Who doesn’t love a good ole’ fashion top 10 list?
One might assume that an ultra-runner would benefit from the same supplements as a half marathoner, a marathoner, a triathlete, or any other endurance athlete. And while in large part this is true, certain supplements benefit ultramarathon performance much more so than endurance sports of shorter distance and duration.
As I talk about in detail in my blog, Ultra-endurance VS Conventional Endurance, the extended durations and distances of ultramarathons result in some key physical and mental dilemmas exclusive to ultra-running and other ultra-distance sports. You see, marathoners and even ironman triathletes do not need to worry about central fatigue (mental fatigue) to an extent near what a 100-mile ultramarathon runner does. The average 100 mile ultramarathon finishing time is right at twice as long as the average Ironman finishing time. Let’s remember that ultramarathons don’t stop at 100 miles either….they go FAR beyond that in some cases and sometimes last for days.
Sleep deprivation, cognitive impairment, increased musculoskeletal impact/damage, increased caloric needs, and a high prevalence of gastrointestinal issues are all things that are significantly larger problems in ultramarathons than in conventional endurance events.
For this reason, in my opinion, the top 10 supplements for ultramarathon performance would look significantly different.
Before we get into the top 10, let’s be clear on what I’m talking about. I’m talking about supplements that can directly improve performance. So, I’m not talking about recovery supplements, joint health supplements, bone complexes, etc. I’m not saying those aren’t important either; they are. But, those are similar for all endurance athletes and lead to indirect improvements. For the sake of simplicity, this blog will just talk about supplements that can directly improve ultra-marathon performance.
After a brief background in each, I’ll provide you with these three useful things to keep in mind when and if you decide you’d like to try a supplement.
HOW MUCH – The dose in which the body of scientific evidence suggests is effective.
HOW LONG – This is how long is supplementation is required to reap the benefits.
TOO MUCH – This is the TUI (tolerable upper intake) if established. The amount in which someone may experience adverse effects.
NOW LET’S DIVE IN!
#1 – Supplemental Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates in supplemental forms such as powders, gels, or gummies are a mainstay in most ultra-runners drop bags. For a good reason, as it is critically important to keep up on carbohydrate intake during an ultramarathon to prevent glycogen depletion and, as a result, hitting the wall. Yes, these often, highly processed, simple sugars frequently get a bad rap, but in many cases, unjustifiably so. The truth is that there are likely very few health concerns when using these DURING or AFTER endurance exercise. This is because, in these two scenarios, simple sugars are immediately used for fuel and/or glycogen replenishment. As a result, there’s no unhealthy spike in blood sugar; therefore, insulin resistance is really of no concern.
HOW MUCH? JISSN (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition) recommends 150-400 calories/hour, comprising of primarily carbohydrates, during a single stage ultramarathon (Tiller et al., 2019). How much you can pound down very much depends on your gut, which is why “gut training” is highly recommended. It’s challenging for most people, including myself, to accomplish this intake by ingesting “real” food.
HOW LONG? Carbs don’t necessarily require a “loading phase.” As mentioned previously, utilizing varying amounts during long training runs and attempting to train the gut to handle as many carbohydrates as possible is a good idea.
TOO MUCH? How much is too much depends on what your gut can handle. One thing is for sure; you won’t be able to take in what you’re expending during an ultramarathon or a long training run. Too much of any macronutrient will inevitably cause gastrointestinal issues. Again, FIND YOUR SWEET SPOT DURING TRAINING! Don’t wait until race day and then attempt to consume large amounts of…anything that hasn’t been incorporated in training multiple times.
#2 – Caffeine
Sweet, sweet caffeine, who doesn’t love it? Caffeine is likely the most studied and reliable athletic (and academic) performance enhancer. Caffeine has been proven to be effective and improve endurance exercise performance time after time. Strategies on how to supplement caffeine during an ultramarathon are dependent on the situation and race length. These strategies are also debatable and might look different from one runner to another. The ergogenic effect that the appropriate amount of caffeine will have on performance, however, is not debatable. It works!
HOW MUCH? How much caffeine you need largely depends on your situation and tolerance.
The optimal performance-enhancing benefits of caffeine in conventional endurance sports are accomplished at 3-6mg/kg. Below is a chart to help you get an idea of what that looks like.
|WEIGHT||CAFFEINE (3-6 mg/kg)|
|110 lbs (50 kg)||150 – 300 mg|
|135 lbs (61 kg)||185 – 370 mg|
|160 lbs (73 kg)||220 – 440 mg|
|185 lbs (84 kg)||250 – 500 mg|
*To calculate your exact ideal caffeine range – take your weight in lbs, divided by 2.2, multiplied by 3-6(mg).
