A well-balanced diet should be enough to help you get the bulk of the nutritional requirements you require for running, but can supplements really give you the extra you need to up your running performance?

The use of nutritional supplements in sport is widespread. Within the sport and exercise arena supplements come in many forms and guises, including:

  • Sports drinks
  • Carbohydrate bars and gels
  • Protein powders, drinks and bars
  • Liquid meal supplements
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements
  • Ergogenic aids (substances that affect energy, alertness, or body composition)

Runners and competitors in other sports are forever seeking that extra ingredient that will give them a competitive edge, and provided they are within the rules, there is generally no harm in using these, unless that use is to extreme excess. There is enough evidence to suggest that these legal supplements can have potential benefits.

Vitamins and minerals

There is no doubt that an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals is necessary for good health, but whether exercise increases our requirement is debatable. Providing you are eating a healthy balanced diet, that is not only adequate in energy but also includes a wide variety of foods, you should have no problem getting all the vitamins and minerals you need for your running.

If you are exercising and not dieting, then you will need to consume more food to meet the energy requirements of your training.

Furthermore, if you are exercising and not dieting, then you will need to consume more food to meet the energy requirements of your training. More food, providing that it consists of the right food stuffs, will naturally mean that you are getting more vitamins and minerals. Even elite athletes and runners, providing their diet is adequate in terms of both quantity and quality, do not usually need to take extra vitamins and minerals.

Most active people are highly likely to be meeting their vitamin and mineral requirements by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, in some cases a low-dose multi vitamin and multi mineral supplement may be useful. But, it is not necessary to exceed requirements. You do however need to be cautious with certain vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamins A and D, which if taken to excess can be toxic.

Diets where supplementation may be necessary include:

  • Diets low in energy for weight loss
  • Diets that omit certain foods or food groups e.g. vegetarians and vegans
  • Diets lacking in a particular type of food e.g. allergy or intolerance
  • Diets which are erratic and unbalanced

A strict vegetarian diet can be one that requires supplementation. Although high in carbohydrate, it can produce deficiencies such as iron, calcium, iodine, zinc and vitamin B12. The vegetarian athlete or runner should seek advice on whether supplementation is necessary. It would however be far better to adapt the diet to include more dietary sources of vitamins and minerals rather than resort to taking a supplement.

Energy enhancers for running

Several nutritional ergogenic aids are effective at influencing energy. The most obvious example is carbohydrate supplements, whether in the form of powders, gels or sports drinks. Carbohydrates during prolonged exercise provide extra energy fuel to help prevent fatigue. Sports drinks deliver water and fuel to the body fast, so help to avoid dehydration and fatigue.

Several other ergogenic aids have been shown to be potentially beneficial for certain athletes. However, the long term effects are still unclear, so unless you’re competing at the top level, they are probably not worth the cost or indeed the risk.  

Creatine and bicarbonate supplements have been shown to be useful during high intensity work. In the first few seconds or so of sprint exercise, creatine phosphate is used as a fuel. Creatine supplementation can increase muscle creatine phosphate levels and therefore may be useful to help athletes recover quickly between repeated bouts of high intensity exercise. Alkaline salts, such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), can help to neutralise lactic acid and delay fatigue.

Stimulants for running

Caffeine is performance-enhancing due to being a central nervous system stimulant. However, if you are competing, a caffeine level in the urine above 12mg/l is not permitted. This level will be achieved by taking about 500mg caffeine, which equates to about seven cups of coffee, in a short time. Caffeine is also a mild diuretic so make sure you keep hydrated.

Body composition influencers

A variety of supplements claim to enhance performance by affecting body composition, either by increasing muscle mass and or or reducing body fat, such as protein and amino acid supplements, carnitine, chromium, hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB), but have generally been shown to be ineffective.

Finally, bypass 'diet and fitness assessments' that are designed to find faults in your diet that can only be corrected by taking supplements. Supplements are a more efficient way of making profit than encouraging you to eat a healthy balanced diet.