Dietary Supplements for Runners?

Dietary supplementsDietary supplements* are a hot topic in my corner of the ultrarunning world. Last week, Krissy Moehl stopped by on her way to Yosemite and had me try two of her favorite supplements, Green Foods Magma Plus and Udo’s Oil 3-6-9 blend. Then, the other night, top ultrarunners Gary Robbins and Devon Crosby-Helms were tweeting back and forth about the slew of supplements they take. I find it informative to learn that Devon uses supplements, such as oils, maca, and greens, given her passion for food and great diet. The following morning, Duncan Callahan published a training update on his blog in which he noted that he takes multivitamins and a liquid calcium supplement from Lifeforce.

I, too, take dietary supplements nearly every day, although my supplement use is not all that exciting. I take a standard multivitamin as a precaution for any minor nutritional deficiencies I have. As a vegetarian athlete, I’m cautious about my iron and B-vitamin intake, so I usually take these supplements every few days. I take the iron daily when I head to 6,000′ or higher for more than a few days and up the frequency of my iron and B-vitamin intake whenever I have stretches of low energy. I have taken calcium/vitamin D supplements, but only when I was training with a heavy pack for the Marathon des Sables. At the moment, I’m dealing with plantar fasciitis (read more on that here) and a reader recently suggested I try Stresstabs. As the product is primarily a B-Complex, I’ve decided to give it a go with a generic version, as I’m confident that daily use of this supplement can’t hurt.

Call for Discussion
We’d love to know what dietary supplements you take and why, particularly if you use them to enhance or prolong your athletic endeavors. Don’t do dietary supplements? Tell us why not.

[Disclaimer: The Amazon link to Stresstabs is part of an affiliate program that helps support iRunFar. Please note that if you purchase any product, including the above listed supplements, after clicking through an Amazon.com link on this site (even if for a product unrelated to the one you order), you help support iRunFar.]

*I’m talking about dietary supplements that folks use to supplement their diets outside of competition. Many “food like” in- and post-workout/race products, such as Gu Roctane, First Endurance Ultragen, and Vespa, are classified as dietary supplements in the US due to the peculiarities of American food and drug law. How do I know? Because I spent 8 years working at a food and drug law firm where dietary supplements became my specialty by the time I became a law clerk and then attorney.

There are 41 comments

  1. Tuck

    Taking an omega-6 supplement is not needed, or a good idea. The problem in the American diet is getting too much omega-6, not too little. Omega-3, on the other hand, is something that most people are definitely not getting enough of, especially if you're a vegetarian. What's worse about an omega-3/6/9 supplement is that omega-6 drives out omega-3 when too much omega-3 is consumed.

    Since the biggest health risk to runners is skin cancer, and too much omega-6 in the diet actually promotes skin cancer, via impeding your skin's ability to tan and repair itself, this is more than just an academic point.

    Omega-3 and -6 need to be in balance in the diet. Most people should actively avoid omega-6, which is found in corn, soy, and canola oils, and seek out good sources of omega-3 (fish oil is the best), to keeo the balance. The increase in your health will be immediate, and surprising. One of the things you'll notice a few weeks after making this change is that your susceptibility to sun burn decreases dramatically.

    "Skin texture, cancer, and dietary fat"
    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2009/03/ski

    1. Bobby Gill

      I 100% agree with Tuck. Since most everyone's diets are heavy on the omega-6 and low on the omega-3, supplementing with fish oil could be of great benefit for runners. A proper omega-6:omega-3 balance, in addition to the benefits already mentioned, will most importantly reduce systemic inflammation, thereby leading to a lower incidence of injury and speedier recoveries. Of the plant-derived sources of omega-3, flaxseed oil is the ideal choice, but these are short chain omega-3's that do not carry as much health benefit as fish oil.

      Personally, as someone who had been constantly sidelined with running injuries, I have been injury free since reducing my omega-6 consumption and starting daily fish oil supplementation. I highly recommend fish oil to all runners.

      1. Tuck

        There are all sorts of benefits to a proper omega-3/omega-6 balance in the diet. There's even some evidence that the high incidence of tendon and joint problems that we suffer from is related to to much omega-6 in the body. Apparently a diet high in omega-6 has the effect of dissolving the cartilage in dogs. Ick.

