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With 17 million people finishing a competitive running race in the US in 2016 alone (1), running is arguably one of the world’s most popular sports. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s one of the easiest exercises to modify to fitness level and lifestyle. It’s free and can be freeing to the soul!
While running can bring lots of health benefits, it can also place unique demands on the body. Bones and joints need extra care, nutrients are more easily depleted, and muscles must have the time and fuel to properly recover.
Dietary supplements can help runners maintain overall health and improve performance. The needs of one person, however, can be very different from those of another. Factors such as age, gender, genetics, level of fitness, diet, even geographic location can affect a person’s particular requirements.
Key Supplements for Runners
Here is a list of 9 supplements that can be beneficial to some runners.
Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM
Glucosamine is a compound naturally found in healthy cartilage, particularly in the fluid around the joints. There are a few forms of glucosamine and the one used in supplements is glucosamine sulfate. (2) Chondroitin is also naturally found in cartilage, and like glucosamine, is used in sulfate form for supplements. (3) MSM is short for methylsulfonylmethane and can be taken orally or used topically.
These are three separate compounds but can be discussed together since they are often combined in supplements to help slow progression of osteoarthritis (OA) or relieve joint pain associated with it. While studies have shown that running doesn’t necessarily increase one’s risk of developing OA (genetics, age, and other factors play a larger role) (4), having it can seriously impact running performance and quality of life.
Researchers are still trying to determine to what extent these supplements work to protect joints and reduce pain, and in which combination. They seem to work for some people and not others.
One review of studies found that both glucosamine and chondroitin were effective in reducing the symptoms of OA in the knee. Combining the two, however, didn’t seem to provide any additional benefit. (5).
Another study compared the effects of glucosamine/chondroitin to glucosamine/chondroitin/MSM. Subjects receiving just the glucosamine/chondroitin did not experience any overall benefit to their OA symptoms. The group who received the additional MSM, however, did see improvements. (6)
The protective effects of these compounds may also last only as long as you take them (7), suggesting that longer term use may be considered.
How to use Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM
These supplements have been shown to be safe for most people taken for as long as 3 years. (8) Common amounts used in studies were 1.5 grams of glucosamine sulfate, 1.2 grams of chondroitin sulfate, and 0.5 g of MSM.
Calcium is a commonly recommended supplement for runners because of its critical role in bone health. Even though running is considered beneficial for bones, stress fractures account for about 20% of cases seen in sports medicine clinics. (9)
Women runners in particular are at a higher risk of stress fractures (10) and calcium deficiency. This is partly due to the practice of restricting caloric intake to improve performance which is more common among female athletes than male athletes. (11)
How to take calcium
The recommended daily allowances (RDA) of calcium are (12):
- Boys and girls aged 9 to 18 years – 1300 mg/day
- Women aged 19 to 50 years – 1000 mg/day
- Men aged 19 to 70 years – 1000 mg/day
- Women aged 51 years and older – 1200 mg/day
- Men aged 71 years and older – 1200 mg/day
In the case of calcium, more is not better so it’s not advisable to exceed the RDA.
To maximize absorption, take in smaller doses throughout the day with food.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 calcium products.
Vitamin D plays many roles in the bodies of runners and non-runners. Just like calcium, it is a key factor in maintaining healthy bones because it promotes calcium absorption in the gut. (15) Having adequate vitamin D status can help reduce stress fractures. It also reduces total body inflammation, illness, and muscle impairment (13).
While vitamin D is found in some foods, it is mainly synthesized in the body from exposure to sunlight. Latitudinal location (in other words, whether you live further north or south) and skin color are just two of the factors affecting how much vitamin D your body can make.
While some researchers point out the higher risk of female athletes to be deficient in vitamin D (13), other studies show that this does not apply to all populations of female athletes. For example, women runners who trained outdoors in the southwestern United States did in fact have adequate vitamin D levels in one study. (14).
Given the wide spectrum of factors influencing someone’s vitamin D status, particularly runners, some professionals feel it’s best to base supplement recommendations on a person’s currently vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D levels are tested through serum. Levels under 30 nmol/L are currently considered deficient while 50nmol/L is considered ideal for most people. (15)
How to take vitamin D
- 600 IU of vitamin D daily is recommended for ages 9 to 70 years
- 800 IU of vitamin D daily is recommended for ages 71 years or older
Taking too much vitamin D can cause serious side effects including calcification of tissues of the heart, blood vessels and kidneys. Most reports, however, show vitamin D to be toxic at 10,000-40,000 IUs/day. Your doctor can help you determine how much supplemental vitamin D is right for you.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 vitamin D products.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body responsible for hundreds of functions. While it is widely available through food, runners of every level have a higher risk of having a deficiency.
