race. It is one of the six World Marathon Majors, along with Boston, Berlin, Chicago, Tokyo and New York City. The London marathon tends to attract many of the greatest athletes due to its fast course.
The London Marathon is usually held on the last weekend of April every year. The first edition was held in 1981 and it has been an annual event since then. It starts at Greenwich Park in southeast London before heading out through the city. The race then finishes on The Mall in central London up to the Queen’s London residence, Buckingham Palace.
If the thought of running in excess of 26 miles was a bit too much, you could try a Parkrun race.
Quick Events for Runners
Parkrun is a free, international event. It started more than 10 years ago and has now enlisted more than 2 million runners globally
Parkrun is open to all ages and abilities, with over 500 events happening per week in the UK, Ireland, Australia and South Africa
The size of the event depends on the location of the majority of those who have signed up to run those days.
For those who do not have a Parkrun near them there is also a virtual option which can be done from your own home.
At the moment, the organizers offer a free mobile app which you can download and use offline. It will give you GPS-enabled routes for your location, or you can choose from one of the premade courses if you're looking for something different.
Macronutrients for Runners
Regardless of your choice of exercise or sport, nutrition is key if you want to succeed. Therefore, a basic grasp of the macronutrients is required, and then your intake is dependant on activity level.
Endurance running can be a demanding sport. It requires a lot of physical and mental strength. Athletes have to be able to run for a long time without stopping or slowing down. They also need to have a high level of endurance to get through the race without any injuries.
The macronutrients that are required for endurance running are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. These should be obtained in the proper amounts to optimize performance and recovery which will be covered.
Here’s an outline of each, below:
Carbs are needed for energy to fuel your workout muscles. They may come from your diet such as potatoes, breads, fruit or even milk. For convenience, there are dietary supplements like gels, sports drinks or bars that can be easily digested during training. You need to keep up with how many carbs you take in during exercise so that it matches the amount you need to recover after training.
When Runners Hit The wall
Endurance athletes also need to provide their body with more carbohydrates than those who do not work out as much. This is because the muscle cells in the body use up all their glycogen stores and dip into the blood glucose levels, leading to a drop in blood glucose.
This is called ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’ and can lead to exhaustion, dizziness and nausea. Quite frankly, when you hit the wall, you feel like you cannot go on.
Therefore, the runner needs to fill up their stores in the muscle and liver which equates to about 900mg of glycogen, however, these stores will run out after about 90 minutes of intensive exercise.
So, the runner needs enough carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores which are stored within muscles for energy.
Fuelling with carbohydrates should be done before exercise, during exercise and then after exercise.
Carbohydrates come in two forms:
Simple carbohydrates, also called simple sugars, are sugars like glucose and fructose that the body can use immediately for energy. Complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to break down into smaller sugars that it can use for energy; these include starch and glycogen.
Our bodies need these carbs because our cells need sugar to function properly. If we don't consume enough carbohydrates our bodies will start to use muscle for energy, which can lead to muscle catabolism.
Recommendations for Runners
Research suggests that an athlete should consume 200-330g of carbohydrate before exercise and then refuel afterwards with 1.2g per kg of bodyweight per hour for 5 hours.
During exercise, and depending on the duration of the event, carbohydrate consumption can be between 30g to 90g per hour to be taken every 15 minutes.
For day-to-day intake, recommendations are around 7-10g per kg per day.
Amino acids are building blocks for muscles which help them recover faster after a hard workout session or race day at the end of a long season.
Protein is an important macronutrient that helps the body build and repair cells. It comes in many forms and is found in all sorts of foods like meats, beans, nuts, bread and again milk.
The need for protein will vary from person to person, but endurance athletes generally need more than the average person to help fuel muscle growth and recovery.
Recommendations for Runners
An endurance athlete should look to consume up to 1.6g per kg of bodyweight daily to maintain protein balance and avoid muscle catabolism.
Fat requirements for endurance running are different than fat requirements for other sports like weightlifting or sprinting, which require more lean muscle mass and less body fat.
The advantage of fat reserves is the amount of energy it provides, even in lean athletes when compared to carbohydrates.
However, they are more useful to low intensity exercise that is less than 70% of VO2 max. However, relying on fat as a main source of energy can restrict high intensity performance.
Recommendations for Runners
That said, fats play an import role in physiology and should not be restricted to less than 20% of your daily calorie intake and not exceed 35%.
Post exercise nutrient replenishment
Research shows that nutrient replenishment of protein, carbohydrate, and fat immediately after exercise increased protein synthesis threefold. Delaying nutrient replenishment reduced protein synthesis to just 12%.