You might be thinking, that’s a wide range! It is, but that’s where the tolerance thing comes in. Like most things, you have to experiment with caffeine before race day to determine what works best for you.
Caffeine intake can look very different during extended ultramarathon events. In these races, the goal of caffeine ingestion may not be performance enhancement in the traditional sense. In overnight or multi-day ultramarathons, caffeine should be used at night when it’s hard to stay awake. A runner staving off falling asleep during the night of a multi-day race may want to take 100mg every hour or so. In this case, it is likely beneficial to avoid caffeine during the race UNTIL you start feeling sleepy to intensify the effect.
HOW LONG? Caffeine does not need time to accumulate in the body to be effective. Will you build a tolerance? Sure. But, caffeine is an effective training aid as well as an effective ultramarathon aid. Assess your tolerance, and take it when you feel it’s needed.
TOO MUCH? The number 400 mg/day has been thrown around a lot as a cutoff for the general population. However, as you can see from the chart above, a 160 lb athlete dosing in the high range will exceed this number. As an endurance athlete, try to stay in the 3-6 mg/kg range. Studies show that doses above that range are likely of no benefit anyway and could lead to side effects that negatively impact performance and health.
#3 – Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has been catching quite a bit of buzz in the supplement world as of late, and for a good reason, it is beneficial in various ways. One of the main reasons people turn to this adaptogenic herb is its positive impact on stress reduction. Ashwagandha is a great herbal supplement for the general population, but this article is about ultramarathon performance. Good news, ashwagandha presents many benefits that will both, directly and indirectly, improve ultramarathon performance, including;
- Improves endurance (Choudhary et al., 2015)
- Improves muscle recovery and strength (Wankhede et al., 2015)
- Improves sleep quality (Sikandan et al., 2018)
- Decreases serum cortisol (Salve et al., 2019)
- Increases energy (Mikolai et al., 2009)
- Increases VO2 max (Shenoy et al., 2012)
- Increases testosterone in men (Choudhary et al., 2015)
- Reduces stress and improves the quality of life (Chandrasekhar et al., 2012)
- May improve immunity (Mikolai et al., 2009)
- Anti-inflammatory benefits (Sikandan et al., 2018)
For detailed information on ashwagandha as it relates to endurance performance, check out this blog.
HOW MUCH? 300-900 mg of a root extract. I’ll repeat it, ROOT EXTRACT. Getting root powder doesn’t cut it. We highly recommend KSM-66, as it is the highest potency, most studied extract available.
HOW LONG? Start ashwagandha early in your training season! Full benefits may not be experienced for up to two months.
TOO MUCH? While there is no TUI established, estimates suggest it is likely well above 10x the recommended dose (>3000mg). No additional benefit is likely to come at higher doses.
#4 – Beta-Alanine
Beta-alanine is one of the most studied dietary supplements on the market. Whenever I think of beta-alanine, I immediately think of the “flushing” or the “tingles” that come with it! If you’re not familiar, it’s called paresthesia, and it’s totally harmless. I personally love the tingles. They give me an “alright, let’s do this” kind of feeling! Beta-alanine is a common supplement in pre-workouts, explosive sports and is now even found in some energy drinks. What many don’t realize is that beta-alanine has well-established benefits for endurance athletes as well.
Some direct benefits of beta-alanine related to ultramarathon performance include increased time to exhaustion (Hobson et al., 2013) and improved muscular endurance (Trexler et al., 2015). Beta-alanine also improves body composition and increases exercise capacity over time. To learn more about beta-alanine’s role in endurance sports, read this blog.
HOW MUCH? 2.5 – 5 g is recommended for improving endurance-related attributes.
HOW LONG? Beta-alanine needs to be taken consistently (daily) for at least a month to see results!
TOO MUCH? There is no TUI established for beta-alanine. However, 6 grams has been used for loading with no adverse effects. The TUI is likely significantly higher.
#5 – Rhodiola Rosea
Like ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb. Although similar in ways, Rhodiola is best known for its energizing effects, while ashwagandha is best known for its benefits to stress reduction. Like ashwagandha, Rhodiola should lead to both direct and indirect benefits to ultramarathon performance. Some of the benefits of Rhodiola Rosea include:
- Increases alertness (Kasper & Dienel, 2017)
- Increases time to exhaustion (Noreen et al., 2013)
- Improves cortisol response (Kasper & Dienel, 2017)
- Improves cognition (Kasper & Dienel, 2017)
- Reduces stress (Kasper & Dienel, 2017)
- Prevents fatigue (Lekomtseva et al., 2017)
- Increases fat oxidation (Parisi et al., 2010)
- Decreases perceived effort (Noreen et al., 2013)
Rhodiola is a fantastic endurance supplement. To find out more about how Rhodiola and its impact on endurance, check out this blog.
