Each month, the other running bloggers of the Just Run Round Up and I share our best advice, hacks, and workouts on all things running. This month, we’re answering an important question: are things like taking special supplements, giving up alcohol, and special diets, all in the name of improving performance, actually worth it?
In the era of the Instagram influencer, we see supplements peddled to us daily as the simplest way to improve performance. Pop a pill and race faster – so simple, right?
No supplement can undo poor training or recovery habits – it’s vital that we emphasize that. You can’t magically crank out a BQ if you barely trained nor can recovery supplements compensate for chronic sleep deprivation. But what about the supplements that promise to enhance performance? Are they worth taking? Will they actually help you race faster?
Let’s take a quick look at a few popular supplements for runners and find out if they are worth taking.
For my first half marathon, I thought drinking coffee before the race wasn’t worth the risks. I was nervous about mid-race bathroom stops or feeling jittery, so I didn’t drink any coffee. As I’m learned since then, it is well worth it to have some coffee or caffeine in another form before a race!
Hands down, caffeine is one of the best performance-enhancing supplements for runners. Whether you opt for a caffeine-infused gel or a cup of coffee before a race, caffeine enhances alertness, decreases perception of effort, and can even help you tolerate the heat better. It is completely worth it to take on race day – especially if you are a regular coffee drinker. The diuretic effects are minimal if you have caffeine in moderation and hydrate well.
Obviously, you can consume too much caffeine on race day, rendering you jittery and searching for the nearest porta potty. If you are taking caffeinated sports nutrition products, perhaps don’t take them for every gel throughout the marathon. Drink water along with your coffee to avoid dehydration and stick to the amount that works optimally for you.
Although individual variance does come into account, you likely don’t have to do the full caffeine to reap the benefits of race day. It should be noted that some people don’t respond well to caffeine at all – and those individuals might choose not to supplement with caffeine on race day.
Is it worth it? Yes – for most people.
Beet Juice Shots/Powders
Research debates the actual efficacy of beet juice: some studies indicate it does enhance performance, others don’t see any statistically significant proof. After reading through the research and experimenting with it myself, I fall in favor of beet juice supplements for race day.
There’s no harm in taking them (unless you have a very sensitive stomach) – at the worst, you get an extra boost of nutrients that day. Beet juice contains nitrates, which your body converts into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates the blood vessels, bringing more oxygen-rich blood to your working muscles and improving your oxygen uptake. Essentially, you can run up to 2-3% faster with no real change in effort.
Beet juice supplements can be pricey, but they are not something you take every day in training. You will want to test out beet juice before race day to ensure it sits well with you. Look for beet juice shots and powders made with beets and natural, high-quality ingredients. (You can also make it yourself!)
Is it worth it? Yes.
Collagen is a type of protein that supports bone, tendon, and ligament health. The theory behind collagen supplements is that they support repair and maintenance of your bones and tendons. However, there is not a sufficient body of scientific literature behind the use of collagen supplements for athletes. It is unclear and unsupported as to if collagen will actually improve recovery, prevent injury, and therefore athletic performance. Collagen may aid in joint pain and bone health, but it’s not going to help you run faster on race day.
(Read this article from Women’s Running by this round-up’s own Allie Burdick for a registered dietitian’s take on collagen supplements).
Is it worth it? No.
This is one where I’ve seen firsthand the difference a supplement can actually make. While my iron technically fell into a “healthy range,” it was too low for me to donate blood even. One doctor told me I had “pseudo-anemia” due to having higher blood volume from running and that I was fine. I was eating iron-rich foods, including beef, beans, greens, you name it. But I struggled with fatigue.
Years later, one doctor ran blood work and found that my iron levels were too low for a female runner. She recommended iron supplements and they worked. I stopped needing post-workout naps, I started feeling more energetic in my runs, and noticed a significant improvement in my performance.
If you struggle with low energy and fatigue even with a healthy, sufficient diet and enough sleep, consider having blood work done and speaking with your doctor. Runners have different needs than the average person due to foot-strike hemolysis, so even if you in “healthy” levels, you may need to supplement to reach an optimal level for performance.
That said, don’t just start popping iron supplements, as it is possible to consume too much iron. Iron supplements can cause gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pains, vomiting, and constipation, while too much iron can increase risk of diabetes and certain cancers. Speak with a medical professional, have bloodwork done to confirm if you require supplementation, and be selective in choosing an iron supplement.
Is it worth it? Yes, if you have low iron levels. No, if you have healthy iron levels.
Disclaimer: I am a running coach, which means I cannot provide individualized advice on aspects of diet, including prescriptions of supplements. This post is intended as general guidance and what you need may differ from this post.
Supplements are only one of things that promise to help you run faster. What about giving up alcohol, carb-loading, or eating a special diet before race day? Are these worth it? The other ladies from the Just Run round up share their answers!
Do you take any particular supplements for race day?
What do you think is worth it for racing faster? Giving up alcohol? A special diet?