Supplements that improve exercise performance are also known as ergogenic aids. They are meant to “prepare the body for exercise, reduce the chance of injury during training, and enhance recovery from exercise.”1
For runners, surveys tell us that supplement use increases as we age. Running supplements are also more popular among women than men. Even among younger people, some athletes just want to enhance their performance or muscle strength, or increase their endurance, so they turn to supplements for an extra boost.2
Many female athletes supplement with iron if they don’t get enough in their diets, while more men take vitamin E, protein, and creatine supplements.3 A new study has even shown that with a blend of iron, copper, zinc, carnitine, and phosphatidylserine, female runners’ 3-mile run times dropped by almost a minute.4
With all the buzz online, it’s tough to know what actually works from what will just give you “expensive pee,” so we broke down the science behind running supplements to give our readers some answers.
Consider this table of information with some of the most popular exercise supplements, with research on studies and clinical trials compiled by the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements.5
Common ingredients in exercise supplements
Source: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements
Increases serum testosterone and luteinizing hormone concentrations, which promotes increase in muscle mass
No evidence of benefit, safety not well studied
So, what’s right for you? It depends, and you should of course speak to a doctor before combining supplements and coming up with your own plan. But first, a note on nutrition.
Running and nutrition
Proper nutrition is first and foremost important for any athlete, including runners, when trying to prepare for an event. Even those not training for a race and just casually running on a regular basis throughout their lives will find benefit in eating the correct foods in the right amounts for their bodies.6
“Athletes require adequate daily amounts of calories, fluids, carbohydrates (to maintain blood glucose levels and replace muscle glycogen; typically 1.4 to 4.5 g/lb body weight [3 to 10 g/kg body weight]), protein (0.55 to 0.9 g/lb body weight [1.2 to 2.0 g/kg body weight]), fat (20% to 35% of total calories), and vitamins and minerals.”
And vitamin deficiencies certainly can impact performance.7
“A daily intake of less than one-third of the RDA for several of the B vitamins (B1, B2 and B6) and vitamin C, even when other vitamins are supplemented in the diet, may lead to a significant decrease in VO2max and the anaerobic threshold in less than four weeks.”
Although there have been plenty of fads with muscle-building supplements and controversial performance-enhancing drugs out there for athletes, vitamins remain the most popular way to supplement.
You should speak to a nutritionist or dietitian if you are a seasoned athlete looking to improve your performance to ensure your diet is on point. And if you train in hotter environments or those with higher altitudes, make sure your calorie, fluid, and electrolyte intake is sufficient because you’ll need more than people who don’t live or train in the same type of place. You may also need to consume additional carbohydrates for energy.
Foods rich in unrefined carbohydrates like whole grains, vegetables, and fruit should be standard in any runner or athlete’s diet.8 Those who have moderate or high-volume training schedules need more carbs and protein; 2-3 hours per day of intense exercise five to six times per week requires a diet that’s 55-65% carbohydrates, for example, to maintain liver and muscle glycogen stores.9
For those who are trying to maintain a lower-carbohydrate diet and still run, fear not — you may be OK with a fat-adapted diet and exercise. People who follow a ketogenic diet, for example, burn fat instead of glucose during their exercise bouts (while I was fine with good old-fashioned carbs and glucose, thank you very much). Research continues in this area on how this type of diet may affect runners’ endurance10, though one ultra runner set a new course record two years ago in Phoenix on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet.11
Diet types in our matrix like Mosaic may be built for a high fat diet, but the Okinawans and Wayoans are better off being powered by plants.
Supplements for runners – my experience
I took five types of supplements during my 12-week half marathon training plan. You’ll notice that a few of these aren’t in the large supplements table above, and many are just supplements I take daily whether I’m training or not.
Note that everyone may react to supplements differently, so you should consult with a doctor before taking any new supplements and read up on supplements and how they may affect other medication you’re on.
Ah, glucosamine. The number one supplement for runners, but also the most controversial (at least aside from muscle enhancers). We debated the merits of glucosamine supplements extensively in another post, so feel free to head that way for a primer and more research.
I took daily a combination supplement from VitaBreeze (View on Amazon) that included 1,500 mg of glucosamine sulfate and 1,000 mg chondroiton sulfate, 600 mg methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and 300 mg turmeric. I feel like the glucosamine/chondroiton worked well for me, helping my joints feel less sore than they have during past half marathon training sessions years ago. Any runner knows that after a long, hard run, walking up or down stairs can be brutal. I never felt this pain while on these supplements. I think the addition of turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory, also helped.
Omega-3 fish oil
We all know John’s feelings about fish oil, and I happened to be the guinea pig for all our taste tests on our post on why most fish oil is garbage. Fish oil is probably that number two most-talked-about supplement in runners’ social circles, and is often suggested to take alongside glucosamine. I took daily a 950 mg dose of high-quality omega-3 fish oil from Ortho Molecular (View on Amazon) that was high in EPA/DHA, the good stuff in fish oil. Fish oil is supposed to reduce inflammation and help us recover from our runs faster, and they may be a safe alternative to NSAIDs.12 My recovery time using both of the most popular supplements for running was minimal, and I only had one “bad” long run and one bad short run in 12 weeks.
If you’re on a budget, there are certainly some cheaper fish oils out there, but make sure to buy a good quality one. Our fish oil guide has a complete breakdown that’s worth checking out (and happens to be one of our most popular posts).
