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You just signed up for your 10th marathon and are totally hooked on long-distance running. Or maybe swimming or cycling is your thing.
No matter what sport you practice, endurance sports have their own challenges in terms of nutrition and supplements. You need to focus on dialing these in to help support the sheer volume of your training.
You simply can’t run 26 miles on potato chips and Twinkies (or maybe you can, but it won’t last long).
So, here are a few supplements to consider adding into your endurance training regimen.
9 Helpful Supplements that Help Endurance
The secret to being successful at long-distance endurance events is the ability to keep going, even when you just want to quit. Beetroot powder, basically powdered beets, can give you the push you need to finish those last few miles.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology evaluated the impact of beetroot on exercise. Ten subjects were given beetroot or a placebo two hours before a bout of high intensity exercise. Those who received the beetroot, showed a significantly improved physiological response to the exercise.
This meant that their bodies responded more effectively, allowing for better performance, and the exercise felt easier after taking the powder. These subjects were also able to exercise 14% longer than the placebo group. The reason is that beets increase nitric oxide in the body, which helps the body use oxygen more efficiently (1).
Not only are beets awesome during your workout, they can also promote faster recovery. A 2016 study gave 30 active men varying doses of beet juice or a placebo for 48 hours after completing a high intensity jumping exercise. Researchers measured inflammation levels and muscle recovery for 72 hours after the workout.
Those who received the beet juice were found to have less inflammation, faster muscle recovery, and reported less muscle soreness compared to the placebo group (2). Beets are really your best friend when it comes to increasing performance and speeding up recovery.
How to Take Beetroot
Beetroot usually comes in a powdered form and it can be easily added into your pre- or post-workout shake. There isn’t a specific recommended dosage for it.
For an added benefit, you can add beets into your diet. They taste amazing roasted or in salad. You can also find freeze dried beets, which are a bit sweet and similar to potato chips in texture, and use them as a pre-workout snack. Be careful eating beets can cause your pee to turn bright red, which can be scary if you don’t remember you ate them.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling nitric oxide supplements.
Protein supplements are not just for bodybuilders, they are also incredibly important for endurance athletes too. After about two hours of exercise, the body runs out of carbohydrates to use and starts to use protein to help meet its energy needs and help you keep going.
If you are not fueling properly, then this can lead to muscle loss, which will make it very challenging to keep participating in any exercise. When the muscles start to be used up for energy, this can also cause ammonia build-up and lead to extreme fatigue.
Getting enough protein can help counteract some of the muscle wasting that might occur with intense endurance exercise. Whey protein, one of the two proteins found in milk, outperforms every other type of protein for muscle building and recovery. Whey is ideal because it contains all nine essential amino acids and is easily absorbed (3).
As I mentioned, endurance exercise stimulates protein breakdown, which increases overall protein needs for athletes. The muscles tend to primarily burn branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) when they are in need of increased fuel. One way to prevent muscle breakdown, is to consume enough carbohydrates during your even so that the body does not need to go to the muscles for energy. But, another way is to consume carbohydrates with protein, particularly one high in BCAAs, like whey protein, which is high in leucine (4).
For endurance athletes trying to increase lean body mass or slim down, whey protein can help. The addition of whey to your overall diet can promote weight loss, increase lean body mass, and encourage fat loss (5). Whey along with a proper diet can help you lean out for an upcoming event.
How to Take Whey Protein
There are three main types of whey protein available: whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. Concentrate is the least processed and contains more fat and carbohydrates. It also tastes the best and is the cheapest. If you are lactose intolerant, you should avoid whey concentrate, as it can cause digestive issues.
Whey isolate and hydrolysate are more processed and usually more expensive. Whey hydrolysate is the most beneficial for building muscle as it increases insulin levels after it is consumed. It is probably not ideal for someone trying to lose weight or who has blood sugar issues (6).
Whey protein should be consumed either before, during, or after a workout. Aim to get 20-30 grams for a great post-workout drink.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling whey protein powders.
Caffeine is one of the most extensively studied substances for exercise performance, particularly for boosting endurance. It makes exercise easier, delays fatigue, and increases overall performance. A little caffeine can also give you the boost of energy you need to start training on those days when you are just too tired.