      2. Bryon Powell

        I've got to admit that I was surprised to see that Udo's Oil promoted in running mags and at races was the 3-6-9 blend. I guess they are touting it as a replacement type product (much as folks use olive oil to replace other oils). I think I would prefer to have an omega-3 heavy supplement as I know my diet is omega-6 heavy. The table spoon or two of flax seed on my granola ain't cutting it.

        1. Tuck

          It's practically impossible in 2010 in the USA to not have enough omega-6 in your diet. :)

          Olive oil, btw, is low in 6 and 3, but high in 9. I have no idea what, if anything, 9 does for you, but olive oil tastes good.

  2. Tuck

    Sorry, that should be "What’s worse about an omega-3/6/9 supplement is that omega-6 drives out omega-3 when too much -> omega-6 <- is consumed." Kind of the key point of the post, too…

  3. Steve Pero

    Bryon…Deb and I are also vegetarian and Deb is dabbling into Vegan right now, not sure I can do that as I like pizza! But I eat what she prepares and all of that is vegan ;-)

    As for supplements, we take many, this is a daily example:

    GNC Veg Mega B complex multi

    1000 mg Flax seed oil cap

    1000mg D3 (suggested by doc)

    Caltrate with minerals

    Magnesium (Deb for her asthma)

    Low dose aspirin

    We used to take Gluc/Cond, but read where it raises you glucose and with both of us having diabetes in our family, our doc recommended against it as it does raise your glucose levels.

    We also are trying the First Endurance Optygen HP this year to see if it helps any at Hardrock. http://www.firstendurance.com/nutrition/control/p
    Who knows, might be snake oil, but I will try anything if it helps improve performance….if it does nothing, I'll not use it any more.

    I also have a problem with alien calves, which many of your readers may also have. It doesn't have to be right after a run, but it can happen while just sitting at night, so after reading up on it I have started eating a couple bananas a day for the potassium, We also use soy milk which is also high in potassium.

    That's about it, the rest all come from food. Something we sprinkle on a lot of food is Chia Seeds, which is high in the omegas.

    Steve

    1. Bryon Powell

      Steve, sounds like a pretty balanced plan. Way to include your physician in the discussion! I'm skeptical about products like Optygen HP… especially at such a high price, but it's unlikely to hurt anything other than your pocketbook. ;-)

      What? No S! Caps for your calves? just kidding. It's great that you can correct that with diet.

  4. Tobias

    This is interesting. I'm transitioning to a vegetarian/dairy-free diet. So, I'm also conscious of my iron and B vitamin intake. Currently, I take a multivitamin every couple of days. And, once or twice a week, I'll chew a couple of tums for the extra calcium. I also ingest more flax than most people I know. The discussion above about fish oil and Omega-3 v. Omega-6 is very enlightening. I think I'll go buy some fish-oil supplements. I've heard nothing but good things about that stuff.

    Thanks for this one!

    1. Tuck

      Chia seeds are a richer source of ALA omega-3 than flax seeds, plus you can feel like a Tarahumara. ;)

      The problem with chia or flax is that they contain the ALA form of omega-3, and not the DHA omega-3 that your body actually needs. Conversion from ALA to DHA is not very efficient, and some people can't do it at all. Which is why vegans and vegetarians are typically very deficient in DHA.

      Algae-based omega-3 supplements do contain DHA, and are the way to go if you're a vegetarian or vegan. (Eating algae is ultimately where the fish get their omega-3 oils, after all.)

      If you eat dairy, than pasture-fed (grass-fed) butter is the way to go. Not only does it taste unbelievably good (especially on corn on the cob) but it's also rich in congugated linoleic acid as well as omega-3.

      1. Tobias

        Algae-based supplements, eh? It's amazing how detailed this can get. I look into that as well. Thanks for elaborating on the DHA v. ALA issue. This is so fascinating!

    2. Tobias

      Fish oil isn't vegetarian? Oh, great, and I suppose you'll tell me next that eggs aren't dairy products! [Just kidding] ;-P

      Actually, that thought didn't occur to me. Funny how we can overlook the obvious when it's in the shape of a little pill, huh?

      So, thanks for the tip about the Chia seeds!

  5. Ben

    Bryon,

    Another great write up. Thanks and keep up the good work. I also wanted to say thank you for the disclaimer. It's very cool that you're on board with full disclosure about your ties to adverts.

