Last week the IAAF released a comprehensive guide to sports nutrition with the aim of educating athletes on fueling their training and performance. Even if you’re not an Olympic hopeful, there’s lots of useful advice that can be taken from the report.
Runners are encouraged to get the bulk of their nutrition from whole foods and to avoid excessive supplementation, but the report does outline five supplements that have an evidence base of contributing to performance. Those five supplements are: caffeine, creatine, nitrate/beetroot juice, beta-alanine and bicarbonate. For distance runners (5,000m and over), caffeine and nitrate are the two supplements that the consensus review recommends.
Most runners are aware of the benefits of caffeine, and take advantage of those benefits. You’re hard-pressed to find a runner who isn’t mildly addicted to their morning cup of joe, but nitrate is a less common supplement. Naturally nitrates are found in leafy greens, beetroot and other vegetables but taking them in more concentrated doses can be helpful. According to a 2014 Sports Med study, “In conditions of low oxygen availability, nitrite can be converted into nitric oxide, which is known to play a number of important roles in vascular and metabolic control.”
Beta-alanine is another supplement that is lesser known, and for runners competing at distances from the 400m through the 3,000m and 3,000m steeplechase, the consensus statement suggests it can be helpful. Trent Stellingwerff is an applied sports physiologist and team lead at the Canadian Sport Institute, in a summary on beta-alanine he says that especially from the 400m through 1,500m it can be beneficial for runners. He explains, “Fatigue during long-sprints to middle-distance racing (400m to 1500m), or any maximum intensity exercise lasting from ~1 to 10 min, is a consequence of the limitations imposed by anaerobic metabolism.” What beta-alanine does is help to delay this fatigue.
But Stellingwerff’s recommendations do come with the caveat, “As with any ‘newer’ supplement, there are still key scientific questions that remain, and individual tolerance should be thoroughly experimented well before any major championship event. Further, every athlete should ensure that they are maximizing training and good general nutrition practice before thinking about using any supplement. Accordingly, any supplementation should only be done with elite athletes who have already maximized training load, recovery and nutritional practices.”