A 2012 study evaluated the use of caffeine and the cycling performance of male athletes. Participants took either a placebo, 3mg/kg, or 6 mg/kg of caffeine 90 minutes prior to a 60 minute cycling workout. Exercise performance was significantly improved in both groups that received the caffeine supplement. There was no difference between the caffeine groups (7). This research indicates that there is a certain limit to how much caffeine will boost performance, so more is not better.
How to Take Caffeine
The tolerance level for caffeine can vary from person to person. Some people can drink coffee right before bed and sleep like a baby, whereas others get jittery and anxious with just a small amount. If you want to try caffeine to improve your endurance training, you want to start slowly and be aware of your individual tolerance.
The recommended dose is 150-300 mg about 30-60 minutes before your workout as it takes about an hour for the effect to kick in. A cup of coffee has about 100 mg, so this would be the equivalent of 2-3 cups. As you can see the above study, more is not better with caffeine. Taking too much can increase your heart rate, make you feel jittery, and impact your performance.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling caffeine supplements.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid known to improve performance and delay fatigue during high-intensity exercise. It works helping the body manage hydrogen ions that are created during exercise. When these are allowed to build up, they lower muscle pH, which leads to early fatigue.
Beta-alanine helps boost carnosine content in the muscles, a compound needed to neutralize the ions. Supplementation with 2-6 mg of beta-alanine increases carnosine concentrations by 20-80%. Oddly enough, a carnosine supplement alone will not increase carnosine in the muscles as it is broken down into other substances first. Only beta-alanine can increase carnosine in muscles (8).
A 2009 study evaluated the impact of beta-alanine on overall muscle carnosine content during a sprint cycling activity. The subjects first performed a 110 minute cycling trial followed by a 30 second sprint. Blood lactate and pH was measured during the activity. Cyclists who had received the beta-alanine increased peak power by 11.4%. Blood lactate and pH levels were the same between the experimental and placebo group (9).
How to Take Beta-alanine
Beta-alanine is most effective when taken regularly, not just before you work out. Regular supplementation is needed to keep carnosine levels up. The recommended dose for beta-alanine is 3-6 grams per day. It can cause a tingling or numbness in the skin, if that happens you may want to split up your dosage throughout the day.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling beta-alanine supplements.
Glutamine is a common non-essential amino acid, meaning your body can make it on its own. But, your body’s ability to make enough glutamine may be affected during times of physical stress, for example during periods of intense training. Low levels of glutamine in the body can promote inflammation, increase risk of illness, and muscle breakdown, the last thing an endurance athlete needs.
A survey of over 200 endurance athletes found that 81% of those who took glutamine supplements reported no illnesses during their training period, compared to 49% in those who did not take glutamine. This means glutamine may be able to mitigate some of the impact that intense training has on the immune system helping athletes stay healthy so they can compete at their best (10).
How to Take Glutamine
The recommended dose for glutamine is 10-20 grams per day post-workout to promote glutamine repletion. You want to continue to take glutamine daily for at least 5 days after a tough workout session to make sure your levels are replete. Glutamine is also found in bone broth and gelatin, which you can add to your diet for an additional dose.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling glutamine supplements.
Creatine is a popular supplement in the body building community, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for endurance athletes as well. Creatine helps build and maintain muscle, which is beneficial for endurance athletes as well. It may also help increase energy levels during your workout.
A 2003 study gave 20 subjects either 20 grams of creatinine or a placebo during a 5-day loading period, followed by a 6 week maintenance dose of 2 grams. During the loading period, subjects had increased muscle creatine and total creatine. Subjects were asked to perform cycling sprints after the loading period. Those who received the creatine did not have any improved performance, but maintained the increased lean body mass even during the maintenance period, which was not seen in the placebo group (11).
Another 2012 study found that creatine did improve endurance performance. Fifty-five subjects received either creatine alone, beta-alanine alone, a combination of beta-alanine with creatine, or a placebo for four weeks. Those who received the creatine alone or combined with beta-alanine had a significant increase in energy and endurance performance (12). So, as you can see creatine is not just for bodybuilders trying to beef up.
