Runners are often interested in tweaking their diet to optimize performance, especially when trying to achieve an exciting personal best or race a new distance, and a healthy, balanced diet fuels the body to make hitting your goal paces and mileage possible. Though many runners who eat a healthy and well-rounded diet may not need supplements, some runners wish to add dietary supplements to their routine to ensure they're giving their body all it needs to perform its best.
Supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet, but may help in achieving greater performance results. If you're considering adding a supplement to your diet, check out our list of the best supplements for runners.
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Do Runners Need Supplements?
Many runners likely don't require supplements to meet their basic nutrient needs, but some supplements may have performance benefits.
As with anyone, runners should first work on their overall diet quality by eating from the following food groups:
- Fiber-rich whole grains
- Lean protein sources
- Beans, nuts, and seeds
- Low-fat dairy
- Healthy fats
Eating a balanced diet isn't always easy for everyone, so some runners may find supplements helpful to meet their mineral and vitamin needs for running. Picky eaters, vegetarians, vegans, those with multiple food allergies, or runners with other limitations that make eating a wide variety of foods hard may require supplements to meet their needs.
Tips to Consider When Choosing Supplements for Runners
- If you don't know where to start and would like customized diet advice, a registered dietitian (RD) specializing in sports nutrition would be a great resource.
- Megadoses of vitamins and minerals are probably unnecessary for most runners unless you have been diagnosed with a deficiency. Look for supplements that have around 100 percent of the recommended Daily Values (DV). This will help ensure you don't take an unsafe amount of a nutrient or waste your money.
- Look for supplements that follow USP manufacturing standards, which helps verify ingredient purity and label accuracy.
- Choose well-known national brands for better safety.
Best Supplements for Runners
These vitamins and supplements should not all be taken together but are individual supplements to consider adding to your diet to boost your running performance. If you take a multivitamin, for example, you likely do not need to take additional iron or vitamin D unless you have a deficiency. As always, it's a good idea to check with your physician before adding supplements to your diet to make sure they don't interact with any medications you take or health conditions you may have.
A multivitamin would be a great choice if you'd like to take only one supplement. Multivitamins fill in any gaps in your diet and provide most of the daily vitamins and minerals you need.
Multivitamins contain various vitamins and minerals, usually in one or two daily tablets. They typically provide 100 percent of the Daily Value for many nutrients but don't usually contain enough calcium to meet a person's daily goal since calcium is a bulky nutrient.
Iron is important for runners because it's an important part of red blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen to the muscles. If iron levels decrease, you may feel tired more easily or develop anemia. Runners are at higher risk for anemia, especially in times of heavy training and intense workouts.
Good food sources of iron are beef, poultry, beans, and leafy greens. Additionally, some cereals, bread, and pasta are fortified with iron. Vitamin C helps increase iron absorption, so eating citrus fruit with meals or pairing supplemental vitamin C with iron is typically a good idea.
Menstruating women have higher iron needs at 27mg per day, while other adults only require 8mg per day. The body better absorbs ferrous versions of iron than ferric versions, so pay attention to the amount of elemental iron on a supplement's label.
Calcium is an important mineral in the human body because it makes up most of the structure of bones and teeth. Calcium is also important for muscles and tissues.
Runners typically don't need more calcium than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), but should take in adequate calcium to maintain bone health. Though the RDA varies depending on age, most adults need 1000mg of calcium daily. Food sources include cow's milk and other dairy products, tofu, leafy greens, and calcium-fortified orange juice.
Note that many calcium supplements also contain additional vitamin D, so you may not need to supplement additional vitamin D if you buy a calcium supplement that includes it.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and its main role in the body is to help absorb calcium. Vitamin D may also have many additional benefits beyond bone health, such as enhancing immune function, muscle health, and recovery after exercise. More research is needed to determine its exact role in exercise and running performance.
People who don't spend enough time in the sun or who don't drink milk fortified with vitamin D may need a vitamin D supplement. The amount of vitamin D an athlete should consume is up for debate. However, articles from the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that athletes should have adequate blood levels of vitamin D for muscle and bone health. The RDA for adults under age 70 is 800 international units (IU) per day.
Beetroot is high in nitrate, and consuming nitrates helps the body produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is important for runners because it helps regulate oxygen and blood flow.
Some studies have shown that beetroot may help improve running performance or help increase endurance. Since not everyone enjoys eating large amounts of beets pre-exercise, supplementing with a beetroot product can be helpful. Most beetroot products for athletes come in powder form, although juices and chews are also available.
Creatine is an amino acid naturally produced by the human body. Good sources include seafood and red meat, however, it's very difficult to consume the right dose for performance benefits from diet alone.
Many weightlifters consume creatine, but creatine for running performance isn't always top of mind. However, creatine can be useful to all athletes who do high-intensity movements in short bursts, so supplementing with creatine may be useful for runners who focus on sprinting and speed work.
Creatine monohydrate is the most effective and bioavailable form of creatine, and 3-5 grams is the recommended dose for daily supplementation.
7. Protein Powder
After workouts, it's important to refuel your muscles with high-quality protein, since protein helps repair and build muscle tissue. To help your muscles recover and replace energy stores, eating protein-rich food and some carbohydrates within a 30-minute window after you finish a workout is recommended.
After a hard run or workout, you may not feel like eating right away, though. Adding a protein powder supplement to a quick smoothie is an easy way to ensure you meet your recommended protein intake. An easy protein supplement can help you make the optimal fueling window of time for post-workout recovery.
Probiotics have many potential benefits, including boosting gut health and improving immunity. Since 70 percent of the immune system is located in the gut, it's a good idea to boost gut health when possible. More research is needed on probiotics for athletes to determine which strain of probiotics is best and what dose provides the most benefits.
Food sources of probiotics include yogurt, fermented drinks like kombucha and kefir, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut or miso paste. Most probiotic supplements come in capsule form, and some require refrigeration.
Many studies show that caffeine can help endurance athletes perform better. Caffeine should be consumed about an hour before your workout to enhance your performance. A large cup of strong coffee (16-20 oz.) before exercise provides enough caffeine to hit the targeted amount for most runners. Tea also contains caffeine, although not as much per serving as coffee.
Runners who don't enjoy naturally caffeinated beverages could consider electrolyte supplements or pre-workouts that contain caffeine. Some energy gels for long-distance runners also contain caffeine to fuel the body during long workouts.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid, or a building block of protein. It can be found in the human diet in chicken, turkey, beef, and fish. The International Society of Sports Nutrition position statement indicates that beta-alanine supplements may reduce muscle fatigue and improve exercise performance.
Beta-alanine helps most in exercises that last less than 10 minutes, so sprinters are the runners who benefit most from beta-alanine supplementation.
FAQs About Supplements for Runners
Do runners need to take specific supplements or vitamins?
Runners who eat a healthy diet from all the main food groups (whole grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and healthy fats) may not need to take additional supplements. A multivitamin would be a good first supplement to add to your routine if you have trouble eating a balanced diet or have special dietary restrictions. Consider adding calcium or vitamin D supplements if you don't consume dairy regularly to keep your bones strong. Other supplements may help give runner's a performance boost if they are already eating a well-balanced diet.
Should runners take creatine?
Not all runners need to take creatine. Creatine has positive effects on athletes who do short, high-intensity movements. Sprinters would be the group most likely to benefit from a creatine supplement, not distance or endurance runners. If you take creatine, you should drink extra fluids throughout the day to ensure it is properly absorbed.