Supplements of Interest for Runners
Supplements are important for achieving the perfect body composition and performance levels. With the advancement in science, supplements have evolved in significant ways to help athletes perform better.
There are many reasons why athletes use supplements; however, the most common reasons are to lose weight, boost performance, increase muscle mass and improve endurance.
Supplements are used by both amateur and professional athletes, in fact data suggests that 85% of elite track and field athletes use supplements in one way or another.
Some people take them just to lose weight while others take them to boost their performance or get an edge on their competitors.
Athletes have become more open about using dietary supplements over the last few years because it is a way for them to get an extra advantage during competition without jeopardizing their career
In the past, people have been using herbal remedies and traditional medicines to maintain their health. However, with advances in science and medicine, people now have options that are more scientifically proven and effective.
One of the most popular supplements among Americans is omega-3. This supplement is used for healthy brain function, skin health, mood support, joint support, and cardiovascular support.
The Omega-3 fatty acids are essential because they cannot be synthesized by the body on its own; therefore, it must come from food sources or supplements like omega-3 fish oil.
The sunshine vitamin
There are other nutrients such as vitamin D, which is difficult to get from food sources. Therefore, it is often advised to use a vitamin D supplement as it plays a role in maintaining our mood, immune system, teeth and bones. Deficiency in this vitamin can lead to Rickets, Osteomalacia, osteoporosis and cancer.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Vitamin D helps your body use calcium and phosphorus to build strong bones and teeth. It also helps your muscles contract, and your nerves send messages.”
As we can see there are plenty of options and benefits to supplements. They essentially fill a gap in your nutritional deficiencies, because, not everyone can get all the nutrients they need all the time.
Additionally, if your body is under increased stress from exercise, it increases nutrient turnover meaning you need more than normal.
Then there are ergogenic aids. An ergogenic aid is a substance that enhances physical performance, helping the user to do more work in less time.
Ergogenic aids can be natural or synthetic substances. They may be used as an addition to food or drink, taken in capsule form or injected for more immediate effect.
The benefits of supplements for Runners
Ergogenic aids are used in sports and when exercising. They have been shown to increase muscle strength and endurance, reduce muscle soreness and improve athletic performance when taken before a workout routine or competition.
There are a few ergogenic aids commonly used by athletes including creatine monohydrate, caffeine, beta-alanine and L-carnitine which may stimulate additional performance during training sessions and competitions.
So, let’s look at those ergogenic aids that are more specifically useful to runners and endurance athletes.
While some may improve anaerobic muscle strength and thus improve sprint performance, they may not be suitable for prolonged aerobic activity such as running a marathon, or indeed recovery.
We have already mentioned carbohydrate, and the amounts you need to consume as an active runner. However, carbohydrate loading pre competition or even training is paramount to success, and thus why we briefly re-visit.
There are clear, proven benefits for any endurance athlete who is either training or competing over 90 minutes to preload, consume during and replenish afterwards with a rich source of carbohydrates.
A published paper by the Current Sports Medicine Reports Journal states:
“High dietary carbohydrate (CHO) intake for several days before competition (CHO loading) is known to increase muscle glycogen stores, with subsequent ergogenic performance benefits often seen in events longer than 90 min in duration.”
While protein supplementation is often associated with bodybuilders, it has benefits which support metabolic adaptation and repair that stretches beyond muscle tissue but also benefits tendons and bones.
If you are involved in a period of intensive training, a guide of 1.2-2.0g per kilo of bodyweight daily should be considered. If you are injured and must take time out, hitting that higher guideline of 2.0g is necessary to prevent the loss of fat-free mass.
Research dictates that maximum muscle protein synthesis can be achieved by consuming a high-quality protein source such as a milk-based product or soy if you follow a plant-based diet within 2 hours post exercise.
Sodium bicarbonate is a potent ergogenic aid for athletes. It can be used as an ingested or intravenous agent before, during, or after exercise.
Many athletes use it before and during exercise to help buffer their blood acidity, which can cause muscle fatigue under extreme conditions.
Sodium bicarbonate is also used post-exercise to help lower the risk of developing metabolic acidosis that may occur following intense training sessions or competitions.
The benefits tend to favor high intensity events, so sprinting or periods of sprinting during endurance running, so a sprint finish for example to beat a competitor to the finish line.
Research suggests that dosing between 0.025-0.5g per kilogram of bodyweight can yield beneficial effects. However, recommendations are at 300mg per kilogram of bodyweight to be taken 1-2 hours before competition.
