You’re pounding the pavements, putting the hours in on the treadmill and peppering in hill runs and sprints as often as you can face them – but could the answer to that PB be as simple as adding a few supplements to your diet?
Supplementing vitamins, minerals and macronutrients may be commonplace in strength training, but supplements are less common within the running world – unless you’re a serious endurance runner or sprint athlete.
But should amateur runners take a leaf out of the average gym goer, and start taking extra protein or BCAAs? Can supplementing make us run faster, go for longer and help us recover better? We spoke with three sports nutrition experts to find out if and what powders, pills and shakes runners should be taking.
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Omega-3 for muscle repair
Better known as fatty acids or one of the ‘good’ fats, omega-3 is vital for healthy cells, optimal heart and blood circulation as well as for curbing inflammation and being used in energy production. All of that makes it vital for running. The body can’t make omega-3 so we need to get it through food or supplements.
“Several research studies show a potentially beneficial effect of omega-3 (EPA/DHA specifically) on sports performance through improved endurance capacity and delayed onset of muscle soreness, as well as on improved recovery and immune function,” explains registered nutritional therapist Olga Hamilton. “Increased omega-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cells are positively related to strength and measures of physical function.”
Hamilton goes on to explain: “Supplementation has been found to increase post-absorptive muscle protein synthesis, and enhance anabolic responses to exercise,” meaning that taking omega-3 in the 2-4 hours after your run can aid muscle repair and renewal.
“A recent study showed a significant reduction of inflammatory and muscle damage, and decreased muscle soreness in endurance athletes after 10 weeks of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation,” adds Hamliton, head of nutrigenetics at Nutri-Genetix.
Fortunately, omega-3 is the kind of supplement that’s best found in wholefoods. Hamilton recommends filling up on the following:
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
Alternatively, you can take supplements in oil or gel capsules, ideally with a meal (like having a couple of cod liver oil tablets with your breakfast). If you’re on blood-thinning medication or having surgery, you’ll need to consult your GP before taking it in oil or capsule form.
Magnesium for more energy
Magnesium is central to the production of ATP – the process that the body uses to produce energy. “It also aids nerve conduction, muscle contraction and blood pressure regulation – all of which occur when we run,” explains nutritionist and performance coach Ben Coomber. “This helps your muscles to get enough oxygen, which reduces the chances of lactic acid building up (which leads to cramp).
While the jury’s still out about whether magnesium can actually reduce DOMS, we do know that extended periods of exercise requires more of the mineral. Coomber explains: “The ATP energy cycle uses a lot of magnesium to power us on both long runs and short bursts of sprinting.” If you don’t eat a diet that contains enough of the mineral, you’re left exposed.
With over 50% of the general population deficient in magnesium (in the USA at least), anyone who runs a lot might want to think about supplementing. Nutritionist Antonia Osborne tells Stylist: “A runner is likely to be more prone to magnesium depletion, which may result in muscle cramps and spasms, reduced muscle strength and reduced capacity to work at higher intensities for extended periods.” This, she says, can lead to reduced metabolic efficiency and overall impaired performance. Good levels of magnesium help us to sleep sounder, reducing levels of inflammation.
So, how much should we be taking? As before, the best sources are leafy greens and pulses, admits Coomber. But magnesium capsules also work well and there are those who believe that magnesium sprays and bath salts are effective (although there is some debate about that). You’re best off relaxing post-run with a hot, Epsom salts bath and then tucking into a spinach and chickpea curry if you really want to sleep well and recover.
B vitamins for increased oxygen to the muscles
B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B3, B5 and B6 are involved in energy production and therefore crucial for running, while folate (B9) and vitamin B12 are required for the synthesis of new cells and the repair of damaged cells. Hamilton explains that those processes are essential for oxygen delivery to the muscles during aerobic endurance exercise (such as steady or long-distance running).
“Athletes require greater amounts of red blood cells and oxygen carrying potential, but exercising, especially high-impact exercises like running, reduces red blood cell count and haemoglobin,” she explains. While runners require an increased amount of B vitamins, often endurance running depletes our levels.
That’s why, Hamilton claims, active people with poor levels of B vitamins tend to find it harder to perform at their best. She says that one in four athletes may have low B6, B9 and B12 levels, with endurance athletes appear to be particularly susceptible.”
