Neil Featherby: Should runners be taking supplements?

Runners get ready for the next rep at the Field of Pain.

Runners get ready for the next rep at the Field of Pain - but should they be taking supplements alongside their training? - Credit: Neil Featherby

I was recently asked by a friend and runner to write a column about nutrition and my thoughts about taking supplements. 

To do it justice I could write a book about it... but here we go. 

There are now several companies out there manufacturing not just quick and easy energy giving and recovery supplements, but readymade easily digested meals (liquid and solid) all carefully balanced out for those wanting so much more than just a gel or energy bar particularly during a long ultra-event. 

With regards to the sports nutrition market, it is huge and sportspeople for many years have always looked for a potion which will give them that extra edge, legally. 

I will always remember many years ago hearing one very well-known sports doctor saying that the most expensive urine in the world comes out of sports people, meaning that they overdo it when it comes to taking supplements. 

In truth, putting the right fuels in at the right time to supply the body with energy and of course recovery requirements is not really rocket science. But what with the pace of life these days, sometimes this is where good meal replacements can come in. 

I am always charging around all over the place and at times I do have to admit to looking at my watch thinking crikey I have not had anything to eat for several hours. Or I have only just managed to grab a piece of toast or a homemade shake before leaving home only to return several hours later. 

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Whilst I only run these days as opposed to training specifically, I do know that my lifestyle and nutritional needs are not always adequate and would certainly not be good enough to have matched all my needs many years ago when regularly running 100 plus miles each week. 

Whilst it was possible back then to obtain liquid meal replacements containing all essential nutrients, they were more for those who may have been in recovery from an illness or wanting to lose weight whereas some of today’s products certainly do make for a good substitute for those who do spend a lot of their day on the hoof so to speak. 

I know there are many experts who will disagree with this, but back in my day when running so many miles and a lot of them at a relatively high intensity, for me it meant consuming lots of complex carbohydrates in my diet. Up to 60% in total whereas I kept my protein intake to about 15% with fats (mainly essential) making up the other 25%. 

Carbohydrates provide our body with glycogen and energy during exercise especially when pushing ourselves at high intensities. High levels of stored glycogen will allow for optimal training intensity whereas low levels of glycogen will lead to fatigue and below par performances. Needless to say, when it comes to diet, then the best forms of carbohydrate are those considered to be complex, providing a slow constant release of energy. 

With regards to fats and protein, fats are obtained from animal and vegetable sources and will provide the body with over twice as many calories to that of carbs and protein ie just over nine kcals per gram to just over four kcals. Whilst some people look to avoid fat in their diet, they really should also realise that not only is fat a good source of energy, but good fats are also essential for so many other bodily functions and requirements. 

When it comes to providing energy during exercise though, fat oxidation requires more oxygen than that of glycogen hence why it is so important particularly in the longer distance events to run at what is the correct pace.  

Fat and glycogen will burn efficiently together, but if you set off too quickly then the likelihood is that you will soon use up your supply of glycogen for which the body then becomes much more reliant upon its stored fat for its main energy supply and for all those (including me) who have gone off too quickly in a marathon, they will know just how tough those last few miles can be when having done so.   

Protein and protein supplements have always been popular, but much more so during the last few years. 

As a runner, I still believe that some people go overboard with protein intake and whilst it is essential for muscle growth and repair, our daily needs should be more than met when consuming approximately 1.5 to a maximum of 2gms of protein per kg of bodyweight. As a vegetarian of many years who almost follows a vegan diet, I am confident that without eating eggs, meat or fish, I still consume enough of this essential nutrient within my diet. 

Protein can also be converted into energy, but usually when glycogen levels are low which of course can then cause a delay with recovery post exercise. 

Needless to say, vitamins and minerals are also essential to keep our bodies functioning correctly, but a good balanced diet should meet all these needs. If unsure, then yes do take a good vitamin and mineral supplement, but just don’t overdo it. Remember those words of the doctor who I mentioned earlier. 

I must of course also mention the most important element and that being water. 

Our bodies are made up of between 60-70% water for which athletes really should ensure that they consume enough water throughout the day. A loss of just 2% in bodyweight through fluid loss will reduce the body’s ability to function reducing performance levels greatly.  

In a nutshell, if your urine is clear or straw like in colour, then you should be fine. If it is not, then just drink more until it is. 

During exercise, a consumption of about 150 mls (a little more in warmer temperatures) of water every 15 to 20 mins should help you stay hydrated. Drinking about 500mls two hours beforehand will also help especially when exercising for an hour or more. The main thing is not to wait until you are thirsty before you drink. 

With regards to supplements helping during exercise, an energy gel with some water or an energy/electrolyte drink can help maintain hydration and energy levels throughout. 

One thing to be aware of though is that more does not mean better. Too many gels can have an adverse effect and when it comes to energy giving drinks it is important to ensure that the concentration is correct. Somewhere between 35-50gms of powder per 500 mls should suffice. 

Post exercise too, especially after intense and longer endurance events when you may not always want to eat straight away, this is when a good recovery drink can help start the refuelling processes very quickly.   

As for meal replacements, well definitely when it comes to those people who may not always have time to prepare their meals to meet their needs. 

So, and to finish off, I do believe supplements have a place, but as the word supplement suggests, they are just that. 

However, and when it comes to trying to balance training, racing and everything else out which goes into everyday life, a diet containing highly nutritious foods in my opinion will always be the best option.   

At the end of the day, we are of course all different when it comes to what suits us best and indeed what we may believe in and whilst it is perfectly natural to keep searching for a better way, sometimes it is best to just focus on the proven basics. 

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