Supplements for Endurance Runners

A brief guide to Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for endurance runners.
Supplements for Endurance Runners

Endurance runners put their bodies under physical stress for hours. Intervals, tempo, and long runs sap the body of all the resources that it has. Runners need appropriate and sufficient nutrition, and hydration to recover and adapt to ever-increasing loads. Apart from their macro/micro-nutrient requirements, many endurance runners seek supplements with their desire to improve their performance.

This article will provide essential information about supplements, specifically for endurance runners. Before we begin, let us define and clarify some concepts.

Supplements & Ergogenic Aids

There are supplements and there are ergogenic aids. Many times, these are used interchangeably. To guide our readers, we will follow the below-mentioned definition.

Supplements Ergogenic Aids
Supplements raise your health to baseline levels. Ergogenic aids raise your physical and mental performance above your baseline levels
Supplements can be used when the body is deficient in certain nutrients and obtaining the nutrients from food is not viable. Ergogenic aids raise your performance without any consideration of your nutritional deficiencies.
Supplements are mostly food-based. Ergogenic aids can be food, drugs, mechanical aids, blood transplants, etc.
Supplements are mostly legal, yet it makes sense to consult a nutritionist Ergogenic aids may or may not be legal. It is imperative that one consults nutritionists on its legality.

A simple analogy can help differentiate between supplements and ergogenic aids. Imagine your body to be a car. Nutrients and Supplements are gears and fuels in the car. Whole food provides appropriate nutrients to keep the car conditioned that might wear due to use. It also supplies sufficient fuel for the car to run optimally. Ergogenic aids are nitro-fuel that is added on top of your fuel to enhance the speed of the car.

So it makes sense that one keeps the car in good condition and replenishes the fuel in the car first before adding nitro-fuel to enhance performance.

Supplements vs Ergogenic Aids

Why do we need Supplements?

Although most of the nutrients can be obtained from food, there could be several reasons why the nutrients from food may not be a viable source

  • The food we take may not have nutrients in the sufficient quantity we need. e.g. Vitamin D
  • Nutrients may not be absorbed in the speed or quantity that is needed. Ex: Electrolytes, Iron
  • Nutrients in food can cause allergic reactions to people. e.g. Zinc from eggs.
  • Nutrients are available in food that may not suit people’s religious or moral convictions. e.g. essential fatty acids from fish oil or Vitamin B12 from animal products.

What Supplements to take?

Before considering specific supplements, one must understand nutritional deficiencies that are commonly observed in endurance runners. In general, nutritional deficiencies are due to the following factors:

  • Demographic Factors
  • Occupation or Sports Factors

Deficiencies based on demographic factors

Demography Examples
  • People living in Urban areas have Vitamin D deficiencies compared to people living in rural areas
  • People living in colder environments have more Vitamin D deficiencies than hot & humid places.
  • Women have Iron deficiencies more commonly than men
  • Seniors often have calcium deficiencies

Deficiencies based on physical movement due to occupation and sports

Physical Movements Examples
Desk Jockeys / Night Shift Workers
  • Vitamin D deficiencies are predominant in those who are insulated from the sun.
  • Athletes of sports that involve carrying weights such as weightlifting, body-building, etc. have deficiencies in protein
  • Endurance athletes have deficiencies in overall calories, vitamins, and minerals along with proteins and essential fatty acids.

Top deficiencies in Endurance Runners

In no specific order, the top nutrition deficiencies observed in endurance runners are

Deficiency can cause
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heart rates
  • Breathing problems
  • Bone loss, stress fractures
  • Muscle cramps and aches
  • Slow recovery
  • Low immunity
  • Fatigue due to slow recovery
  • Muscle cramps
  • Bad sleep
Vitamin D
  • Bone loss
  • Low immunity
  • Muscle pain
Vitamin B12
  • Low energy
  • Neurological issues – low mind-body coordination

Additionally, there are specific energy and mineral requirements that are needed during endurance runs so that runners don’t bonk during long runs. These are

  • Gels – containing carbohydrates
  • Electrolytes – containing salts
  • Hydration – water with appropriate minerals

Best time to take the supplements

Below are broad guidelines on when to take the supplements. It is recommended that one consults a nutritionist or a doctor before taking the supplements.