HOW MUCH? A wide range of 100-600 mg/day is effective. 150-200 mg/day is a good place to start.
HOW LONG? To feel the full benefits of Rhodiola, it should be taken for at least a month. However, some feel improved energy and focus on the first dose.
TOO MUCH? Again, no TUI is established, but Rhodiola Rosea is widely considered as safe and extremely well-tolerated. The TUI is likely significantly higher than the therapeutic range shown above.
#6 – Citrulline Malate
L-Citrulline is a naturally occurring amino acid in the body in which the body eventually converts into nitric oxide (N.O.). You’ve heard of endurance athletes drinking beet juice in the days leading up to competition, right? Drinking beet juice is just another way to increase N.O. In my opinion, L-Citrulline is a better, more convenient way to increase N.O. because it doesn’t require you to drink beet juice. While beets are super healthy, it takes a lot of them to increase N.O. enough to improve performance. Also, beets contain high amounts of oxalates, which can result in the formation of kidney stones when consumed in excess quantities.
Citrulline malate is L-citrulline combined with malate. Malate is important for energy production and has other sports-related benefits. Therefore, citrulline malate is preferred when it comes to endurance and ultramarathon performance. Besides increasing N.O. and improving blood flow, some other endurance-related benefits of citrulline malate include;
- Improved aerobic performance (Suzuki et al., 2016)
- Improved muscle recovery (Rhim et al., 2020)
- Prevention of ammonia accumulation (Takeda et al., 2011)
- Increased protein synthesis (Jourdan et al., 2015)
- Decreased amino acid breakdown during exercise (Takeda et al., 2011)
HOW MUCH? 6-8 grams is an effective dose for performance-related benefits
HOW LONG? Citrulline Malate should be taken consistently for at least a week or longer to see results. A single dose will likely have no benefit.
TOO MUCH? 15 grams has been used in studies and was well tolerated. It’s important to note that ornithine and arginine are often used in place of citrulline. However, these show no additional benefit over citrulline and can cause gastrointestinal issues in much smaller doses, which is the last thing you want in an ultramarathon! Stick with citrulline malate!
To find out more about citrulline malate as it applies to endurance sports check out this blog.
#7 – BCAAs
BCAAs would likely not make my top supplement 10 list if we were solely talking about their impact on conventional endurance performance. But remember, we are talking about ultra-marathon performance, not 10k, half-marathon, or even marathon performance. You might be wondering how BCAAs have a DIRECT impact on ultra-marathon performance. Many know that BCAAs can help preserve muscle or assist with recovery, but these would lead to indirect, down-the-line performance improvements.
So, how do BCAAs directly improve ultramarathon performance? Well, in short, they prevent and delay central (cognitive) fatigue. Anyone who has run an ultramarathon, especially one that lasts into the night (and beyond), knows the impact of mental exhaustion. Adequate intake of BCAAs will help you recover quicker from an ultramarathon AND help you perform better DURING the race by preventing central fatigue! To find out all about how BCAAs can help your ultra-marathon performance, see this blog.
HOW MUCH? – 10-20 grams seems to be a good range for endurance athletes to prevent central fatigue and improve recovery. 10 grams before starting an ultramarathon and an additional 10-20 grams/16-24 hours of race duration is a good strategy.
HOW LONG? – The direct benefit to performance by delaying cognitive fatigue can be accomplished from a single dose. However, recovery is most improved when taken at least 10 consecutive days.
TOO MUCH? – 35 grams of leucine (average weight adult male) or 500mg/kg/day of leucine (Elango et al., 2012) have both been suggested. This number is a cautious estimate based on the possible excess accumulation of ammonia from too many BCAAs. Interestingly, Citrulline Malate (another top 10 supplement) decreases serum ammonia.
#8 – Taurine
You might recognize this ingredient from the popular energy drink, Red Bull. Taurine is an amino acid that is not utilized in protein synthesis but has many other essential roles in the body. Of particular interest to endurance athletes, especially ultra-runners, is taurine’s potential impact on aerobic endurance and fat metabolism (Kurtz et al., 2021). Unlike most other endurance events, ultramarathons are almost entirely aerobic in nature and require an athlete to utilize fat as fuel to a much larger extent than do conventional endurance sports.