    With the recent news on Floyd Landis and PEDs, I'm wondering if there will ever come a day when ultrarunning will need to be concerned with this. Of course ours is a small (but growing) community, and it's not nearly as profitable as professional cycling, but still competitive nonetheless. Is it because runners generally care more about their health than the competitiveness?

    Thoughts?

    1. Bryon Powell

      Ben, I'm glad you appreciate the disclosure. I never want to mislead folks or try and force folks to buy a specific product. I linked to the manufacurers' pages for supplements when I could, but didn't see one for Stresstabs, so I'd rather provide some additional info than none.

      There is likely some performance enhancing drug use in ultras already. Here are some of the products that can be used: http://www.irunfar.com/2008/11/ultramarathons-and….

  6. Patrick

    I use EAS Myoplex-Lite to supplement protein intake after harder workouts, but otherwise nothing. I think my diet allows for enough intake of essentail vitamins and minerals as well as healthy fats. I like getting my nutrition from food (including meat) rather than from concentrated pill. But that's personal, and I respect those who choose otherwise.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Patrick, getting all the right stuff from our food is great. That said, I know myself well enough that I'm unlikely to stick with a perfectly balanced diet most of the time. I do try to eat a mix of veggies, but also eat a bunch of seasonal veggies.

  7. vegan

    I do not take any supplements and never saw the need for it, as long as the diet is varied.

    I have been following a Vegan diet for about 10 months now. Very few people know this about me, and I plan to keep it that way (because of the reactions I get from those that find out)

    I simply make it a point to eat a HUGE variety of foods, while making sure the meal is balanced (with adequate sources of protein, fats, etc). I love my legumes! :-)

    Just as it is critical to monitor ourselves on any long run, it is just the same to monitor our conditions daily. We know by feel when to take a salt tab, just as I know by feel when my diet is off. (most especially if I have eaten too many legumes… :-)

    Again, no supplements here.

    I am not promoting a Vegan diet, nor am I saying that it is correct to exclude supplements from your diet. I only see too many people pretending to be experts, relying on half truths, and/or marketing ploys.

    Listen to everyone, but follow no one … right?

  8. Fitz

    I take a multivitamin and DHA/EPA fish oil a few times per week. I run 60-80 miles/week for perspective. I think it's important to cover your bases but if you're having a big salad, meat and other veggies, and real foods for your meals then I think you should be all set. People love to debate minutiae on the topic of supplements when in reality, I think 99% of runners who eat a good diet don't need them. Cheers, – Fitz.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Fitz, that would leave the big issue of the XX% of runners who don't take the time, effort, or money to eat a good diet. I know that I haven't in the past and, even now, the ease of a grain-based diet (with a moderate amount of vegetables) doesn't leave me assured that I'm covered.

  9. ScottD

    This is great stuff, Bryon. Happy to throw in my two cents.

    I've taken, at some point in time, just about every supplement on the market. I usually try it for a month and if it feels like something is working, I stay on it. 95% of it does nothing for me, honestly. I'm not very scientific though – certainly there can be other contributing factors. Here's what I take now:

    First Endurance Multi-V: I'm sure any multi-vitamin will do, and this one works for me. I got a couple of blood tests that show some natural deficiency in iron, magnese, and magnesium, so I usually look for good amounts of those. Plus it's fun when your pee is orange. I sprinkle flaxseed on my morning yogurt too.

    Optygen HP – Steve mentioned this above. When I was doing more short-course stuff, I noticed that use of this supplement raised my lactic threshold by about three bpm, after taking it for two weeks. When I ran out (since it's expensive), my threshold dropped three beats. Take it again, and it was up. So I'm convinced it's doing something, albeit minor. I don't run over my threshold that often in ultras, so I'm not sure if there is any effect for aerobic activity. But I use it to make the most out of the speedwork.

    Vespa – I'm a fan of Vespa, and feel it has this nice effect of evening out my energy for aerobic activity. No boost, but a nice even flow. I've run as long as 13 hours with no calories on nothing but Vespa, and still have that same mellow energy with no bottoming. I think of it as a safety net, and it's probably the single most effective supplement I've taken once I figured out how to use it (45 minutes prior to activity on an empty stomach, then every 2-3 hours). But I've also given packets to friends and have them tell me it does nothing, so there you go.

