Nutrition plays a massive role in the life of a runner. It keeps one’s body fueled, helps one run longer, and run harder. In order to get the best results, it’s hard not to get carried away. There’s always a new diet, a new trick, a new exercise that can help you meet and overcome obstacles. Like in any sport, supplements are advertised to runners to boost their nutritional health and launch themselves into a new stratosphere of running achievement. But there are a lot of supplements out there, offering similar and different amenities, all claiming they’re essential for your workout. Whether they actually work is the question.
Do Supplements Work For Runners?
You’ll often hear anecdotal personal narratives and read articles in reputable publications about the benefits of using supplements for both runners and nonrunners alike (at least these reputable publications usually have some level of skepticism to them and don’t read like glowing endorsements). The problem with supplements is that, well, not only is everybody different, but their diets are different too. Your diet plays a much larger role in your health than any supplement and the benefits you receive are more likely due to your diet and consistent workout schedule than it is to any combination of supplements.
In short, supplements tend to be almost a psychosomatic trick: they’ll work if you believe they’ll work. In short, and in reality, no, they technically don’t.
Well, if you’re an experienced runner who spends a pretty penny on supplements every month, you may want to cue up the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme. For you skeptics out there who never used them, I don’t know, did Scully have her own theme on The X-Files? Play that.
A recent study by St. Michael’s Hospital and The University of Toronto claims that the most widely used supplements have little to no effect on the health of runners; they won’t do you any harm, but they don’t have any tangible benefits either. Among the supplements tested were vitamins C and D, multivitamin pills, and calcium. Using established data along with randomized control trials covering a five year period, the study’s lead author Dr. David Jenkins found that these supplements didn’t decrease the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, premature death, or provide extra nutritional value that you couldn’t get with proper dieting and with unprocessed foods.
Are There Supplements for Runners I Should Take?
While Dr. Jenkins’ found that most supplements have no real effect on the runner, some do provide worthwhile benefits. Of course, you should always consult with your own primary care physician before adding vitamins or supplements to your daily regimen.
Folic acid vitamins (and B-vitamins with folic acid)
Dr. Jenkins found that folic acid vitamins did actually decrease the potential for stroke and heart disease. That said, it is still a supplement and should not be used as a primary method of maintaining your health. Folic acid vitamins are also beneficial to women and their babies while pregnant, helping to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in birth defects, such as spina bifida.
There are some people out there who don’t enjoy coffee (Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper and myself are both horrified by this) or tea (Jean-Luc Picard is double facepalming). In that case, caffeine supplements do work but are not without their hazards. They should be taken in extreme moderation; some are time-released, some affect the central nervous system quickly–make sure you read the directions. If overused, they can cause severe side effects. Consult your doctor before taking a leap with them.
Yes, Dr. Jenkins’ study did find that vitamin D supplements had little effect on runners. While it can be found in foods, our primary means of obtaining it is through sunlight, which can be harder to come by in winter months, or if you live in less than sunny–Canada and the UK, we’re looking at you. In that case, the little boost that vitamin D pills can give you would be a welcome help.
While some supplements for runners are quite helpful (looking at you, iron pills), and others whose efficacy seem dubious at best (BCAAs), nothing can quite help you like food. Actual, factual food. Not capsules, pills (though who doesn’t love a good benzodiazepine once in a while), or anything else. In general, there are four major vitamin groups necessary for proper nutrition and delicious foods to go with them. To that end, we’re going to break down the vitamins you need, and give you some food options to go with it (hey vegans, we’re even considering you with this list, so don’t click away).
Essential for growth and development, particularly for your vision, teeth, bones, and immune system, you can increase your vitamin A levels by eating foods such as red meat, eggs, and most dark green, leafy vegetables that are heavy in beta-carotene, like spinach and broccoli. Sweet potatoes, red peppers, carrots, and pumpkin pie also offer increased vitamin A levels and are quite good. If you’re willing to get a little weird, try some beef livers and wash it down with some vitamin A-focused skim milk.
More than anything, vitamin B can help you fight heart disease. Vitamin B is good for blood cells, genetic health, and can help you avoid conditions like anemia. Vitamin B supports metabolic health and liver functions, and like vitamin A, it can help your vision. Also like vitamin A, you can find good sources of vitamin B in beef livers and leafy greens. If somehow organ meat doesn’t excite you, there’s also salmon, trout, brown rice, avocados, mushrooms, and kidney beans. However, virtually all meats have stores of vitamin B if you aren’t much for vegetarian options.
Unless you’re a sailor in the 1700s, I don’t think you’re going to get scurvy, which is caused by a vitamin C deficiency. That said, let’s just err on the side of caution anyway–a high level of vitamin C in your body can substantially decrease your risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Peppers–specifically sweet yellow and chili peppers–are high in vitamin C, though I know some people out there aren’t into them. By and large, you’ll find vitamin C in fruits and vegetables rather than meats. Try to keep kiwis, tomatoes, broccoli, lemons, limes, and cantaloupe in your diet whenever possible. For those of you obsessed with kale these days, I have wonderful news: it’s a great source for vitamin C.
While all major vitamins are important for obvious reasons, vitamin D does also seem to be the favorite. It certainly gets the most press. Of course, it’s easily obtained through sunlight, but we all can’t live near the beach (I’m working on that in my own life), and we all know orange juice is a great source for vitamin D, though some people can’t metabolize its high-acidity. Vitamin D is so heavily focused on because there’s barely a body system that isn’t affected by it. Having a vitamin D level is essential in maintaining the health of bones and teeth, brain, lung, cardiovascular, immune and nervous system functions. It can help in diabetes management by regulating insulin and decrease the potential of cancer development. So, yes. Rather important.
When it comes to foods, you’ll see some familiar names: eggs, salmon, and beef livers yet again. Seafood and fish are often sources for vitamin D; sardines, herring, canned tuna, and shrimp. If you’re feeling particularly classy, caviar and oysters will not only add to your pretentious air but give you a delicious way of increasing your vitamin D levels. For vegetarians, oatmeal and mushrooms are high in vitamin D, as is soy milk for you vegans out there.
Admittedly, vegans have it tough when it comes to keeping their vitamin D levels high. It’s one of the reasons why having so few working supplements out there is such a pain. However, as Dr. Jenkins said, the benefits are minor, but they are still there. Some vegans may want to search them out if they can’t find reasonable food alternatives or they live in a dreary setting. However, there are some ready-made vegan cereals and tofu brands that are fortified with vitamin D, which can be quite helpful in keeping your health up.
In the end, no supplement can make you run faster, harder, or longer. There is no cheat sheet. All progress is made through diet, a strong and devoted workout regimen, and hard work. And while it is tempting to sing “You Don’t Make Friends with Salad,” leafy greens are as important to your nutritional health as a beautifully cut steak cooked to perfection on a charcoal grill.