Running essentials – supplements

Supplements are a bit of a contested issue, thanks to the flogging of many, many supplements that have no evidence of improving anything. Because supplements aren’t registered as drugs, they are often allowed to be sold even when they do not have any strong evidence of their effects, and are only removed if deemed unsafe. However, there are a few supplements (especially if you include sports supplements) that have some proven benefits, and others that are strongly recommended for certain groups of people. I try to stick with supplements that have proven benefits, although with sports supplements the evidence is usually a bit mixed, if if you’re looking to take something new make sure you’ve done your research!

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Some supplements are necessary if you live a certain lifestyle. Pic by Caylee Hankins.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is produced in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight, but sometimes in northern latitudes (hello UK) the amount we can get during the day is not sufficient to keep reserves topped up. It is recommended that everyone in the UK (or further north) takes vitamin D to contribute to bone and muscle health. The darker your skin and the less sunlight your country gets, the more likely you are to be deficient in vitamin D. Supplements are not strictly necessary if you have a varied diet, but for me I find vitamin D supplement helpful, especially in winter! I also have a sun lamp that I use to work under in the morning. Don’t fancy supplements? Beanies have produced a coffee with vitamin D in it! Liquid sunshine 🙂

Iron 

Iron supplements have been recommended for people who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially women. It is possible to get all the iron you need from these diets, but a supplement can help, especially if you are prone to anaemia. Foods such as pulses, nuts, left green vegetables, wholegrains and fortified cereals are high in iron. Even though I have a varied diet I find it helpful to take iron supplements to support my very active lifestyle.

B12

Vitamin B12 is a little contentious in the vegan community with some saying it can be found in adequate amounts in foods such as seaweed, and others saying vegans should definitely supplement their diets. Even according to the Vegan Society, “The only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements”. Since the effects of chronic B12 deficiency are so severe (e.g. irreparable nervous system damage), I find it helpful to supplement with B12. Some plant based milks and cereals are fortified, but I’d rather be safe than sorry!

Beta-alanine

Not a vitamin supplement but a sport performance booster. Purported benefits include improving exercise capacity, building lean muscle mass and improving physical functions in the elderly. I swear by beta alanine in my shorter distance races and strength-based exercises, but only take it very infrequently. Read my post on sports supplements and the evidence behind them if you’re looking to try any!

Sleep supplement

After a busy day and late events, I often (always) find it very difficult to switch off and go to sleep. Even knowing I have to get up early doesn’t always deter me from staying up late. I started taking Motion Nutrition’s ‘Unplug’ supplement a couple of months ago and found a marked difference when taking it around 30 – 45 minutes before I wanted to sleep. I go into the ingredients and how they could be helpful in this post if you want to read up on the science behind it.

 

Knowledge is power.

Supplements – what, why and how?

I’ve been asked so many times what I think about X supplement and approached by brands to promote new bizarre sounding pills claiming to solve all your training problems. Whilst some of them may have tentative supporting evidence, a lot don’t. I know the supplements market is a total minefield, so here are some of the most popular supplements out there, and evidence for and against them. Obviously research is always coming out saying X, Y or Z – I’ve included a lot of reviews and meta analyses to try to get a balanced view of the literature but always think critically about what people are trying to sell you. Just remember: there’s no magic pill that’ll suddenly make you fit or give you the perfect abs. Training is hard whatever supplements you take, and quite often it’s worth spending the £50 you spend on supplements on a personal training session or a few books on nutrition. Knowledge is power (literally in this case!).

 

Protein

Our muscles are made up of protein fibres, some of which are broken down and rebuilt each time we exercise. Protein supplements/shakes claim to enhance recovery of muscles and aid growth, thereby improving performance. However, the level of conflicting information (and the price of a lot of the supplements) warrants a closer look at the evidence of their efficacy.