    Enzyme supplements – For recovery after big events, I steal some enzyme supplements from my wife. One says "TRMA" and the other "MSLR", and both help flush out byproducts in your bloodstream. Coupled with ice baths and compression socks, it helps me feel better in the week after a hard effort.

    That's about it. I drink a fair amount of FRS and coffee, and beer is a post-race favorite too. The rest of the time I'm your classic omnivore with a weakness for pizza.

    SD

  10. Anthony

    I agree with most runners don't eat the correct balance of foods to help them recover and refuel. My wife (trail runner during the winter, Tri in the summer/fall) and I (MTB and endurance trail) try to eat a good balance of greens, seasonal (often times from our garden during the summer/fall) veggies and organic/grass-fed/pastured meats when possible – almost all beef is now grass-fed and pastured only.

    We were taking fish oil supplements for a time but neither one of saw any beneficial effects. She is taking a women's multi, I only supplement with Whey protein for post long-run(ride) fueling mixed often times in a smoothie containing anti-oxidant fruits.

    I found a benefit in elminating too many factory foods – gels in particular during racing. To steal a quote from Michael Pollan, "if it has a barcode" or "you drive up to a window it's not real food".

  11. Ultrarunning-Edge

    Trail runners (like most athletes) probably need a multivitamin as insurance. We should of course try to get most of our needed vitamins and minerals from real foods. In addition to a multivitamin, I take 250 mg L-carnitine, 100-150 mg chromium picolinate, and a calcium supplement daily and 50 mg CoQ10 every other day. At the age of 57, I can really tell a difference if I DON'T take CoQ10 and carnitine (that wasn't always the case). Supplementing with extra CoQ10 (100 mg/day) for several days before a race or a long run at altitude also really seems to help. I'm prone to hypoglycemia, so other runners may not get quite so much benefit from the chromium or the carnitine.

    There's a more thorough discussion of vitamin/mineral needs on my Ultrarunning Edge Blog in the Special Topics article "Biochemical Strategies for Ultrarunning".

  12. Stressed

    I'm coming off having missed the last 10 weeks with a fibular stress fracture. I've been considering adding a calcium supplement to my diet. There are, however, a multitude of options on the market, and I'm uncertain as to what to look for in a supplement or manufacturer.

    For those of you in the know, or that have had success with calcium supplements, what do you take, why, and how do you know that it's working?

    Thanks, I appreciate it. Hope that the responses might contribute to the discussion at large.

    1. Ultrarunning-Edge

      You want to take calcium as calcium citrate ALONG WITH magnesium so that you have somewhere between 3:1 and 3:2 calcium/magnesium. Women need at least 1200 mg/day of calcium and it won't hurt to have more than that. Additional calcium in men raises the risk of prostate cancer over time, so men should total up the amount of calcium they get from their diet (primarily dairy products) and then take enough supplementary calcium to get 1200-1400 mg/day. Make certain you are also getting enough vitamin D in your diet (although most calcium supplements contain D in addition to calcium).

      Bruce

  13. Ashley Arnold

    I eat Turmeric on almost everything I can, raw garlic every day and a strong helping of Cayenne at least 3 times a week. I also take vitamin D and 1,000 MG of Vitamin C every night. I don't think multivitamins really work, so I don't take them… I think the key is turmeric, cayenne, garlic, beets and avocado and a little lavender for relaxation in the evening. Oh, and oil, you need fat.

  14. Megan

    I don't take supplements, simply because I am forgetful and lazy. I have actually bought bottles upon bottles of multi-vs that just sit in my cabinet and expire. One supplement I have been taking regularly for the last few weeks (a HUGE accomplishment for me to go more than four days) is magnesium. I was having serious issues with fatigue and cramping, even during easy 1-hour rides and runs, but since consistently taking Mg, I've noticed these symptoms have subsided (albeit not completely). I'm looking forward to seeing if they really make a difference.

