Yes, it is an age-old argument and the two sides will debate until they are hoarse. This argument is of course, do runners need supplements? If they don’t, how come? If so, why and which ones? It’s certainly a rabbit hole to go down and I have been on both sides of the argument. I certainly understand that we should strive for real food and am not necessarily a fan of getting food from a pill/ However, on the other side of the coin, runners are beating their body up with training and if we don’t get perfect nutrition in every day, then maybe a little help is warranted. Certainly, when you look at the definition of supplement, which is, “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it,” then it makes sense why someone would think that supplementation makes sense.
The main argument I see against supplementation is the idea that we should strive to eat a well-balanced diet and that will cover our needs. It’s interesting because I have heard dieticians (who are usually working with sedentary or recreationally active people) loathe the idea of any type of supplement. Then I have seen nutritionists who work with hard training athletes say that if you want to succeed, you have to be on some sort of supplement. For a long time I was in the first camp but have gradually shifted my position to the latter. Let me explain why.
The 3 E’s:
Essential Nutrition for Survival and Basic Health:
This is what is Recommended Dietary Allowances are built off, but these are government based standards and not meant for achieving optimal health. These standards are based on the average nutrient intake of an entire population. These guidelines make the assumption that everyone is already eating a healthy diet and that all nutritional needs are the same. In essence, it’s the bare minimum.
Essential Nutrition for Optimal Health:
This is the next step and means higher amounts of vitamins and minerals. It also means the inclusion of “non-essential” nutrients (but not unimportant). Things like antioxidants are required in higher doses to fight off our environmental stresses and help us recover. The quantities of these are needed in higher doses than the RDA (or DRI) states for basic survival.
Essential Nutrition for Athletic Performance:
The final level, where athletes are required to perform at a peak level, recover from training and outside stress, and maintain superior health. So, while I may not expect a person training for their first 5k in this category, I certainly would put someone who’s training consistently year-round for high-level competitions.
|Vitamin||Men DRI||Women DRI||Tolerable UL||PDI|
|Vitamin C||90 mg||75 mg||2000 mg||500-3000 mg|
|Vitamin D||15 mcg-600 IU||15 mcg-600 IU||100-mcg-4000 IU||400-4000 IU|
|B6||1.7 mg||1.5 mg||100 mg||10-100 mg|
|Folate||400 mcg||400 mcg||1000 mcg||400-1200 mcg|
|B12||2.4 mcg||2.4 mcg||Not Established||12-200 mcg|
I chose these because they are common vitamins that are important to runners. As you can see, there is a big discrepancy between the essential amount needed for survival and what may be required for optimal performance. The same is true for minerals.
|Mineral||Men DRI||Women DRI||Tolerable UL||PDI|
|Calcium||1300 mg||1300 mg||2500 mg||1200-2600 mg|
|Magnesium||420 mg||320 mg||350 mg||400-800 mg|
|Phosphorus||1250 mg||1250 mg||4000 mg||1k-4k mg|
|Selenium||55 mcg||55 mcg||400 mcg||100-400 mcg|
|Zinc||11 mg||8 mg||40 mg||15-60 mg|
The question becomes then if an athlete is training hard and eating the appropriate amount of calories, are they getting the nutrients in the amounts needed for the performance? I think that if things are perfect, then maybe. However, the vast majority of people I work with are not living the perfect life (who is?) and it’s tough to say what they are getting. Plus, we know that individuals vary. We also know that the nutrient food can vary widely, and we know that nutrient content in food has decreased over the decades- check out this piece from the Scientific American.
So, while I think supplementation gets a bad rap, I don’t think just popping a horse pill multivitamin is the way to go, either. I think that you have to know if you are low in anything and you need to know what’s in the diet you are eating.
Expensive, but worth it
Unfortunately, the first prong of this can be expensive, but it might be money well spent. If you have a solid insurance plan, you may be able to get out of this cheaper.
It wouldn’t hurt to get some blood work done.
A vitamin, mineral, testosterone (for men), and iron/ferritin tests are done. It’s not going to be cheap though (if paying out of pocket). There’s some great athlete oriented at-home tests like Inside Tracker. I also looked at AnyLabTestNow.com, simply because there is one by my office. You don’t need a prescription and you just make an appointment. However, in both circumstances, to get vitamin and mineral tests done, you are looking at a few hundred bucks. I do think that InsideTracker has a multiple session discounts though. I like that because you’d want to follow up tests every few months. This may not be 100% required, but I like having data and I like having information.
This is especially true if I haven’t felt great, haven’t recovered, and training has been stale for some time.
It’s easy to blame the training because that’s what we have to judge results, but that could be a symptom of the underlying problems.
The second prong to this approach is less expensive, but it can be time-consuming. Overall, I am not a huge fan of counting calories, mainly for the reasons we talked about with variances. However, when trying to establish baselines, it’s key. I recommend going premium for a bit with a tracker (a quick search showed that there are dozens). It seems like you have to go premo for most to give you micronutrient data.
I think it’s important to track at least a few days to a good week.
That way you can track your nutrient intake for a scope of runs from easy to workouts, to long runs. The first couple days you might adjust to match what you think you should be eating, but over time, we tend to just eat normally, so several days are good to give us averages of intakes. We can take our averages and see where are doing well and where they aren’t. Couple that with any trouble spots our testing shows, we can really get a sense of what is going on. If you want to get some guidance, doing a nutrition consultation with a coach can be a big benefit. They can show you where you might be lagging, options to getting on track, and what supplements to consider.
If you make the decision that you want to try supplementation, there’s a couple of routes you can go to. One is working with a nutrition coach and making decisions as a team. The other is self supplement through multivitamins or specific vitamins. If you do the latter, you’ll want to make sure that these are the third party verified. Look for a label from the USP or the NSF on the packaging. These are the two most trusted. Secondly, mega-dosing is rarely justified and can be dangerous. Keeping intake under the PDI of intake is key to keeping yourself safe, but it doesn’t hurt to be working with a doctor and/or nutrition coach for monitoring.
Today’s discussion didn’t even get into things like metabolites or botanicals. This includes things like caffeine, L-carnitine, creatine, glucosamine and chondroitin, and nitrates. These will have to be for another day. Today’s topic was all about vitamins and minerals and why the idea of supplementation shouldn’t be scoffed at for athletes. When we look at what government guidelines are providing, we realize that a lot of people need more than the bare minimum.
Athletes may need a lot more!
And in an in-perfect world, perfect nutrition is a dream for many folks. Quality supplementation can bridge the gap between basic essential nutrition and maximal performance.
If you’d like a nutrition consultation, you can check out LHR options HERE