I take magnesium daily no matter if I’m training for a race or doing another activity, like spin or dance class. Ever since I wrote about magnesium supplements and did some research on my own about magnesium’s many benefits, I fell in love. Magnesium is responsible for a lot of our body’s functions, and one of its main positives is how it helps reduce soreness in athletes by getting rid of lactic acid buildup (proper stretching helps with this, too). When we sweat and hydrate more (hopefully!) as runners, our body releases more magnesium so we need to take in extra. Most Americans don’t get enough magnesium as it is in their diets, so this is always a good supplement to take.
To reduce any tummy upset, I took 200 mg of high-quality magnesium from Doctor’s Best (View on Amazon) daily during half marathon training (but you can take up to 400 mg daily if you are particularly deficient). Look for a brand that isn’t buffered and is not the cheaper magnesium oxide form.
Most research on magnesium and athletic performance will point to magnesium having no effect, unless you are deficient.1314 However, we know that many Americans are in fact magnesium-deficient as most peoples’ diets do not cover the leafy greens and other healthy foods that contain magnesium.
Vitamin D3 was a supplement John recommended to me a while back when I was having problems with an eye twitch, either due to lack of sleep, stress, or poor hydration. That annoying eye twitch also could be the result of a vitamin D3 deficiency. I take 25 mcg of vitamin D3 (View on Amazon) daily and have not experienced a twitch since.
For runners, when co-supplementing vitamin D with calcium, it may prevent bone loss in athletes who may be susceptible to osteoporosis, but otherwise probably won’t enhance performance.1516 Make sure if you co-supplement with calcium (I did not) and are also taking magnesium that your ratios are in check. Gene Food contributor and dietitian Janeth wrote a bit more about mineral imbalances involving calcium, magnesium, and potassium that you can read for more information.
The research is also conflicting, but because our vitamin D levels tend to drop when we become sick with a cold or flu, supplementing with vitamin D may help us ward off these yucky illnesses. But this is where vitamin C really came in for me.
I didn’t take vitamin C daily, but it’s the worst feeling to think you might be coming down with a cold but you’re facing your long run the following day. I never got sick during my 12 weeks of training, which was a blessing. Vitamin C may have helped — I took 250 mg (View on Amazon) anytime I felt a little ill or was entering a week where a lot of people around me were sick (my training started in January, right before the peak of flu season!).
Although some studies show that well-nourished individuals shouldn’t notice any decrease in athletic performance with or without vitamin C supplementation, those who are deficient may notice a difference.1718 After intense exercise, however, taking a vitamin C supplement may help runners prevent their risk of an upper respiratory infection, which is all I cared about in my training.19
Vitamin C also may aid in producing collagen, which can aid in joint health.20 Also of note, in one 24-week study of 147 athletes who were given a collagen hydrolysate supplement, researchers saw improvement in joint pain, with the most improvement among a subgroup with knee arthralgia when compared to a placebo.21
See also: Not all vitamin C is created equal
Other running tips
While this post mainly focused on supplements (there’s a lot of advice out there on the internet for runners!), other things I did that were huge in assisting with my training included:
Finding a training plan to follow along online. I did Couch to Half Marathon, after completing a few Couch to 5K runs and running four previous half marathons when I was in better running shape in the last five years.
Taking a supplement containing electrolytes during long runs. I didn’t mention this among my list of supplements above because it wasn’t a traditional supplement, but a bar or gel. I really liked Clif Shot Blocks (View on Amazon) in strawberry flavor while I was on my 10-mile-plus runs on weekends. They provided a little extra energy boost with some carbohydrates and electrolytes to help me finish my 2-hour runs. If you don’t like the gummy texture, you can try gels or even powders to add to your water. Some energy gels or bars also come with added caffeine.
Stretching after every run. Really. Every run. Do at least a solid five minutes, and don’t half-ass it. Your body will thank you for it and your next run will feel easier.
Investing in a foam roller. I have had an IT band injury before, and they suck. Try using a foam roller at least once a week — after your longest run is best.
Taking Epsom salt baths. I did these weekly as well, if not two or three times a week, depending on how I felt. Bonus: Your body can absorb magnesium also through some bath blends, though supplementation is much more effective.
Getting a good massage. I did these once a month, and my massage therapist also recommended a massage stick for my legs and pressure point massage balls for my feet, which I began using while watching TV or reading every couple of nights toward the last few weeks of my training. I should have used them sooner, though.
Doing more than just running. That means cross training and strength training. Your training plan may vary, but having a mental break from runs made them seem less grueling when they came around every other day.
Doing less than running. And this mean taking a break. There were a few weeks I had to adjust my running schedule because of travel or work, or social events, so occasionally I would run two days in a row (which wasn’t part of my plan). This was a little tougher than my body expected, so I’d slow down. Additionally, speed work wasn’t for me this half marathon after two unsuccessful attempts during training. Listen to your body. Slow down, adjust your expectations, and remember to take at least one rest day a week.
Not sure what to eat?
Gene Food uses a proprietary algorithm to divide people into one of twenty diet types based on genetics. We score for fat metabolism, histamine clearance, carbohydrate tolerance, and more. Where do you fit?
Whether you want to run your first 5K or marathon, or get back into the running game, you can do so with the help of a training plan, proper nutrition, and perhaps supplementation. A good diet is important while running. Runners (myself included) love beer and pizza, but eating plenty of good carbohydrates, leafy greens, legumes, and other nutrients from plant-based sources can help you feel stronger and more ready to tackle your next run.
Amber Krosel is a Gene Food experience writer and official taste tester. She loves beer, her boyfriend and her adopted pup.
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