Supplements for Runners: 4 Tips for Performance + Warnings

Ever wonder if supplements for runners can help you boost performance, run faster, or even set PRs?

You're not alone. A lot of people, including runners, are looking for that perfect combo of diet, exercise, and supplements to achieve their fitness goals, like running a marathon.

It's one reason the supplement industry generates an estimated $122 billion a year, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

You don't have to look far to find supplements for runners, and many other supplements, that make big promises.

  • So how do you tell the difference between marketing hype and science?

Here are 4 tips about supplements for runners. But first, the warnings...

Maybe your time is better spent on healthy eating, meal prep, rest, regular exercise, and stress management than searching the Internet for unicorn supplements for runners.

All or nothing...

Runners tend to have two mindsets when it comes to issues that affect the way we show up in our sport: 

  1. Fix it
  2. Ignore it

Basically, if we can’t solve the problem immediately then we’re likely to just shove it under the rug until it magically gets better. 

  • Out of sight, out of mind, right? Wrong! 

This all-or-nothing mindset leads to more:
 

  • Injuries
  • Ailments, and...
  • Setbacks than any other questionable decision that we may make along the way.

And I’d be willing to bet money on the fact that most runners find themselves between this same rock and hard place on a regular basis. 

You?

 

For me, it’s every single time that I notice a niggle or feel my energy dip. 

From there, the day turns into a direct spiral down the Google tunnel to figure out exactly what’s wrong with me and the quickest way to get rid of it ASAP, whether it's...

  • A certain stretch
  • The perfect ice-pack strategy
  • Some convoluted KT tape configuration, or…
  • a magic pill to set me straight…

I’m determined to find it. On the off-chance that I can’t figure out the key to unlock the door opening straight back to perfect health, I’ll pick out the easiest option on the list of “maybes.” 

You know, just to feel like I’m doing something productive anyway and then get back out there like nothing ever happened.

Just slap a pretty bow on it and call it good. 

Empty promises

My two “quick-fix” methods of choice are...

  1. My beloved strips of kinesio tape (a story for another day…) 
  2. Random nutritional supplements for runners. I’ve lined my cabinets with vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies swearing to do everything from restore my energy and ease my stress to strengthen my tendons and overhaul my entire body composition (yikes). 

But it turns out that those pill bottles aren’t often full of much besides empty promises. 

  • Supplements can be extremely helpful for those who NEED a little extra help meeting special needs or making up for nutritional deficiencies.
  • But the keyword here is NEED. Without the right information to guide your choices, it’s difficult to tell what’s actually necessary. 

So why not just try some supplements for runners to see if anything makes a difference?

Like…

  • A little extra iron here
  • Some calcium there
  • A touch of vitamin D
  • Plus a multivitamin to top it all off

Sounds like a great way to cover all the bases, right?

Here's the thing. There are real risks hiding inside the trial-and-error approach. 

Paying the price

First of all, all those supplements cost a pretty penny.

  • Most reputable brands go for upwards of $15-20 a pop for a month’s supply.
  • Multiply that a few times to account for the various choices that all claim to suit your search + several months that it takes to see any real effects from most of them. 
  • Putting money down for even just a few options to start can easily add up to hundreds of dollars before long. 

TIP: Although the extra investment might seem worthwhile in the moment, it might hurt to look back at all the questionable purchases that didn’t end up working out. 

 

Second, it takes TIME to sift through all the empty promises.

  • Think about all the hours it takes to first Google your every-little symptom
  • Followed by months of waiting for your chosen remedies to sink

The TRUTH: This takes precious time away from the things that will probably do more good towards improving your running and bettering your health, like:

  • Training
  • Rest
  • Reflection
  • Good eats... just to name a few. 

A little guidance goes a long way toward saving you time and money, and that’s in a best-case scenario.

 

Sometimes, the consequences of trying out random supplements without knowing for sure that you need them carry a bit more weight than a bit of lost time or a drain on your bank account.

The Food and Drug Administration does not often regulate supplements. 

  • THIS MEANS... many of them don’t go through the same testing processes that are required for medications. 

As a result, many supplement companies don’t take the extra step to send out their products for testing or certifications. 

  • THIS MEANS… you have nothing else but their word to rely on when it comes to what’s actually in that capsule you’re swallowing day in and day out. 

Too much of a good thing?

Supplementation also raises the risk of going above and beyond your needs.

Even if you would benefit from a certain supplement, taking too much of something can be just as bad or worse for your health as taking too little.

Kylee Van Horn, a Registered Dietitian who works with endurance athletes through her business Fly Nutrition, warns that:

“Some serving sizes on supplements can lead you to exceed the daily value you need of something.” Too much of even a good thing can pump more into your body than it can handle.

