We all know that in order to maintain the physical health and wellness your body needs to run well, you need to eat “right.”
This entails consuming a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet with a wide variety of foods.
Different foods provide different nutrients the body needs to not only perform well while running, but also to maintain general health.
However, between physical demands of running, dietary restrictions, food preferences, and the relative depletion of micronutrients in soils, many runners have deficiencies of one or more essential nutrients.
Therefore, many runners end up having nutritional deficiencies that compromise their health or athletic performance.
The best dietary supplements for runners are those that fulfill gaps in the diet and offset any nutritional deficiencies.
Although the specific nutritional supplements runners should take depend on the interplay of factors such as the individual’s diet, training status, age, sex, medical conditions, and health and fitness goals, there are certain dietary supplements that are frequently beneficial to at least a subset of runners, if not most runners.
In this article, we will look at seven of the most common supplements runners need and the best supplements for runners.
7 Best Supplements for Runners
#1: Vitamin D
When most runners think about bone health, the first nutrient that usually comes to mind is calcium.
While adequate calcium intake is indeed necessary to support bone health, vitamin D is equally important, as your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium.
Accordingly, deficiencies in vitamin D are linked to an increased risk of stress fractures in runners, due to low bone density.
Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins for runners because in addition to its crucial role in maintaining bone health, vitamin D is also required for the production and normal function of several hormones, and it reduces inflammation and supports the immune system.
Unlike any other vitamin, vitamin D is actually a steroid hormone.
The majority of the body’s vitamin D requirements are met through endogenous production of the hormone, which occurs when cholesterol produces vitamin D when the skin is exposed to UV sunlight.
Vitamin D levels tend to drop in the winter, particularly at northern latitudes, due to the reduction in the intensity and duration of sunlight on the skin.
As such, your vitamin D levels may increase in the wintertime. A simple lab test can determine your vitamin D status, or you can even test at home with Everlywell.
The current daily value of vitamin D for most adults is 800 IU, or 20μg, but your needs may be higher or lower.
There are two different dietary forms of the nutrient, but most people don’t get much vitamin D through foods.
Vitamin D3, termed cholecalciferol, is found in a few animal foods, such as cod liver oil and egg yolks. This form is absorbed significantly more readily in the body.
Vitamin D2, termed ergocalciferol, is found in some plants, such as mushrooms. Absorption and conversion to a biologically-active form of vitamin D of ergocalciferol is quite poor.
Vitamin D can be one of the most important supplements for runners who don’t get much direct sun exposure, or who don’t eat foods high in vitamin D.
Best Vitamin D Supplements for Runners: Nature Made Extra Strength Vitamin D3 5000 IU (125 mcg), Dietary Supplement.
Iron is a key nutrient for runners. It is crucial for forming hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen throughout the body.
Iron is an essential nutrient, which means it must be consumed because the body cannot manufacture iron internally. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, a condition marked by fatigue, weakness, pallor, and breathlessness.
Distance running can cause foot-strike hemolysis, which refers to damage to red blood cells (which carry iron) from the impact of landing on your feet with each running step.
Foot-strike hemolysis reduces viable red blood cells, placing runners at a higher risk of anemia.
Women are at a greater risk of iron deficiency due to menstruation and the general trend in dietary intake, and as such, the recommended daily intake of iron is 18 mg for women prior to menopause and 8 mg for men and post-menopausal women.
Vegetarian and vegan runners are also at an increased risk of iron deficiency because the richest and most readily-absorbed sources of iron are from animal meats. Iron from animal sources is called heme iron, while iron from plant sources is called non-heme iron.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the bioavailability of heme iron is about 14-18% compared to 5-12% for non-heme iron.
This significant difference is partially attributable to the fact that other dietary components have less effect on the bioavailability of heme iron and other dietary components in an omnivorous diet—meat, seafood, vitamin C—improve the absorption.
In contrast, a vegetarian diet is often high in phytates, fiber, and certain polyphenols, which can interfere with iron absorption. Although not isolated to a plant-based diet, it’s important to note that calcium and tannins in coffee and tea also reduce iron absorption.
Runners with low vitamin A intake are also at increased risk of iron deficiency anemia, as vitamin A facilitates the storage versus utilization of iron.
Anemia and low iron in runners can cause sluggishness, shortness of breath, general fatigue, pallor, and dizziness, among other symptoms. Runners with anemia will have low hemoglobin and hematocrit, indices of your red blood cell count.
Ferritin is a measure of your stored iron, so runners with low ferritin have deficient iron reserves.
Ferritin should be greater than 30ng/ml for female runners and over 40ng/ml for male runners.
Best Iron Supplements for Runners: NATURELO Vegan Iron Supplement with Vitamin C and Organic Whole Foods.
Magnesium plays an integral role in over 300 different enzymatic reactions in the body, with functions spanning the gamut from protein synthesis and blood sugar regulation to controlling blood pressure and conducting nerve and muscle impulses.
It forms a major structural component of bones and teeth and acts as an electrolyte, helping transport calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes, which is necessary to maintain a heartbeat, nerve impulses, and muscle contractions.
Unfortunately, national data shows that nearly 50% of adults in the United States do not meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium, which is between 400-420 mg for men, depending on age.
