Most runners are skilled at sucking hydration packs dry during long runs and carbo-loading before races. But fueling your runs shouldn’t end there.
“The more you run, the more attention you need to pay to your nutrition status, including any gaps that might exist in your vitamin and mineral intake,” says Albert Matheny, RD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and trainer with SoHo Strength Lab in NYC.
After all, your body requires a delicate balance of nutrients to perform its best — not to mention recover from every workout. And while it’s always best to take a “food first” approach to nutrition (reaching for whole foods before supplement bottles), getting everything you need from whole foods isn’t always realistic. Quick: How many milligrams of calcium do you get per day? No idea? Yeah, that’s what we thought.
So if you’re wanting to kick your runs into high gear and get more out of every mile, it’s worth talking to your doctor about some the most commonly needed vitamins, supplements and nutrients among runners. Before you buy, always check the bottle for a USP or NSF seal. They’re a guarantee that the bottle contains everything it says it does — and nothing else. Read on to identify which ones might work for you and your running routine:
A great blanket option for hitting many of the vitamins and minerals on this list, multivitamin supplements contain many of the nutrients most people (runners included) don’t get enough of, says board-certified sports dietitian Marie Spano, RD, certified strength and conditioning specialist and lead author of “Nutrition for Sport, Exercise and Health.”
Best practices: “Pick a multivitamin that meets about 100% of the recommended daily intakes for each nutrient. Very high doses of vitamins and minerals generally is not necessary and, in some cases, may actually interfere with your training gains,” Spano says. She also recommends checking the label for the word “oxide,” and avoiding those products. Generally, the body best absorbs non-oxide forms of minerals. For example, your body will be better able to absorb and use magnesium aspartate or magnesium glycinate compared to magnesium oxide.
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Many runners believe protein supplementation is reserved for weightlifters and bodybuilders, not endurance athletes. Not so. “Distance runners can require the same amount of protein, if not more, than someone who is strength training,” Matheny says. That’s because, during long endurance runs, the body can actually break down muscle to help keep itself fueled. Therefore, protein is incredibly important to prevent muscle loss. If you want to lose fat or actually build lean muscle, it’s even more important. Most runners need to get 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight per day, explains Kelly Pritchett, PhD, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So, for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll likely need to consume between 82 and 136 grams of protein per day.
Best practices: If you’re still not hitting your protein quotas after filling up on meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes and soy, the go-to protein supplement for runners is whey protein. “Whey has been shown to be superior to other forms of protein for aiding in muscle growth and repair,” Pritchett says. Good protein powder options for vegan runners include soy- and plant-based blends. Make sure any blends state they are “complete,” meaning they provide all of the nine essential amino acids you can only get from food.
Just like protein helps your muscles, calcium helps your bones rebound from every run stronger than before. By keeping calcium levels in check, you’ll stave off stress fractures and prevent osteoporosis so you’ll be able to run for decades to come, Matheny says. For instance, in one study from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, for every additional cup of milk female runners drank per day, they cut their risk of suffering a stress fracture by 62 percent.
Best practices: A “food first” approach to calcium is ideal, but if you don’t consume at least a few servings of dairy per day, you should look to supplements, Spano says. “Leafy greens do contain some calcium, but it would take around 100 spinach leaves per day to meet your needs,” she says. “Plus, the calcium in greens is not as easy for your body to absorb and use compared to calcium from dairy.” Spano recommends taking a 500-milligram calcium citrate supplement once per day, with or without food. While some multivitamins do contain calcium, it is often in smaller amounts.
4. B VITAMINS
B vitamins — thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B-6 and B-12 — are responsible for helping your body convert food into runtastic energy. And the more energy you need, the more B vitamins you may also need. After all, according to research from Arizona State University, exercise likely increases how much riboflavin and vitamin B-6 you need. Deficiencies in any B vitamins can easily impede your running performance and workout recovery, according to study researchers.
Best practices: Check out a B complex vitamin or multivitamin that contains roughly 100% percent of your daily recommended intake. Also consider having your doctor check your current B levels, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan, as meat and animal products are primary sources of B vitamins.
Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin, a compound responsible for delivering oxygen throughout your body. If your iron levels are low, oxygen has trouble getting where it needs to go. This can cause energy levels to drop, organs and muscles to work at minimal capacity and basic bodily functions, including running and recovery, to suffer.
Best practices: It’s important to talk to your doctor and have your levels tested before taking an iron supplement, since some men carry the gene for iron storage disease — meaning their bodies do not excrete any excess iron, Matheny says. However, supplementation is most commonly needed among premenopausal women who lose significant amounts of iron through their menstrual blood. Levels can also be low in vegetarians and vegans.
6. VITAMIN D
Vitamin D gets a lot of play this time of year because the bulk of our vitamin D doesn’t come from nutrition, but from sunlight. And, during the fall and winter, the sun shines at the earth with a less-direct angle, meaning the body produces less vitamin D every second it’s actually in the sun. (And, come on, how often are you actually outside in the winter?) “Individuals training inside, those who don’t train outside during solar noon or who live above the 35th Parallel North [around Atlanta] during the winter months have been suggested to be at risk for a vitamin-D deficiency,” Pritchett says. Vitamin D plays an integral role in both bone and muscle health and deficiencies may increase your injury risk, she says.
Best practices: “Start by taking 1,000-2,000 IU per day and wait until you get a blood test prior to increasing dosage,” Spano says. (Keep in mind that multivitamins do typically contain some vitamin D, too.) Some people may need up to 4,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D to keep their blood levels within normal limits, but it’s important to remember that vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning your body will store any excess D. You don’t want to take more than you actually need.
Beets are chock-full of naturally occurring nitrates, compounds that convert to nitric oxide in the body, expanding your blood vessels and decreasing the amount of oxygen your body needs during high-intensity exercise, Pritchett says. With beet juice on board, you could stand to improve your 5K time by 1–2 percent, according to one Journal of Applied Physiology study. Plus, after your race, beets may also help improve muscle recovery.
Best practices: Drink about 1 1/2–3 cups of beetroot juice for one week prior to race day, Pritchett recommends. If you’re not into the taste, check out beetroot powder capsules.
Written by K. Aleisha Fetters, a health and fitness writer, contributing to online and print publications including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, TIME, USNews.com, MensFitness.com and Shape.com. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA. You can read more from Aleisha at kaleishafetters.com, or follow her on Twitter @kafetters.