Caffeine is a stimulant drug that can increase performance on tasks requiring mental effort and physical activity. The stimulant is naturally found in foods like coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa pods.
Research outlined by the International society of sports nutrition concludes that caffeine is most effective when consumed in doses of 3-6mg/kg body mass.
The minimum dose required for it to be an effective performance enhancer is unknown, but it may be 2mg/kg body mass.
Large doses of caffeine (e.g., 9mg/kg) are linked to a high risk of side-effects and don't seem to be necessary to enhance performance any further.
The consensus suggests that aerobic exercise involving continuous re-oxygenation may be where you see the most consistent and impressive results from caffeine use. That said, its benefits decreases depending on the individual.
Beetroot/Beet juice (Nitrates)
If you're trying to improve your performance at the gym or out running, it might be worth looking into nitrates. There have been many clinical trials with results showing that beetroot juice or concentrate can be beneficial to athletes.
Nitric acid is a strong blood vessel dilator that can increase blood flow throughout the body and deliver more oxygen & nutrients to your muscles.
Beetroot has been shown to improve performance and endurance to different degrees among athletes across a range of disciplines in tests.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the Dietitians of Canada (DoC), and The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) say that nitrates help you last longer when you exercise, and they can even improve your performance if you're just out for a jog.
Creatine is one of the most extensively studied and widely used supplements to boost exercise performance. Creatine has been shown to increase the amount of ATP in cells, supplying muscles with energy during short-term events.
Studies in both labs and on athletes have found that creatine supplements can help increase strength and power during activities that require a lot of energy like football, weightlifting or sprinting.
A study looking at the potential of creatine for male sprinters saw that creatine improved sprinting performance in 100-meters.
The improved sprint performance suggests that an increased availability of energy substrate, possibly because of increased skeletal muscle creatine phosphate.
Beta-alanine is a non-proteogenic amino acid produced by the liver. Humans can get beta-alanine through the consumption of foods such as poultry and meat.
Beta-alanine is a precursor to carnosine production and has been shown to increase the levels of carnosine in human muscle.
Studies showing benefit to either endurance running, or sprints are limited, but there does appear to be an advantage when running at a high intensity to exhaustion lasting over 60 seconds and up to 240 seconds, rather than to a fixed point (i.e 100m) at 90-100% of velocity to reach your VO2max.
Therefore, supplementation of beta-Alanine may improve your high intensity interval training at your 100% VO2max which can benefit your overall running performance.
Measurement of endurance capacity
A practical example where beta-alanine appears to improve performance is during the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test Level 2 which is used to determine the level of fitness among athletes in various sports and measure endurance capacity.
The participants run two 20 meter runs which progressively get faster. Each 20-meter run is punctuated with an initial 5 second rest period in which the participant has the chance to recover which is then reduced to 2.5 seconds.
The participant stops when they feel they have reached their exhaustive limit or if they consecutively fail to hit the finishing line twice.
A study published by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2012 found that 12 weeks of beta-alanine supplementation (an amino acid) improved YoYo IR2 performance. This is probably thanks to an increased muscle buffering capacity (which means the reduction in intracellular pH during high-intensity intermittent exercise is less likely).
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Leucine, valine and isoleucine, the three amino acids make up the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and are found in dairy, meat and eggs which are known as complete proteins.
There is very limited evidence, but evidence none the less that demonstrate supplemental BCAA’s decreased the levels of CK & LDH in the serum after exhaustive exercise.
The results of this study suggest that BCAA supplementation might help reduce the muscle damage associated with endurance exercise.
HMB is a substance which is used to increase muscle mass by strength and power athletes. HMB is a metabolite of leucine, which is one of the three essential branched-chain amino acids (leucine, valine, and isoleucine). They all share similar metabolic pathways.
Leucine is a well-known anabolic compound, which acts as a signalling molecule in muscle fibers and stimulates protein synthesis.
Using HMB supplements with exercise appear to lessen the levels of indicators like CPK and LDH as well as lead to a more favorable recovery routine after a prolonged workout.
Findings published by the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2000 saw that subjects who were supplemented with HMB experienced less muscle damage than those that didn't.
Furthermore, the HMB-supplemented group could have sustained the same amount of muscle damage as the placebo-supplemented group but recovered at a faster rate.
Supplements of Consideration for Runners on Plant-Based Diets
A poorly constructed vegan diet might lead to nutrient deficiencies. These might not be too severe if your diet consists of a wide variety of food, but some individuals might need to supplement their diet.
Vegans who want to stay healthy and perform well need a nutrition plan that meets their nutritional needs and considers their training regime.