Runners and other endurance athletes are particularly prone to magnesium deficiencies due to the excess loss of magnesium in sweat, so magnesium supplementation can be helpful.
Magnesium is one of the best supplements for runners who deal with muscle cramps, particularly at night, as it can support muscle relaxation.
Adequate magnesium intake can also reduce the risk of stress fractures in runners because it plays a key role in bone formation.
Magnesium levels affect the levels of parathyroid hormone and vitamin D, which are also involved in maintaining bone health by increasing the absorption of calcium to better mineralize bones and prevent thinning.
Research has consistently demonstrated that low levels of magnesium are correlated with increased rates of osteoporosis and that supplementation with magnesium in osteoporotic women can attenuate additional bone loss.
Low levels of magnesium have also been linked to higher levels of inflammation., so getting a sufficient amount of magnesium is one way to reduce chronic inflammation.
Best Magnesium Supplements for Runners: BioEmblem Triple Magnesium Complex.
#4: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to provide many benefits such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, supporting the beneficial bacteria residing in your gut microbiome, and improving brain function and preventing mental decline.
These benefits are largely due to the fact that these polyunsaturated oils are powerful anti-inflammatories.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, which means they must be consumed through the diet since the body cannot manufacture them internally.
Three different fatty acids are grouped together to form the triad of omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA).
In general, ALA can be found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds, while DHA and EPA are abundant in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines) and seaweed.
It’s ideal to get a mix of all three omega-3 fatty acids for optimal health. The adequate intake (AI), which is a measure of the recommended daily intake, is 1600 mg per day.
If you don’t regularly consume these foods, omega-3 fatty acid supplements can help support your recovery from workouts.
Studies have found that consistently taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements for at least 6-8 week at a dose of approximately 1.5-2.0 g/day can provide several benefits to runners and endurance athletes.
Benefits include reducing inflammation and discomfort associated with arthritis and delayed-onset muscle performance, increasing endurance, improving sleep, strengthening the immune system, and improving digestion and gut health.
Best Omega 3 Supplements for Runners: Nordic Naturals 690 mg Omega-3-90 Soft Gels.
#5: Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is a part of the vitamin B complex, and is required for energy production in cells, brain function, and the production of DNA and proteins.
While short-term deficiency can be troubling enough, particularly in terms of potentially debilitating fatigue, long-term deficiency can cause permanent damage to the central nervous system.
Vitamin B12 is produced by beneficial gut bacteria as a metabolic byproduct of fermenting certain foods; however, this production is insufficient to meet your needs so it must also be consumed in the diet.
Because vitamin B12 can only be found naturally in animal products, runners who follow a vegan or plant-based diet are particularly prone to deficiencies.
With that said, there are foods that are usually fortified with vitamin B12 such as breakfast cereals, milk, yogurt, nutritional yeast, and milk alternatives like soy milk.
The daily value for vitamin B12 is 2.4μg per day, and excess vitamin B12 is stored in the liver, which means that you can build up a reserve to tap into on days when you don’t meet your needs.
Vitamin B12 is often one of the most necessary vitamins for runners who do not consume animal products, as this essential nutrient can help ensure you’re firing on all cylinders and have the energy you need for your workouts.
Best Vitamin B12 Supplements for Runners: Everlywell Vitamin B12 500 mcg Supplement
Calcium is one of the most important micronutrients for runners.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. It is critical for forming the structural components of bones and teeth.
Furthermore, calcium plays key roles in muscle contraction, nerve conduction, heart health, and the secretion of various enzymes and hormones, which is why adequate calcium intake is critical for runners.
Best Calcium Supplements for Runners: Nature Made Calcium 600 mg with Vitamin D3.
Zinc plays a role in the production of more than 300 different enzymes in the body.
Enzymes, which are a class of biological proteins, help catalyze vital chemical reactions.
Therefore, having sufficient zinc availability ensures that all of the necessary enzymes involved in facilitating key reactions in the body are adequately abundant and available.
Research also has shown that oral zinc supplements can improve the quality and quantity of sleep, which is an important component of recovery from workouts.
Studies have demonstrated that even mild to moderate zinc deficiency can impair the function of macrophages and neutrophils, two types of cells vital to supporting the immune system.
As such, inadequate zinc intake has been found to suppress the immune system and increase the susceptibility to infections and illnesses.
Furthermore, zinc is required to produce and activate T-lymphocytes, another key immune cell.
Zinc is also one of the most important supplements for runners because it can help support recovery from workouts.
Zinc is involved in maintaining healthy mucosal membranes and increases cell turnover and repair. Additionally, zinc is an antioxidant, acting as a free radical scavenger to reduce oxidative damage.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of zinc is 11 mg for adult males and 9 mg for adult females.
Note that long-term zinc overload can interfere with the absorption of copper and iron, so runners should be mindful of taking excessive zinc, especially if they are prone to iron deficiency.
Best Zinc Supplements for Runners: Puritan’s Pride Zinc 50 Mg to Support Immune Health Tablets.
While dietary supplements can be helpful to runners, they aren’t usually necessary if you’re eating well. Learn more about the optimal diet for runners here.