What Supplements Should Runners Take?

Can sports supplements improve performance and, if so, what ones can be most beneficial to runners?

supplements for runners

Why should a runner with a healthy, balanced diet take supplements?

It is important to emphasise that, whenever possible, runners should meet their unique individual nutrient needs through whole food that complements a healthy lifestyle. Supplementation is not designed to replace a well-designed nutritional plan. Instead, its main role is to complement and support healthy nutritional practices.

Where supplementation can significantly benefit a runner, however, is during times of intense, prolonged endurance training. For example, it is suggested that a sedentary individual should consume 0.8g of protein per kilo of bodyweight to maintain protein balance and muscle mass. This equates to approximately two medium sized lean chicken fillets per day for an average 75kg male. However, during periods of intense training and exercise, this protein requirement can increase to approximately 1.2-1.8g per kilo, equivalent to approximately 4 ½ chicken filets.

In addition to their carbohydrate requirements to support training and performance, this represents a considerable amount of nutrients to consume derived purely from whole food. Consequently, supplementation provides an effective way of complementing good nutritional practices to meet the nutritional needs of active runners.

Furthermore, while athletes might be able to meet their nutrient requirements during training with whole food, an additional important consideration is nutrient timing and quality. It’s not always possible to consume a meal at specific times directly after training to support recovery. Therefore, supplementation provides an efficient and convenient way to achieve macronutrient targets.

What supplements are best?

Protein supplementation has been traditionally associated with increasing muscle size and body building. However, an increasing body of research suggests that protein ingestion following periods of prolonged endurance exercise and intense training can support recovery, and potentially enhance endurance capacity.

One common misconception is that protein supplementation per se results in an increase in muscle size and bulking. This would obviously be detrimental to running performance. Importantly, however, in the absence of resistance training, protein supplementation in isolation does not result in significant changes in muscle size. Instead, supplementation with certain protein products can improve muscle quality rather than size, and support adaptations that promote enhanced endurance capacity.

There is research to suggest that benefits derived from protein ingestion following endurance exercise training are limited to a three-hour period immediately following exercise cessation. Therefore, it is not always possible to eat a meal containing a sufficient amount of protein (approximately 20-25g / one chicken fillet) within this window of opportunity. Taking a protein shake during this post-exercise period will provide the required concentration necessary to facilitate exercise adaptations.

In addition to the three-hour period immediately following exercise, it is suggested that athletes distribute their daily protein requirements evenly throughout the day. For example, ingesting 4 x 20g of protein every three hours is better than 2 x 40g doses every six hours to support skeletal muscle growth.

What supplements should runners avoid?

Most athletes adopt an individualised, sport-specific approach to their exercise training regime. To complement an appropriate exercise training plan, runners should also adopt sport-specific nutritional practices. For example, the pre-season nutritional requirements for a rugby player are significantly different to an endurance runner preparing for a race.

Their supplementation practices should also reflect nutritional requirements. Certain types of supplementation that wouldn’t necessarily support endurance exercise performance per se are gainers. These types of energy dense products are designed to provide an additional source of calories with a view to increasing body mass. An excessive increase in body mass would potentially impair running efficiency, and as a result, performance.

Therefore, athletes should only supplement with products that improve components of performance related to their specific sport i.e. what physical parameters allow a person to optimally perform, and how can a specific supplement complement that parameter.

Crionna Tobin is Head of Performance at Optimum Nutrition

Men's Running

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