Endurance athletes have a lot to think about when it comes to nutrition. In addition to day-to-day nutrition needs, they must pay attention to carb loading for races as well as recovery nutrition. But where do supplements factor into the mix? And should they?
Although supplements can’t replace a solid nutrition strategy, research shows they may be beneficial for endurance athletes when added to one. Here’s what you should know about three popular supplements for endurance athletes.
Nitrates can be found in beets, beetroot juice, or as a supplement in powder form. When digested, nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, which has properties that may be beneficial for endurance athletes. These include its ability to improve muscle efficiency, mitigate fatigue, and even enhance cardiorespiratory performance.
Studies on beetroot juice consumption have shown that, if taken before endurance exercise, beetroot juice may prolong an athlete’s time to exhaustion. Results, however, are mixed; some show the benefits of beetroot juice may be less pronounced in elite (i.e., well-conditioned) athletes.
The dosages of beetroot juice in these studies are typically between 300–600 mg of nitrate supplement consumed within 90 minutes of exercise. If you’re someone who experiences GI distress, consider sticking to the supplement form instead of beetroot juice.
Caffeine is one of the most well-known supplements for endurance athletes and can be consumed via coffee or in pill form. As a stimulant to the central nervous system, caffeine enhances cognitive performance and can suppress pain by increasing beta endorphins. It can also boost muscle contraction and help to mobilize fatty acids for energy.
If you want to try caffeine as a supplement, consider consuming 1.3–2.7mg per pound of body weight 30 to 90 minutes prior to exercise. Research has shown this dosage can improve an athlete’s sustained maximal endurance performance. Contrary to popular belief, this dosage does not result in water-electrolyte imbalances or dehydration.
Keep in mind, however, that too much caffeine can result in GI distress, nervousness, confusion, and disturbed sleep. More is not always better! Start on the lower end of the dosage and increase your intake if needed.
Antioxidants (tart cherry juice)
Tart cherry juice is a good source of antioxidants, which can be beneficial for recovery purposes once an athlete has already peaked in training. If your goal is adaptation to training, however, you may want to avoid it: consuming too many antioxidants has been shown to blunt adaptations. (This usually occurs when an athlete consumes very high doses of a single antioxidant, such as vitamin C or E, and rarely from fruits and vegetables.)
Studies have shown that consuming 8–12 oz. (or 1 oz. of concentrate) of tart cherry juice twice per day, 4 to 5 days prior and 2 to 3 days after an endurance event, may promote recovery in endurance athletes. So, yes, if you were competing in a multi-day race, tart cherry juice could be good to have on hand!
Considering supplements? Consult with a dietitian
True, some supplements for endurance athletes may be beneficial. But no two athletes are alike, which is why it’s important to consult with a dietitian before incorporating any supplement into your nutrition strategy. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so check the labels of the ones you consume to make sure they are NSF or USP certified.
If you’d like to learn more about supplements for endurance athletes, contact Hannah Podell, Registered Dietitian/Nutrition Health Coach.