Are you considering starting a supplement routine to improve performance and recovery? Or, perhaps you have already taken endurance supplements and aren’t sure if they’re working or worth the cost. Maybe you want to know if it is even necessary or beneficial to take supplements. Can an ultra-runner get everything they need to promote optimal recovery, adaptation, and performance from diet alone?
These are all legitimate questions and concerns. With all of the conflicting information, it’s understandable why many ultra-runners, and other endurance athletes, are unsure if endurance supplements are right for them.
This blog hopes to shed some light on dietary supplements and ergogenic aids as they apply to ultra-running. We will talk about the necessity, safety, and efficacy of endurance supplements.
As a result, hopefully, you can make a more educated decision about whether taking supplements for ultra-running is justifiable for you.
THE BIG QUESTION – Do Ultra-Runners Need Supplements?
Let’s get straight to the point. Are supplements even necessary or beneficial for ultra-runners? This is much more complicated than a yes or no answer. The answer depends entirely on the individual goals of the ultra-runner and the value that those particular supplements bring to the table.
You’ll hear and read from numerous sources that supplements are unnecessary if you follow a good diet. Then you’ll hear from other sources that ultra-runners absolutely need supplements because of the immense demand that ultra-running puts on the body.
Then you will hear that supplements don’t work and they’re a complete waste of money. So what’s to believe? Let’s look at what we DO KNOW.
Ultra-runners have increased vitamin and mineral needs.
Ultra-runners require more nutrients than the average Joe. Of course, this is true for all types of endurance athletes. But due to the extremely lengthy durations of exercise associated with ultra-running, the increased need is likely further amplified. The first priority should be consuming enough calories to sustain training load utilizing a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet.
Ultra-runners need to EAT A LOT. Truthfully, this is a good thing. The fact that ultra-runners require a lot of food enables them to better meet their high nutrient needs primarily through food. As mentioned previously, they need a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet to do so, AND they need to EAT ENOUGH. Eating enough to compensate for their hefty training load can be a challenge for many ultra-runners.
Additionally, there are certain nutrients of which ultra-runners are particularly susceptible to deficiency. Zinc, magnesium, iron*, and sodium are all lost in sweat and become depleted with endurance exercise. Additionally, endurance athletes may benefit from a higher intake of B-vitamins. It’s essential to replenish lost nutrients and prevent deficiency as much as possible.
A high-quality diet is sometimes not enough for endurance athletes to accomplish this goal. In this case, additional supplementation may be necessary. If you are wondering if you’re getting enough from your diet, you can check out apps like MyFitnessPal , or my favorite, Cronometer. Better yet, seek out the advice of a registered dietitian or a nutritionist.
*never start taking an iron supplement without first talking to your doctor to determine if it is necessary to do so.
Vitamins and minerals are far from the only supplements that ultra-runners might consider taking. Herbs, amino acids, phytonutrients, carbohydrate drinks, and various other compounds claim performance enhancement as well. Often these are present in supplements in amounts that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to acquire from food alone.
Some supplements DO work.
Saying that supplements present no benefit to an athlete is a very generalized statement and, frankly, doesn’t make sense. Evidence undeniably shows that various supplements are beneficial to endurance recovery and performance.
The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) is one of the leading scientific authorities on sports nutrition and writes many articles concerning supplementation in sports. ISSN occasionally releases “position stand” articles, essentially summarizing their interpretation of a large body of scientific literature on a particular topic.
Here are a few examples of position stands by ISSN suggesting a benefit to endurance performance from certain supplements and ergogenic aids;
- HMB prevents muscle breakdown during catabolic situations, speeds recovery after high-intensity exercise, improves body composition and performance in aging athletes, and likely improves aerobic performance (Wilson et al., 2013).
- Daily beta-alanine supplementation (minimum 4-6 weeks) significantly increases muscle carnosine (muscle PH buffering). 2-4 weeks of daily supplementation has been shown to improve exercise performance. Additionally, beta-alanine improves neuromuscular fatigue, improves tactical performance, and can be additionally beneficial when combined with other supplements (Trexler et al., 2015).
- BCAA’s have been shown to aid in exercise recovery, increase glycogen resynthesis and delay cognitive (mental) fatigue during aerobic exercise (Campbell et al., 2007).
All three of the supplements above are considered safe to supplement and present a very minimal risk of side effects when taken appropriately*. Much of the reason supplements get a bad rap is that most supplements are under-dosed, used incorrectly (often by instruction of the supplement company), use sketchy or non-beneficial ingredients, and simply neglect the scientific literature either out of ignorance or to save money.
Remember, that carbohydrate/electrolyte drink you’re taking IS a supplement. It’s obviously not food, right? Carbohydrate drinks are explicitly designed to deliver easy-to-digest carbohydrates (energy) to working
muscles and prevent glycogen depletion. These are very effective supplements for ultra-running and endurance sports because of the high carbohydrate demand and rapid digestion required for optimal endurance performance. However, these drinks absolutely wouldn’t make sense for a non-athlete to take.
*All three supplements mentioned are found in Ultraverse Supplements daily endurance supplement, T-30.
Not all endurance supplements are created equal.
Should you choose to start an ultra-running supplement routine, it’s essential to understand what supplements present the most value to you. You will find endurance supplements with a wide variety of price tags – lower doesn’t necessarily mean they are a better deal, and higher price tags don’t necessarily mean they’re higher quality. For more information on this subject, read Comparing Cost vs Value: Best Endurance Supplements.
Is taking supplements for ultra-running safe?
That depends entirely on the supplement, the dose, the duration, and various aspects of an individual’s personal health status. Many supplements can be taken in scientifically appropriate doses for months and even years with no ill effects to otherwise healthy individuals. Look at the Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) of supplements you are considering taking and compare that to how much a supplement is suggesting you take.
If you have any doubt about whether a supplement is safe for you, talk to your doctor. If you have any chronic medical conditions or are taking prescription medication, ALWAYS talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement.
Summary – Do Ultra-Runners Need Supplements?
So does all this mean that you absolutely NEED to take ultra-running supplements? No, you don’t NEED to. Plenty of ultra-runners take exactly zero supplements.
Could ultra-running supplements potentially benefit your performance and recovery? Yes, when the right was ones are chosen (and taken appropriately), there’s little doubt about it. But, supplements will not amount to the difference between finishing in the back of the pack vs. the podium. They won’t take you from average to elite, but they can make you better. Proper training and adequate recovery are undoubtedly more critical to ultra-running performance than any supplement, but supplements can present an edge.
Whether or not the slight advantage is worth the cost of the supplement is entirely up to the ultra-runner. But you should know what to expect when starting a supplement routine.
GOOD supplements will present small, consistent, and SUSTAINABLE improvements over time, not a quick fix. Those small improvements can add up to something significant over the course of a training season.
At Ultraverse Supplements, we formulate our products specifically to meet the unique demands of ultra-runners and other ultra-endurance athletes. Our endurance supplements use the highest-quality ingredients and scientifically appropriate doses and are combined into as few supplements as possible.
They might not turn you into Jim Walmsley, but they will give you consistent, sustainable improvements. Should you decide ultra-running supplements are right for you, you’ve found the best.