Can nutrition supplements be helpful for endurance athletes?
Why some people think supplements are a waste
- In general, researchers have a hard time proving that any particular nutrition supplement is of much value for endurance athletes, or for anyone else for that matter. (There are a few exceptions.)
- Even when a particular substance can be shown to be helpful, it’s almost always better to make sure you’re getting enough of that substance as part of your overall whole food intake, not as a separate supplement.
- In addition, In the United States, nutrition supplements are loosely regulated, so a lot of the time you don’t even know what you’re getting.
These are good reasons not to put much faith in nutrition supplements to give you a health or sports-performance boost.
Why I often recommend supplements anyway
Despite these negatives, I often recommend supplements to my patients (athlete or non-athlete) for a number of reasons:
- The trace nutrient content of our food supply has greatly declined over the decades.
- We rely on a shrinking number of plant and animal varieties for the majority of our food intake.
- Many people have a sketchy diet to begin with.
- There are unprecedented stresses (psychological, physical, and chemical) that modern humans are exposed to way beyond any experienced by our evolutionary forebears.
- Individuals vary greatly in their metabolism, overall state of health, digestive tract function, and internal biome, which isn’t always taken into full consideration when making population-wide recommendations about nutrient intake.
- Research on many supplements is still in a preliminary phase. There’s a lot of positively intriguing but not-yet-totally-conclusive research on potential benefits.
In addition to vitamin and mineral supplements, I’m especially likely to recommend herbal medicines. In the United States, herbs are regulated in the same manner as vitamins and minerals. But to my way of thinking, they’re in a different category because they’re made from whole plants.
Don’t expect an immediate boost in athletic performance from supplements, but….
Here are five of the supplements that I think can be useful to endurance athletes. It’s not an encyclopedic list of all potential performance-enhancing products. But it includes a few possible supplements and herbal medicines that seem to have a plausible scientific rationale for their use.
If you’re interested in trying some of them, let me know. I have a convenient way for you to purchase them through my online nutrition dispensary Wellevate. Or follow this link.
Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e fish oils with EPA and DHA)
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in particular in fish oils, have a known anti-inflammatory effect. Because of that, or perhaps for other reasons, they are thought to have a beneficial effect in delaying muscle soreness and shortening the recovery time in between tough workouts.
Here’s some of the latest data.
Ginkgo is known to increase microcirculation in the muscles. Consequently, it seems plausible that it would help improve muscle endurance.
Here’s some of the latest research.
Running and other endurance activities are stressful. That’s the point, isn’t it? You want to stress your body so that it will build its resilience and be able to handle even more stress in the future.
During and after exercise your adrenal glands are going to respond to stress by spilling extra cortisol into your bloodstream. That’s a good thing. But the downside is that the extra cortisol and other stress responses prolong the recovery time from a tough workout.
That’s where phosphatidylserine comes in. It limits the cortisol response to stress and, presumably, helps you bounce back from a challenging workout quicker. Check out the latest research.
Withania, also known in Ayurvedic medicine as Ashwaganda, is considered an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps the body adapt to stress. Thus, it should help endurance athletes cope better with the stress of training.
Here’s info about a research study showing its beneficial effect on cardiopulmonary endurance in a group of cyclists.
Branched chain amino acids
To build muscle, and to rebuild muscle after a tough workout, you need to synthesize protein from its amino acid building blocks. So your diet has to contain enough protein to replace the muscle fibers that you’ve broken down from stressful exercise.
But not all amino acid subcomponents are created equal. The “branched-chain” amino acids, especially leucine, play a double role. In addition to being the raw material you need to build protein, they also serve as hormone-like signals that tell your body to build more protein in the first place.
Dairy products contain an enriched level of branched-chain amino acids. But some people can also benefit from a milk-based protein supplement (whey protein), to give their system an extra boost.