Supplement Time Notes
Iron On an empty stomach, preferably early morning If the stomach gets upset, then have it near meals. Have it with vitamin C or food containing Vitamin C as it helps in absorption
Vitamin B12 Early morning preferably on an empty stomach If the stomach gets upset, then have it near meals.
Vitamin D Have it with meals for better absorption Preferably have it with Calcium supplements
Calcium Have it with meals Preferably have it with Vitamin D
Zinc 2 hours before or after meals Don’t have it on empty stomach
Magnesium Closer to bedtime It helps relax the body. So preferably have it just before bed.

Did we miss something?

In the quest for finding supplements, most endurance runners miss two very important macronutrients: Proteins and Essential Fatty Acids

There is a mistaken belief that **proteins **are only needed for bodybuilders or weightlifters. Endurance running causes lots of wear and tear in the muscles, tendons, bones, etc. Proteins are needed not only to repair but also to build necessary adaptions to the stress & load.

Most runners, don’t pay heed to essential fatty acids. Fats along with carbohydrates are taken for granted because it is abundantly used in most cooking around the world. However, these fats may not contain essential fatty acids.

Essential fatty acids are needed for proper cellular function, hormone production, development, and functioning of the nervous system.

It is very difficult to figure out protein and essential fatty acid deficiencies from biomarkers. We recommend that endurance runners get their diet checked by sports nutritionists to ensure that their diets have proteins and essential fatty acids in the right amount.

Best time to have Macro-nutrient Supplements

Supplement Time Notes
Protein After workouts, have a fast-absorbing protein like whey.

Before bed, have a slow-releasing protein like casein so that your body gets a steady dose of protein when the body is recovering during the night

Keep the quantity of protein supplementation to 20-30 grams per dosage.

Spread the dosage across the day so that the body has a steady dose of amino acids rather than large dosages at the far ends of the day.

Essential Fatty Acids Anytime of the day, along with meals Fats get along better with other fats in the meals. Having it on empty stomach may cause acid reflux.
Summary of Supplements & Ergogenic Aids

Psst – What about Ergogenic Aids?

There are various minerals, compounds, elements that are touted as ergogenic aids. Very few are legal. Out of the ‘legal’ ergogenic aids, most do not have enough evidence to claim that they can help improve running endurance. However, many nutritionists and many firms use few articles or studies as evidence to sell ergogenic aids. Very few ergogenic aids have meta-studies proving the efficacy. Here are a few of them who are helpful for endurance running.

Ergogenic Aids Benefits in endurance running
  • Reduces perceived exertion
  • Improves mood (wakes you up!)
  • Improves energy production for interval training
  • Improves strength gain while strength training
  • Helps in recovery by improving muscle synthesis
Beetroot Juice (Nitrates)
  • Widening of blood vessels thus increasing flow of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles, thus improving endurance performance.
  • Decreases blood lactate levels for improved intervals and tempo runs.

Before anyone starts experimenting with ‘Ergogenic Aids’, we recommend that runners get their nutrition in order. Once they know that there are deficiencies that cannot be fixed with food alone, supplements can be taken. After this, runners can focus on Ergogenic aids.

Guidance to Runners

We recommend that endurance runners get their vitamin & minerals profiles checked. Based on the report, then get either a doctor’s prescription or nutritionist’s recommendation or both to fix the deficiencies.

We also recommend that you first focus on deficiencies related to your demographics and then focus on occupation/sports-related deficiencies.


  • As endurance runners, ensure your nutrition needs are satisfied as much as possible through whole foods. These define your baseline performance apart from training.
  • Only in case of deficiencies, supplement your nutrients after consultation with a doctor or nutritionist.
  • Once the above two suggestions are implemented, take your performance to the next level with legal, safe, and ‘working’ Ergogenic aids.


Sujoyjeet is a certified nutritionist and a personal trainer. To provide actionable insights to clients, he understands his clients lifestyle before providing a habit-based nutrition plan. The habit based nutrition plan teaches his clients how , what & when to eat and why to eat certain specific foods to meet their health, performance and body composition goals. He can be reached at @myinsight_nutrition.

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