  15. Garrett

    Bryon,

    Great topic. My wife and I traded in our meat addiction 2 years ago and are now vegetarian with a tendency towards eating vegan. During our transformation we have done a great deal of reading and research to find out what works best for us. I think most will agree that a plant based diet is the best way to go, however, it is difficult to get the necessary variety and quantity of fruits, veg and grains to cover all bases. Frankly, living in Steamboat Springs, it is just so darn expensive. We have added Juice Plus into our diet and have seen great results. It is a simple product as it is just fruits and veg in a capsule. I was a bit skeptical at first but after further digging, I found that it has the most published peer reviewed clinical research of any nutriceutical on the market. The following link is the study that did it for me showing the beneficial effect of reducing oxidative stress after intense workout. Basically this allows you to be less sore and recover quicker, therefore workout longer and harder. At the end of the day I think we can all get what we need from the right diet. We have found that juice Plus bridges the gap between what we should eat and what we actually eat.

    http://www.juiceplus.com/nsa/content/GrazStudy.soa

    1. Ashley Arnold

      Hey Garrett – I live in Carbondale, and insist on eating as organically and locally as possible, while I am not a vegetarian, I eat mostly vegetable dishes mixed with local meats and eggs. I understand how expensive things get! :( My boyfriend and I just signed up for a CSA, where we get a basket of local produce once a week for 40 weeks during the year (the farm we are getting this from has a green house) – you might want to look into this in Steamboat, I am sure there is something similar around you, and hopefully you could find someone with a green house so you could get local produce for a longer period during the year – I calculated the yearly cost and it's much cheaper than buying from the grocery.

      Ashley

      1. Weaves

        Hey Ashley,

        I'm in Carbondale as well, would you be willing to offer more info on that CSA? Is it local?

        If you'd be willing to shoot me an email with a little info that would be killer. Thanks

        [email protected]

  16. Gary Robbins

    I meant to pipe in earlier but never found the time.

    a) great topic!

    b) thanks for including my name in the mix

    c) it's kinda funny to listen to people go back and forth about which supplements are best because there is no all encompassing answer to this question. Every one of us are different and every one of us could possibly benefit from supplementation in one form or another. The big problem with supplements is that there's a lot of money to be made in making promises and offering people that perceived advantage that we're all searching for. Believe it or not, I'm being facetious, not all supplements accomplish what they promise, and more often than not it's difficult to determine if the $75 a month you're spending on XY brand of energy booster or oil is actually doing anything other than draining your bank account.

    Science works, and by that I mean blood work. A long time ago a friend suggested getting annual baseline blood work, so that I always knew where I stood. Recently I have had to deal with serious fatigue issues and thanks to this friends advice when we sat down and looked at the numbers we were able to see a constant downward trend in most pivotal numbers over the last four years. Some of these numbers on their own would not set off any alarm bells, but comparing them annually we were able to see a definitive drop that had to be addressed.

    This has allowed me to find real answers and supplement properly. An omega oil supplement would not have helped me here…and just for the record, personally I tried that stuff for a month and let's just say I spent twice as much on toilet paper till I figured out it wasn't doing me any favors.

    Not sure what the policies are south of the border, but we can get blood work done for free. Anyone who trains regularly should seriously consider doing the same and keeping it on file so you can always see what's really going on inside of you.

    Just my two cents on the issue,

    GR

    1. Bryon Powell

      Gary, Thanks so much for adding your insight to the mix! I'm glad you've found a problem that has a solution.

      On another note, as a south of the border dude without free medical I'd like to ask you how I become I Canadian citizen. I like hockey, I swear. Is that enough?

        1. Bryon Powell

          Thanks, Pop! If it's not too personal (really) could you share the deficiency that caused your fatigue. I've been battling bouts of severe fatigue for 3 years now. A few days ago I went out for a run and after a few walks spells, turned around and walked it in after only two miles. The next day I ran ten miles and it was a breeze.

          1. Gary Robbins

            Mainly Ferritin, the number one way to determine low iron. On top of that though my WBC was low, my Neutrophils were low and my mercury content was 3x the acceptable limits…thanks to 'The Cove' for opening my eyes to how terrible tuna really is for you in high doses, IE don't try living on the stuff, no matter how cheap and tasty it seems, even as sashimi!

            GR

  17. Joe

    I love Spirulina (tablets or powder) and Chlorella. These help my digestion and keep my stomach in check. I like keeping it natural, but I can't always eat the variety of food that I would like.

    I also like oxi-7 for anti-oxidants. These three together are great combo, at least for me.

    I think supplementation is good, but you can't abuse it. Your meals can not be processed protein bars and pre-workout formulas. Keep it healthy and natural.

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