There are so many pills and powders out there on the market today which make bold claims about their ability to improve health and athletic performance. While some can have potential benefits, it is rare to find one that lives up to all their claims. Runners, it seems, get swept up into the supplement craze a lot as they are always yearning for that extra little edge that makes them a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, or able to go a little bit longer. But before you waste your money buying every pill under the sun, let me tell you which supplements stand to help you the most.
Iron (Ferrous Sulfate)
Iron is the lifeblood (literally) of endurance running. I is used by the body to produce hemoglobin and red blood cells. The function of red blood cells is to carry oxygen from our lungs to our muscles. Since a lack of oxygen in muscles is the limiting factor in endurance sports, more red blood cells is certainly a positive thing. The reason it generally needs to be supplemented in runners is that it is hard to absorb from food and running by nature diminished iron supply.
In terms of food and absorption, if you consume meat based iron (called heme-iron) only about 30% of it will be absorbed. Hence a quarter pound of beef, often considered the best food source of iron, only provides you with about 10% of your daily value, even though it contains upwards of 25%. Even worse, non-mean based iron (nonheme) only absorbs at a maximum rate of 10% and thus you are not getting a lot out of those pounds of spinach and raisins.
The reason why runner’s demands for iron are so much higher than the rest of the population is that running destroys red blood cells. Every step you take, a small portion of your red blood cells are destroyed. This is because their are red blood cells pumping through your feet, just like every other part of your body, and each time you land, you crush a couple of cells. Each step only destroys a very minuscule number of red blood cells but over time, if you do not give your body the necessary nutrients to create more, your blood cell count will be depleted.
There are different forms of iron available on the market including iron in pill or liquid form. The best form is the pill form of ferrous sulfate. While some will argue that liquid form is better, that requires the body to absorb the entire dosage at once rather than over a prolonged period of time. The body is not efficient at absorbing large dosages at once therefore you will get much more out of the pills. If you take your pills with orange juice, the vitamin C content will increase the absorption up to 10 fold! Be sure to avoid anything with calcium, coffee, tea, or egg yolks within a couple ours of your iron dosage. The amount of supplementation you take depends greatly on the individuals needs so I recommend you get a blood test and ask your doctor for the recommended dosage.
While the iron pills are directly designed to reach optimal performance, vitamin D supplementation plays a different role. The goal here is to keep your bones strong and healthy so you don’t get a dreaded stress fracture. How can you reach optimal performance anyways if you are constantly taking time off for injury?
While most people believe calcium is the most important part to strong bones, I disagree with them. Calcium is important but I believe people are lacking vitamin D much more often. Vitamin D is just as essential to the formulation of bone however it is very hard to get in an average diet. It shows up naturally in eggs and mushrooms but it is rarely in sufficient supply. The FDA started supplementing milk with vitamin D a while back which has been great to meet nutritional needs, but if you don’t drink much milk, you could be lacking in the nutrient.
There is good news though! You don’t need to get it from your food. Technically vitamin D is a hormone and not a vitamin and thus the body can produce it by itself. It only requires that you get a certain amount of sunlight everyday in order to produce the hormone. However, in our sedentary lifestyle we often fail to even accomplish this. Especially in the winter months when we are bundled up and the sun is hidden, we can be severely lacking vitamin D. For this reason, I recommend that all runners supplement 1000 IU of vitamin D3 one or two times a day.
This last supplement also strives for optimal performance but goes about it in a different way than the previous two. Supplementing omega 3’s does not increase performance on its own but is a vital addition to any training plan. The reason for this is that it helps you recover faster and better. If you can recover faster then you can get your next workout in sooner and you are bound to be fitter in the long run.
How do omega 3’s do this? Well after any strenuous workout your body if filled with waste products from exercise and sources of inflammation. Omega 3 fatty acids are natural anti-inflammatory’s and therefore help your body reduce this inflammation so it is capable of rebuilding muscle and realigning cells. This also reduces the chance of injury as inflammation is more often than not what is causing that achy muscle, tendon, or joint.
As far as dosage I would recommend taking 500 to 1000 mg a day and maybe take a little more after a strenuous workout to make sure your body can recover optimally. You will notice the difference as you will wake up with fresh legs the day after a workout.
While not all supplements out on the market are a scam, many of them are. These are not the only ones that stand to improve performance however these three supplements will provide you with the most bang for your buck. They are cheap and have proven results. In the end, it is always best to get your nutrition from real food sources but if you feel the need for a little extra edge from the supplement market, make these supplements your first choice.