While an indirect benefit, taurine may also decrease muscle damage and soreness following exercise and seems to do so exceptionally well when combined with another of my top 10 supplements for ultramarathon performance, BCAAs (Ra et al., 2013).
To learn more about taurine as it relates to endurance athletes, check out this blog.
HOW MUCH? Amounts ranging from 500mg – 6 grams seem to be effective. How much is a 12 oz can of Red Bull? 1 gram.
HOW LONG? Taurine can improve endurance performance in a single dose. However, some suggest it should be taken for at least 6 days (Kurtz et al., 2021).
TOO MUCH? Taurine has been used safely in studies utilizing far more than the recommended dose (10g). Taurine is generally considered very safe, and 3g/day over a lifetime of use should produce no adverse effects (Shao & Hathcock, 2008).
#9 – HMB
HMB (β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate) makes the top 10 for its ability to increase fat oxidation and improve aerobic performance (Durkalec-Michalski & Jeszka, 2016). Ultramarathons are aerobic events, and increasing fat oxidation is extremely important as it increases the efficiency in which we burn fat as fuel. The result is increased endurance and the sparing of glycogen.
HMB is an even better recovery supplement and has more indirect benefits than direct benefits. HMB is exceptionally good at preserving muscle during extended durations and when calorically deficient. It’s no secret why these benefits would significantly help an ultra-runner over time! If this were a top 10 list of the OVERALL best ultra-running supplements, HMB would likely be in my top 3! To find out more about why HMB is SO amazing for ultra-runners and other endurance athletes, check out this blog.
HOW MUCH? 1-3 grams or 38mg/kg have been used. I would recommend 3 grams daily.
HOW LONG? To reap all of the benefits of HMB, it should be taken consistently for at least two weeks.
TOO MUCH? HMB has no TUI, and chronic supplementation is safe for athletes (Wilson et al., 2013).
#10 – Creatine
I know what you’re thinking, creatine?! For ultramarathons?! You heard me! True, studies have provided little evidence to suggest that creatine is directly beneficial to endurance exercise. BUT, there are instances where creatine can be tremendously beneficial for ultramarathon performance. The thing that almost nobody talks about is creatine’s impact on performance during times of sleep deprivation. When sleep-deprived, creatine significantly improves performance-related attributes such as cognitive performance, balance, coordination, and mood (McMorris et al., 2006).
Therefore, taking creatine for events lasting 24 hours or more makes sense to prevent some of the negative consequences of sleep deprivation. Additionally, while creatine likely doesn’t do much for endurance exercise, it would be beneficial for high-intensity training efforts involving intervals and sprints. However, creatine use typically comes with a slight increase in weight. For this reason, an athlete needs to weigh the positives and the negatives before consistent use.
HOW MUCH? For sleep deprivation – 4-7 g depending on body weight. 50-100 mg/kg is recommended (Cook et al., 2011). For chronic use/high-intensity exercise – An initial loading phase of 15-25 g followed by 3-5 g/day depending on weight.
HOW LONG? To prevent performance decline due to sleep deprivation, a single dose is effective. To improve high-intensity exercise performance, chronic use is warranted.
TOO MUCH? Creatine is very safe and extremely well studied. 5g/day can be used chronically with no ill effects.
Remember, supplements are just that…supplements. They are meant to SUPPLEMENT your training and recovery. Supplements won’t transform you from a mid-pack runner into Scott Jurek. But if used appropriately, supplements CAN improve your ultramarathon performance. Also, keep in mind that most supplements take time and consistent use to show significant results.
Ultraverse Supplements’ T Minus 30 Daily Endurance Supplement contains seven of the ten ingredients in this list, all in scientifically appropriate doses. T-30 does not include caffeine, carbohydrates, or creatine. Caffeine and carbohydrate intake/sensitivity vary significantly from person to person and are best incorporated on one’s own terms. Additionally, some endurance athletes may shy away from the daily use of creatine due to possible weight gain; however, taking it during overnight and multiday events is helpful.
Disclaimer – Use common sense, and always listen to your doctor over a blog post. They know more about your health situation than anybody behind a keyboard. As someone who has a graduate degree in Clinical Nutrition, I realize the variance that certain medical conditions create when it comes to optimal nutrition and supplementation. If you have underlying medical conditions, always check with your doctor before starting a new supplementation routine.
Disclaimer – Use common sense, and always listen to your doctor over a blog post. They know more about your personal health situation than anybody behind a keyboard. As someone who has a Graduate degree in Clinical Nutrition, I realize the variance that certain medical conditions create when it comes to optimal nutrition and supplementation. If you have underlying medical conditions, always check with your doctor before starting a new supplementation routine.
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