Sports nutrition is a growing industry, and many supplements and foods are scientifically proven to enhance endurance. It can be difficult at times, however, to see through the marketing hype and ascertain which supplements are the most effective and economical, and which ones are not.
The following is a list of some of the most effective and cost-efficient supplements which may help to enhance your personal running performance, as well as accelerating recovery.
Consuming a sports drink, which contains 5% glucose (or maltodextrin), and a small amount of sodium has been proven many times to enhance endurance. Glucose and sodium are both able to enhance hydration and the uptake of water across the small intestine by a process known as ‘active transport’. Research also suggests that sipping on a glucose solution during endurance races and events can prevent undue stress on the immune system.
The glucose in sports drinks and in energy gels helps to maintain blood sugar levels, sparing valuable stores of muscle and liver glycogen. Once glycogen stores are depleted, the body will be forced to use fat as the fuel for energy, meaning that exercise intensity will drop as fat takes longer to be ‘processed’ into a form that the working muscles can use.
Sodium, on the other hand, not only enhances hydration, but helps to replace the salt lost as sweat and can prevent a potentially deadly (albeit rare) condition known as hyponatremia, which can occur during ultra-endurance events if too much pure water is consumed and large amounts of sodium are lost in perspiration.
Interestingly, the addition of protein or amino acids in sports drinks has shown promise as a way to enhance endurance further, still. Therefore, it may be wise to choose a sports drinks that contains hydrolysed protein and/or amino acids in order to gain maximum benefit.
L Carnitine has been touted as a great supplement for fat loss, certain heart conditions (although evidence is conflicting), and male fertility. Acetyl L Carnitine is even used by many as a ‘nootropic’ – a supplement to enhance brain power and focus. Despite research to supports its use, it is not often used or well known as a supplement by endurance athletes.
L Carnitine, or Acetyl L Carnitine can create a general energised feeling of wellbeing, and may speed up recovery from exercise-induced stress. However, it can cause GI discomfort as well, so it’s a supplement to trial in training and in small amounts.
To reduce inflammation, which is regarded bad for general health, as well as recovery, it’s important to consume relatively high amounts of omega 3 (an anti-inflammatory), and smaller amounts of omega 6 – which are generally regarded as pro-inflammatory. Omega 3 consists of EPA and DHA – it’s thought that EPA is mainly responsible for the anti-inflammatory effect of omega 3, and this is found in high amounts in oily fish, but not vegetarian sources such as flax seeds. In addition, certain types of oily fish are also believed to enhance protein synthesis; an extra reason to consider supplementing with it.
Like L Carntine, adaptogens seem to have caught on with endurance athletes. Adaptogens are herbs that can maintain homeostasis within the body – helping to prevent the negative effects of physical stress. Adaptogens include Asian Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea and Ginkgo Biloba. Research suggests that all of these herbs have a positive impact on endurance performance and/or recovery. Elite cyclists who supplemented with Ashwagandha for 8 weeks, for example, experienced an enhanced Vo2Max and an increased running time until exhaustion; whilst a placebo group demonstrated no improvements.
Finally, caffeine has been shown to be highly effective, and able to increase endurance performance in dozens of studies. However, caffeine also increases heart rate and can potentially lead to dehydration in longer endurance races or events. Its use for ultra-endurance athletes may be limited to higher intensity, lower duration training sessions.
It is important to trial the use of any new supplement outside of competition – never try anything new on the day of an event. In addition to which, it is important to do specific further reading and research before using any new supplement. Fish oil and Ginkgo Biloba for example, have many health benefits but can also thin the blood if consumed in large amounts, which may be an important consideration for some individuals. People with any type of heart condition should also speak to their doctor before supplementing with L Carnitine or pre-exercise caffeine.