Why? First, some studies have found that athletes may not consume enough magnesium through diet to meet their bodies’ demands. (18) Also, running is considered a physical stress (even if it feels relaxing at the time) and we know that those who experience physical stress are at a higher risk of magnesium deficiency. (16)
Adequate magnesium levels are important for runners for several reasons.
For starters, 50% to 60% of magnesium the body is found in bone. Bone cells need magnesium to be healthy, and magnesium plays a role along with calcium, vitamin D, and parathyroid hormone (PTH) in keeping bones strong. Magnesium deficiency is associated with lower bone mineral density. (16, 17)
Also, we know that physical activity including running can put stress on the adrenal system (for example, it raises cortisol levels). Continually stressing the adrenal system can have a negative impact on the immune system and overall health, and magnesium has been shown to help the body recover. In one study, rugby players who took 500 mg of magnesium per day for 4 weeks helped of mg for 4 weeks had changes in their levels of cortisol, ACTH, and IL-6. (18, 19)
Finally, while studies have not been conclusive on this point, it’s been theorized that having adequate magnesium can help with performance. (18). Whether or not this proves to be true, what is known is that magnesium is important for the production of cellular energy in the mitochondria. (20)
How to take magnesium
The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies suggests that magnesium from supplements and dietary intake should not exceed 350 mg while at the same setting an RDA for some populations above this. (16) Magnesium is considered very safe and has been shown to be safe even at higher doses. Like any supplement, if you have any questions or concerns it is best to ask your doctor.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 magnesium products.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water soluble vitamin that is extremely important, yet must be obtained through food or supplements since the body can’t make it. As a runner, supplementation might something to consider.
Running, even at a low intensity, creates an increased level of reactive oxygen species (ROS), also known as free radicals. Free radicals can cause oxidative damage in the body which damages tissues. This tissue damage can lead to all sorts of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, accelerated aging, etc. However, our bodies use antioxidants to combat these free radicals. (21)
Everyone has some level of oxidative damage going on, not just runners. It’s just a byproduct of living and breathing!
There are thousands of compounds that act as antioxidants, vitamin C being one of the most powerful. This is the thinking behind why vitamin C supplementation is beneficial for runners.
Some research has demonstrated that free radical activity is in fact reduced when subjects supplement with vitamin C. (21). Others, however, make a different argument. Some experts have found that trained athletes are able to adapt to the increase in free radicals by naturally producing more antioxidants. They believe that supplementing with additional antioxidants can interfere with this process. (22, 23, 24)
Moving past the controversial antioxidant topic, vitamin C might benefit runners in other ways.
It is well known that runners, particularly female, are risk of having low iron stores and may have increased rates of iron deficiency anemia. (11, 25) Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron that is present in vegetables like spinach. (26)
Vitamin C is also involved in the biosynthesis of collagen which is important for keeping joints healthy. (27)
How to take vitamin C
The RDA for vitamin is low and most people achieve it through diet. For supplements, however, taking up to 2 grams per day (in divided doses, if necessary) is considered safe. Side effects may include stomach upset. (26)
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 vitamin C products.
Some exciting research has been taking place to explore the human microbiome – the 10-10,000 trillion microbes that live in the intestinal tract, aka the “gut”. It is now known that the gut plays a huge role in health and immunity. (28) Naturally, what happens to the gut during exercise is also being explored!
It’s so far been found that intense exercise alters the mucosal lining of the gut and can cause intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut”. Endurance athletes have changes in gut bacteria and higher rates of upper respiratory tract infections. (29)
Studies are showing that probiotics can help. For example, 84 endurance runners given either probiotic supplementation with Lactobacillus casei Shirota or placebo during 4 months of winter training. Those receiving probiotic had significantly fewer upper respiratory tract infections over the course of the study. (30)
In another study, 20 runners given taking probiotic Lactobacillus fermentum had 50% less days of being sick than placebo during 4 weeks of winter training. (31)
It has even been found that the bacteria in the gut is related to hydration status (29), something important to all runners. The effects of the probiotics on runners’ performance and health is just beginning to be explored but will no doubt be interesting!
There are no established recommendations yet as to how to use probiotics. Your doctor, nutritionist, or coach may be able to help you decide how to use them.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 probiotics.
Whey protein is a powdered supplement derived from the whey protein of cow’s milk.
Protein consumption in general is important for runners’ performance and recovery. One study, for example, demonstrated better post-marathon recovery when participants consumed a moderate amount of protein (about 20 grams) versus just carbohydrates. (33).