“Research shows that in individuals with B12 deficiency, supplementing B12 dramatically improves exercise performance – athletes included,” says Hamilton. Increasing levels can be done through a B vitamin complex supplement or eating more whole and enriched grains, dark green vegetables, nuts, nutritional yeast and animal proteins.
Electrolytes for better water absorption and fighting cramp
Studies have shown that electrolyte-based drinks are more effective at hydrating people than water alone, and that athletes who drink electrolyte-based drinks can improve athletic performance by sustaining metabolism and optimising water absorption. “Runners may be more prone to electrolyte imbalance when training intensely for longer durations, or in higher heats,” says Osborne.
“Potassium plays a crucial role in the regulation of the heartbeat, while sodium and potassium work together to regulate fluid volume, facilitate muscular contraction and nerve impulse,” she explains. “Electrolytes are also needed for hormone and tissue production.”
So, how can you add these salts to your diet? “For sodium, using table salt works well; adding some salt to some water during a training session can help increase the absorption of water while replenishing sodium levels,” explains Osborne. “As well as salty water, a salty bone broth can work well.”
Coombe suggests another option: “You can find electrolytes in trace amounts in tap and mineral water, as well as fruit and veg, and this is adequate if you’re just going about your day. If you’re doing intense exercise like running, however, you’ll be losing electrolytes more quickly, so try an electrolyte-only supplement.” Electrolytes come in a variety of flavours and can easily be added to water in tablet or powder form for use while on the run and are effective post-run too.
Alternatively, you can make your own electrolyte drink for a fraction of the price and without any added chemicals.
Protein for stronger leg muscles and quick recovery
“The stronger our leg muscles are, the better our performance will be – regardless of the distance being run,” says Coomber. “An increased protein intake will aid muscle development and recovery, as protein aids repairs to exercise-induced muscle damage.” He also claims that eating enough protein can help us to avoid feeling quite as sore after a run. Stronger muscles that repair quicker are also less likely to suffer injury.
While it’s well known that protein supplementation can help sprinters to build the muscle required for explosive running, Coomber explains that protein may also help endurance athletes boost their performance. “One study found that endurance athletes were able to boost their performance in 5k, 10k, and 20k runs by up to 1.5% – which was up to 16 seconds, which is a lot in a race situation,” he says.
“A 2016 study also found that protein requirements were higher in endurance athletes following exercise, and indicates the hours following exercise are an ideal time to take on protein to boost your recovery.” Coomber recommends eating between 1.2 and 2.2 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight depending on your personal goals. “When it comes to sources of protein, opt for chicken, eggs or protein-rich plants such as beans, pulses, seeds, nuts, and there’s also tofu and Quorn,” he advises.
Short on time? While it’s better to go to the food source, whey and vegan protein powders can be a quick and convenient way to boost your protein intake by 20-30 grams with a single scoop.”
For those looking to do more explosive workouts, creatine may be an option. “It’s crucial for energy (ATP) production and supplementation of creatine is shown to increase anaerobic energy production and improve performance for sprinters,” says Osborne.
Coomber, on the other hand, believes that one of the most under-rated supplements of all is good old carbs. “If you’re running for long periods, say over an hour, you will likely have exhausted your carbohydrate stores, and will need to top them up in order to sustain your energy levels,” he explains.
“This is where quick-digesting carbohydrate supplements come in. By combining easy to digest carbohydrates with electrolytes you’ll optimise muscular contractions, enhance hydration and reduce the incidence of getting cramp. This is particularly useful for long and ultra-long distance runners.” That could mean sucking down SIS gels or chewing on a couple of medjool dates; either way, having water handy is essential.
For Hamilton, there’s only one must-take when it comes to supplements and that’s vitamin D. “It’s essential for healthy, strong bones, for making our muscles work efficiently and boosting energy levels. It also helps to enhance the activity of the mitochondria – the cell batteries,” she explains.
“Research has shown that it plays a key role in a number of processes that are key for optimal athletic performance and endurance, such as muscle growth and muscle contraction, as well as nerve stimulation, immune system, and improved anti-inflammatory response.”
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