How to Take Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine can either be “loaded” to quickly increase the creatine levels in the body with a 20 gram per day dose for the first week or so, followed by a 5 grams per day maintenance dose. But, loading creatine may cause a 2-4 pound weight gain because creatine makes the muscles hold on to water. So, if you are trying to lean out for an upcoming event, it is probably best not to start taking creatine at that time.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling creatine supplements.
Iron is needed to help carry oxygen to muscles to keep you moving through your run or swim. It is critical in the formation of hemoglobin and myoglobin, two important proteins in the blood and muscles. Iron deficiency leads to fatigue and poor performance. Endurance athletes, particularly female athletes, are at risk for iron deficiency anemia due to monthly blood losses and prolonged sweating. But, male athletes are at risk as well (13).
How to Take Iron
Iron supplements should only be taken under a doctor’s supervision and after a blood test to diagnose low iron levels. Endurance athletes should always be checked to be sure their levels are not low. The RDA for men is 8 mg/day and 18 mg/day for women. Your doctor can recommend the ideal dose and type of supplement you need.
The best way to boost your iron is through food. Heme iron, found in animal foods, is better absorbed when compared to non-heme iron in plant foods. Iron-rich foods should always be consumed with a food high in vitamin C, which increases absorption. You should also avoid taking iron with high calcium foods, as they can reduce absorption (14).
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling iron supplements.
Omega-3 fats have been extensively researched for their amazing health benefits and ability to reduce inflammation. The three omega-3 fats, EPA, DHA, and ALA, have all been found to be highly anti-inflammatory. EPA and DHA are found primarily in fatty fish, like salmon. ALA is the plant-based omega-3 found in flax and walnuts.
They are incredible for endurance athletes as well. They can lower inflammation caused by prolonged activity, speed up recovery, and also boost performance. A 2015 study of cyclists found that omega-3s were able to boost nitric oxide production improving overall athletic performance. Subjects were given 1.3 grams of omega-3s twice a day for three weeks or a placebo. Those who received the omega-3 had higher nitric oxide levels, improved overall fitness levels, and enhanced performance (15).
How to take Omega-3s
The active omega-3s are DHA and EPA. ALA must be activated into one of the other omegas and this process is very inefficient, so you want to look for a supplement that provides DHA and EPA.
There are several different options on the market and they vary based on what type of fish they are made from. It is best to look for a fish oil made from smaller fish, like sardines, as it has less chance of contamination from mercury or other heavy metals. Krill oil is another option as it resists oxidation better than other fish oils.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you can take algal oil, which is made from the algae the fish eat.
The ideal dose is 3-6 grams per day of total omega 3. You want to look for a supplement that has a 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA.
L-carnitine is a substance found in all species that helps with energy metabolism. It can help improve athletic performance by boosting oxygen consumption and increasing power. It has also been shown to reduce muscle injury after strenuous workouts, reduce cell damage, and neutralize free radicals (16).
It can also help prolong fatigue. A 2014 study evaluated the impact of L-carnitine on endurance performance of football players. The 26 players were given either 3 or 4 grams of carnitine or a placebo before a running test. Those who receive the most carnitine were able to increase their running speed while maintaining the same heart rate. This means they were able to exercise longer and harder, than those who did not receive the carnitine supplement (17).
How to Take L-carnitine
L-carnitine comes in a few different forms. Athletes should choose L-carnitine L-tartrate for improved exercise performance, the ideal dose for that type is 1,000-4,000 mg per day. Propionyl-L-carnitine is best for improving blood flow and blood pressure, the ideal dose is 400-1000 mg per day.
Related: Our list of the 10 best selling l-carnitine supplements.
Nutrition for Endurance Athletes
Endurance athletes spend hours and hours a week doing the same continuous activity, which can put a major strain on the body. This means you must pay close attention that you are supporting your body with overall good nutrition.
The first step is to make sure you are getting adequate calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates to support so much exercise. Supplements can help support better performance and speed up recovery. Dialing in your nutrition, supplements, and training can make sure you make it to the finish line on time.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
Stock Photos from Pavel1964 / Maridav / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 11-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping educate patients on a variety of nutrition-related conditions. Email Ana.