Research has suggested that vegetarians generally appear to be restricted in protein, fat, vitamin B12, riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc when compared to an omnivorous diet.
It has been discovered that a high concentration of vitamin B12 favors a better synthesis of hemoglobin in athletes which may improve red blood cell parameters, in turn this can facilitate higher rates of oxygen being transported to the skeletal muscle.
Preliminary research into ultramarathon runners suggests that riboflavin supplements before and during prolonged running may reduce muscle pain and soreness during the exercise, as well as accelerating recovery after it.
Vitamin D deficiency is common among athletes. Not only can it have an adverse effect on the bones, muscles, and detoxification processes of your body - Vitamin D has also been linked to diminished immunity and respiratory/neurological function.
Athletes are always on the move. Getting an adequate amount of vitamin D could provide benefits for their muscular health.
It's important for athletes to maintain healthy levels of bone density so their bones are strong enough to withstand the forces they are constantly exposed to.
It's been shown that not all physical activities have been shown to positively effect bone mass, with some athletes specializing in certain sports, for example running long distances, road cycling and swimming having lower bone density than those who take part in other activities.
Low energy availability is linked to suboptimal vitamin D and calcium levels, which are essential for achieving a peak bone mass.
Should runners take iron supplements? Maintaining adequate levels of iron in your diet may help with athletic performance.
Female distance runners, especially endurance athletes, have been shown to be at a higher risk for low iron levels and should make sure to get enough.
Iron deficiency should be included as a possible disease for athletes because of the large impact it can have on performance. Unfortunately, some signs may not be detected until it is too late to provide proper treatment.
Zinc plays a significant role in many biochemical processes that keep our bodies healthy.
It is involved in cellular respiration, DNA production, the maintenance of cell membrane integrity and scavenging free radicals. Zinc is required for the activity of over 300 enzymes, which are vital for all facets of our lives.
If you are an athlete, a zinc deficiency can lead to anorexia, significant loss of bodyweight, latent fatigue with decreased endurance and a risk of osteoporosis.
Endurance Athletes and Testosterone
Sportsmen and women who participate in endurance events put in a lot of effort when training. For instance, it is not uncommon for marathon/ultra-distance runners to train 150-200 kilometres per week.
One of your body's highly sensitive systems to the stress of exercise training is the endocrine system. This is specifically true for the components of the endocrine system associated with regulating and controlling reproduction.
It is becoming evident from a lot of research that working out extensively during your leisure time may result in endocrine dysfunction leading to issues related to your reproductive system.
Research studies have shown that men, who are constantly endurance training may notice changes in the levels of hormones. The key change being a drop in testosterone levels.
The majority of these men display normal levels of testosterone; they are at the lower end of the normal range, and enter a region that is sub-clincial which means they're suffering from testosterone deficiency.
Low Testosterone Risks to Runners
Signs of low testosterone include: a lack or regression of secondary sex characteristics, anemia, muscle wasting, reduced bone mass and bone mineral density, and oligospermia. Abdominal fat is also a sign of this disorder.
Why is Testosterone Important to Athletes?
One of the most key benefits of androgens is their anabolic affect on protein turnover, which could potentially lead to muscle growth.
With the right exercise regime, it's possible to significantly change your body composition. Of course, this can translate to increased strength and power.
Testosterone also increases erythropoiesis and hemoglobin concentrations which can improve the oxygen capacity of the blood and improve your aerobic capacity (VO2max).
What Steps Can You Take?
There is substantial evidence that links dietary factors to testosterone levels. Research has demonstrated that a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and fats which is also low in leafy green vegetables alongside more nutritionally dense foods can lead to low testosterone.
Therefore, it is imperative that you fulfill your nutritional needs, and try to avoid cheap, quick fix convenience foods that provide little nutritional value.
Take a look at our testosterone boosting food guide, here.
If you are concerned that you may fall short of the muicronutrients and other anti-inflammatories that can iprove your testosterone secretion, you could also take a supplement developed specifically for those who undergo extreme training regimes.
Supplements for Runners Conclusion
Aas you can probabaly gather there are supplements available that can help improve your running performance and recovery, and if you can recover more effectively that in turn can boost your training capabilities.
However, you must understand which supplement is suitable for your type of running, if it is sprining performance that you are looking to improve then creatine may be ideal, whereas caffeine is more suitable for longer distances.
Additionally, there are also the micronutrients to consider, you should take a 'food first' approach and try to get a full spectrum of micronutrients from food sources. However, this may be difficult depending on work, life and training commitments, in these cases a supplement can fill any deficiencies, and this is where Military Muscle can help.