Nutrition is an area full of myths and rumors, particularly when it comes to supplements for runners. Here’s how to navigate through the confusion to find exactly what you need.
Running nutrition can be a confusing arena in which to play.
To begin with, there’s your day-to-day diet. The debates will forever rage on in running circles on how to fuel your training, from keto to high carb to whole 30 and everything in between.
At the end of the day, simple whole foods are your best bet, not following specific, restrictive rules on quantity and substance.
On top of that, there’s a general sense that running means you need “extras” in your diet. Extra iron, extra protein, extra…. fill in the blank.
Runners frequently turn to supplements to satisfy these “needs.” There are thousands of articles and blog posts, not to mention advertising, dedicated to convincing you that as a runner, you need to add specific nutrients to your diet.
Because of this, you’ll see some common supplementation in the running community. For instance, some runners might turn to amino acids to reduce muscle loss and aid recovery. Creatine and amino acids are incredibly popular in the athletic world, and according to the National Institutes of Health, they are the most common supplements among athletes.
Protein and “energy” supplementation are also quite popular, according to NIH. In a survey of U.S. college athletes, 41 percent reported taking protein powders and 28.6 percent take energy shots.
But what’s the truth on supplementation? I’m sure you have questions about supplements for runners…
- Do runners really need to add extras to their diets?
- And should these extras ever come in pill or powder form versus whole foods?
- Are there differences between men and women when it comes to supplementation?
We turned to Lauren Manganiello, MS, RD, a sports nutritionist out of New York City, for some insights.
What Supplements do Runners Need?
Nutrition first! Supplements second…
It is a given that in order to perform your best, you need to eat your best. What isn’t a given is that runners will turn to the right sources for those valuable nutrients.
According to Manganiello, real, whole food is the answer:
Most athletes can get all of their nutrients from food. Making sure you eat a nutrient-dense diet is important. Consume a balanced diet with a variety of foods.
In other words, the old advice to “eat the rainbow” holds true.
This doesn’t have to mean measuring your foods or dissecting which nutrients you are getting from what foods, either. Varying your diet from day to day with a wide range of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy can pretty much ensure you are getting a healthy balance.
Like to crunch numbers? Then you can drill down to a more detailed level, if that’s your thing.
Consider these recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Athletes require adequate daily amounts of calories, fluids, carbohydrates (to maintain blood glucose levels and replace muscle glycogen), protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals.
Totals for these macronutrients are typically:
- Carbohydrate: 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)
These guidelines are from the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements found here.
Supplements for Runners to Consider
If you’re still not convinced you’re getting what you need or if you are feeling “off” on a consistent basis, there are options. Consider a trip to a sports nutritionist or your physician to truly dial things in and see if you have any deficiencies.
With an RD, you can together assess your overall diet and make improvements to optimize your diet plan.
Add in the physician’s visit, and you can get a holistic picture of your health and any nutrient deficits. Start with bloodwork – which you can do with a physician’s order or these days, popular blood testing kits like Inside Tracker (don’t forget code strengthrunning saves you 10% on any test!) – to get a picture of what’s going on. You can then turn to your physician for his or her advice on how to boost anything you’re missing.
In the winter months, for instance, this might mean low vitamin D. This is where either boosting foods with vitamin D or taking a supplement can play a role.
Why might this particular nutrient be something worth considering? Vitamin D is essential to bone health and if you are training at a high level, lack of D might lead to a susceptibility to stress fractures.
Legendary pro Deena Kastor famously had to drop out of her 2008 Olympic marathon when her foot fractured. She later learned that dedicated use of sunscreen prevented her body from absorbing the vitamin D it might have from the sun, weakening her bones. This is a case where supplementation – with a doctor’s orders – would have paid off.
If you are female and suffer from a constant state of fatigue, looking at your bloodwork to check iron levels might be a good idea. Iron is the mineral that allows red blood cells to transport oxygen to your working muscles, and a drop here might impact your ability to perform. The average requirement per day for females is 26 mg, while for males, it is only 10 mg, according to the National Nutrition Council.
Your physician and RD can make specific recommendations on how to make up this deficit and help you determine if supplements are the way to go or not.
If you’re looking for food sources to boost your iron, the best sources are:
- red meat
- leafy green vegetables
If you couple these foods with something rich in vitamin C, you also help increase absorption.
For more details on supplements for runners, sign up here and I’ll send you two audio seminars with a Registered Dietitian!
Is Protein Supplementation Necessary?
If there is one macronutrient that has captured the attention of runners in the past few years, it is protein.
Runners are bombarded with the message that more is better when it comes to protein and in an effort to speed recovery and boost muscle mass, the running population seems in a perpetual hunt for protein powders, recipes and other amino acid supplements.
But again, what’s the real truth here? Manganiello advises:
Athletes do have increased protein needs, however, consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates and fat is important as well. Each macronutrient is important.
I usually suggest having a protein, carb and healthy fat at each meal for balance – plus our bodies can only absorb so much protein at one time. A registered dietitian can look at your current macronutrient intake ranges and make suggestions for optimal protein intake.
Using our estimated protein needs from above, Manganiello explains:
This would give you your estimated protein needs for the day (for example 80g protein total for the day) and consuming those 80 grams of protein over 3-4 meals (i.e. 20-25 gm protein at each meal) will maximize muscle protein synthesis.
Keep in mind that more does not equal more in the case of protein – or any macronutrient – in spite of the messages that you receive on a near daily basis. Every athlete is physically unique and training differently. Many other factors come into play as well: adequate sleep, legitimate dietary restrictions and allergies, and day-to-day life stressors.
The bottom line, says Manganiello, is that you need to pay close attention and listen to your body. She adds: “If we don’t fuel our bodies adequately and with healthy choices, it’s difficult to perform at our best.”
Supplements for Runners: In Sum
Are supplements for runners even necessary?
As a runner, it’s easy to get sucked into assuming you need to supplement your diet – with vitamins, minerals, or protein – because you are often bombarded with that message through social media and advertising.
But just as your training program will vary from others, so too should your diet and what you add to it. Furthermore, unless you know for certain (through bloodwork or a doctor’s recommendation) you shouldn’t pop a pill or add a powder to your menu.
Keep in mind that many factors impact your dietary needs:
- Gender: men and women often have different needs with regard to supplements
- Age may be a factor, too, as masters runners (particularly females) may need to focus more on bone health as hormones fluctuate
- Likewise, pregnant or nursing mothers still actively running may have different deficits
Pay attention to how you are feeling from one week to the next as well. Training hard and feeling tired? Maybe you do need to add a nutrient, but don’t assume. Sleep and recovery methods might be all that’s necessary.
And just as your training changes from season to season and year to year, so too do your dietary needs. Never assume that your nutritional profile one year will match that of another.
To ensure you are meeting your dietary needs, speak with a dietitian, doctor, or get your blood tested. Get the full picture and then learn the best sources for supplementing where you need.
And if you already eat a colorful, nutrient-dense diet, you might be happily surprised to learn you are doing just fine.