It also may be important for women in particular to reevaluate their overall protein intake. It’s been suggested that female athletes may need more dietary protein than previously thought (1.6 k/day vs 1.2-1.4 k/day). (35)
Whey protein is a good choice for protein supplementation for a few reasons.
First, it contains an amino acid profile favorable to muscle repair. It is high in branched chain amino acids, especially leucine, which stimulates the process of healing and building muscle. It’s also absorbed more rapidly relative to other forms of supplemental protein. (36)
Whey is a unique form of protein in other ways as well. Besides its amino acid content, it also contains several other nutrients including alpha-lactoglobulin, beta-lactalbumin, immunoglobulins, bovine serum albumin, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, phospholipoprotein, bioactive factors, and enzymes. (32)
It has also shown to help increase bone mass density in adult women. (34)
How to take whey protein
Whey protein powder comes in three forms, flavored or unflavored, that can be mixed into liquids. People often like to add it to smoothies.
- Whey protein concentrate has a bit more lactose than the others. While it may taste better, it could be problematic for those with lactose intolerance.
- Whey protein isolate has a higher ratio of protein but is not as nutritionally complete as concentrate.
- Whey protein hydrolysate has proteins that are already partially broken down, increasing the rate at which its absorbed.
Which type is right for you depends on your needs and preferences. Whey protein is not recommended for people with allergies to dairy.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 whey protein powders.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three amino acids that are considered “essential”, meaning your body cannot make them on its own. They are widely available through food, especially animal protein. The three BCAA are leucine, isoleucine, and valine and are named because of their branch-like molecular shape. As supplements, they are available in a powder that can be mixed into drinks and in capsules.
BCAAs have been extensively studied for their ability to help repair muscle tissue after strenuous exercise. While all three BCAAs work together in this, the process starts with leucine. Leucine triggers the production of protein in muscle, helps the body reuse other amino acids, and stimulates the release of insulin – all which allow the body to replace and repair lost and damaged muscle. (37, 38, 39)
They also can help reduce perceived feelings of fatigue during exercise. Here’s why – when you exercise strenuously, your levels of valine begin to decline. When valine declines, tryptophan levels rise. Tryptophan influences the release of serotonin in the brain which is responsible for feelings of fatigue and tiredness. It is therefore believed that by supplementing with BCAAs, you can help keep serotonin levels – and maybe even the dreaded Blerch – at bay. (40, 41)
How to take BCAAs
BCAA supplements come in varying leucine/isoleucine/valine ratios.
- A 2:1:1 ratio means that the mixture contains 50% leucine, 25% isoleucine, and 25% valine.
- A 2:1:3 ratio, on the other hand, would provide a little more valine.
Ratios with higher levels of leucine (such as 12:1:1) are formulated with the philosophy that more leucine equates to more protein synthesis and thus better results. This is not necessarily the case since taking a disproportionate amount of leucine can reduce levels of isoleucine and valine. (42)
BCAA are generally considered safe.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 BCAA products.
Let’s face it. While we probably care about our bones and health, we really want to perform well. Beetroot supplements (juice, gels or powders derived from beets) are not only a rich source of health-promoting antioxidants (45), they have also been shown to help athletes improve their time and stamina.
The performance-enhancing effects of beetroot supplements are believed to be due to their nitrate content. In the body, nitrate is converted to nitric oxide which dilates the blood vessels. This allows blood, oxygen and nutrients to flow more efficiently.
In one study, 15 males were given either 70 ml of either beetroot juice or placebo. Those who received the juice performed better in an intense cycling exercise. (43). In another study, not only was running performance improved, but fatigue was decreased. (44)
How to take beetroot
Beetroot can be eaten as part of a normal diet, juiced, or taken in powder, pill or gel form. Due to the pigments that naturally present in beets, they can make your urine or stool red. This is normal and nothing to be concerned about.
Be sure check out our picks of the top 10 nitric oxide products.
Holistic Approach to Better Running
Whether you run for work or pleasure, recognizing that the body is more than a sum of its parts is important. Everything – from brain to foot – works in a complex synergy that we are only beginning to understand.
Supplements can certainly help your running, but it’s listening to the needs of your own unique body that will allow you to feel and perform your best.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Jessica.
Stock Photos from Dragan Grkic / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Jessica Moon, MS is a Clinical Nutritionist based in Connecticut. She works with individuals and families to navigate the ever-expanding gray area of nutrition. She received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Northeastern University in 2001 and her master’s degree in Human Nutrition from University of Bridgeport in 2008. Email Jessica.