In another best-case scenario, whatever surplus you can’t efficiently absorb will just exit your body the way all other food and liquid does (if you catch my drift…). 

  • That’s why you might notice your urine turn a neon color after taking a hefty multivitamin: your body is getting rid of all the excess from the laundry list of vitamins and minerals you just funneled in. 
  • More concerning consequences of over-supplementation include stomach upset, disorientation, heart attacks, liver and kidney damage, headaches, hair loss, and more. I don’t know about you, but there are enough frightening effects on that list to make me question my entire medicine cabinet.  

Now, this isn’t to scare you away from supplements for runners to fill in the gaps. In fact, my point is the exact opposite.

Everyone deserves to feel their best and supplements can play an important part in that.

But instead of cluelessly surveying the shelves at your local Vitamin Cottage, try these tips for smart supplementation first. 

Pay attention to signs and symptoms you're experiencing to help you determine what you should do.

1. Get in touch with your body

So you’re feeling off, like something just isn’t quite right. For example...

  • Maybe your energy seems lower than normal.
  • You can’t psych yourself up for that early morning workout the way you used to.
  • You’re dealing with digestive issues that are making it difficult to get through your long run without debilitating cramps.
  • Your typical sunny disposition has taken a dive, or...
  • You’re having trouble catching your breath at easy paces. 

That ever happen?

No matter how you’re feeling, the first step is to get in touch with your body and figure out what’s different.

TIP: Pinpoint the changes you’ve noticed in how you show up to run or in other aspects of your life so that you can get an idea of what seems missing and what exactly you hope to change. 

Before you start taking supplements for runners, ask your doctor, registered dietitian, or nutritionist for help. Changes to your diet and lifestyle habits may be all you need.

2. Look for clues

Knowing your body well enough to understand when something’s off and tallying up your symptoms certainly helps point runners in the right direction in the process of figuring out our needs.

But checking off boxes on WebMD doesn’t quite count as a real diagnosis.

TIP: See a professional to help you make sense of your symptoms. 

A Registered Dietitian like Kylee can take the pieces of information that you’ve discovered by listening to your body and put them together to reach a personalized and informed conclusion about what might be going on. 

An RD will assist you in making a plan to get back on track and meet your nutritional needs, and might be able to teach you how to get those nutrients from food first rather than jumping straight to supplements. 

If you really want a detailed picture of your overall health, ask your doctor about an in-depth blood analysis.

3. Get your facts straight

Now that we understand the risks of playing trial-and-error with supplements, you know that it pays to have solid evidence before making any rash decisions.

The best way to get the most trustworthy information is by going straight to the source: your blood.

InsideTracker is a company that provides in-depth blood analysis for athletes by “measuring specific biomarkers related to performance and giving them an edge over the competition,” according to their resident dietitian Stevie Smith.

You can get routine bloodwork done at the doctor’s office, but insurance doesn’t always cover all the tests that would benefit athletes because our needs can differ from those of other populations thanks to the myriad ways that running puts unique demands on our:
 

  • GI systems
  • Red blood cell count
  • Fluid balance, and...
  • Muscular or bone structures

General practitioners also can’t always provide the same level of insight based on the results from those tests that athletic specialists.

 

Either way, thorough bloodwork analysis can offer you peace of mind about what you really need to focus on so that you can reach more optimal levels of health or performance. 

“Having blood biomarkers tested can help an individual make an educated and - most importantly - safe decision about whether or not to aid in supplements…where their body may need a little more than they are getting from food,” Stevie explains. 

“When testing with InsideTracker we take supplementation recommendations a step further by educating on how to best take a supplement, the safe and effective dose amount, any potential side effects of interactions, recommendations on which brands are third-party tested, and the reminder to discuss any new supplement with your healthcare provider.” 

Read the label before you take supplements for runners. Image from @flynutrition3 on Instagram

4. Solve for X

Once you know for sure what’s really missing from the equation and what trusted steps you can take to address it, you have the chance to turn your running - and your life - right back around from any setbacks you’ve been facing. 

After all, our bodies themselves are our main tools for running our best. 

No special shoe or aerodynamic shorts can measure up to the well-oiled machine that is a happy and healthy body. 

 

Deficiencies in certain areas really may be holding you back from that kind of potential. 

“Biomarkers such as vitamin D and ferritin (iron) can directly impact athletic performance,” says Stevie, “while others like cortisol and creatine kinase can provide insights into overtraining and injury prevention.” 

 

Take real control of your health by solving the equation with knowledge under your belt. Informed change goes much further toward the next best run of your life than any fancy tape design or random pill bottle snatched off the shelf.

Do you take supplements for runners to improve performance? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Lucie Hanes 150
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Eagle, CO
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Ultrarunner, rock climber, youth coach, occasional artist. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big feelings.

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