The evidence: Looking at muscle recovery time, muscle soreness and muscle growth, the data are inconclusive. Some meta-analyses state that here’s no evidence to suggest that muscle recovery is faster when someone consumes protein before, after or during a workout. However, a lot of the studies looked at small sample sizes, and measures of ‘muscle soreness’ and recovery are often hard to quantify. There is, however, fairly strong evidence to suggest that people in a calorie deficit may benefit from taking protein supplements, and that protein can reduce muscle catabolism (break down) following a workout. Verdict: if you’re looking to build muscle and/or are in a calorie deficit, protein may help you out. However, if you’re looking to reduce DOMS or decrease recovery time, the jury is out on whether protein can help. Because of the mixed evidence, it may be worth trying it out, especially if you’re vegan or struggling to fit in enough protein in your diet and wanting to train hard. Find what works for you!

 

BCAAs

BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids are amino acids with side chains. There are three types: leucine, isoleucine and valine. The supplements are sold to increase protein synthesis, purportedly increasing muscle mass (even while in a calorie deficit) when paired with the right training. When taken regularly, supplementation may decrease fatigue during exercise by reducing the increase in serotonin during exercise, which contributes to fatigue.

The evidence: BCAAs are one of the most heavily studied supplements on the market. In terms of exercise (there are many other uses of BCAA supplementation), there are two main factors looked at: increased exercise performance and reduced muscle breakdown. The former has much mixed evidence, mostly suggesting that BCAAs are unlikely to significantly improve exercise performance. The latter, however, has much more evidence supporting it. Multiple studies show that supplementation before and after exercise reduce muscle breakdown after strenuous exercise, reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

 

Creatine

Creatine is produced naturally in the body and stored predominantly in skeletal muscle. However, it is also sold as a supplement and marketed as helping to improve energy production for short duration, high intensity exercises. Theoretically, it is used by the body as a substrate to form ATP (the little packets of energy our body uses), and therefore supplementing with it means more ATP (energy) can be produced.

The evidence: Creatine is one of the more sound supplements on the market. According to one review paper, creatine is the most effective supplement to increase high-energy exercise capacity and muscle mass during training. As it turns out, of the 500 peer-reviewed papers looking into the effects of creatine, 70% concluded that it benefitted high intensity performance. However, when looking at more endurance exercises, the evidence is inconclusive, showing that if you want something for long-distance running, you should probably look elsewhere.

Nb/ There have been concerns that creatine supplementation may alter liver and kidney function, so if you have underlying conditions, creatine use should be avoided. In general though, it seems to be relatively safe!

 

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is used by athletes to improve performance. Purported benefits include improving exercise capacity, building lean muscle mass and improving physical functions in the elderly.

The evidence: This supplement definitely shows some clear evidence that it can improve performance by reducing fatigue, thus making building muscle easier for those who take it. The benefits are seen most clearly in high intensity activities lasting 60s to 300s. However, the side effects are not widely studied but commonly experienced. If you’ve ever taken beta alanine you’ll probably be aware of the tingly feeling you can get, which is unpleasant at best. Few studies if any have looked into the safety of this supplement, and whilst it appears safe at recommended doses, take it at your own risk.

 

Electrolytes

When we exercise we sweat, losing salts as well as water. Salts are important for our muscles to function properly and too few of them cause the body to cramp up. If you’re into endurance exercise or workout in hot places, chances are you’ve considered taking electrolytes. Electrolytes help replenish the salts lost when we sweat, thus keeping our muscles working properly, and are provided in a way that doesn’t give our body too much of any one type of salt (e.g. sodium). Supplementation aims to reduce heat stress, muscle cramps and aid rehydration.

The evidence: electrolyte supplementation has been shown to reduce cramping caused by electrolyte loss (lots of sweating), but cramping can still occur due to other factors. It reduces heat stress, so if you’re working out hard in a hot country (e.g. racing or competing abroad) this may be something to consider. If you’re not working out in extreme heat for extended periods of time, electrolytes are probably not required for your everyday training schedule.

 

I hope this helps clarify some things for you!

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Choosing supplements to aid your workouts can be a minefield