As endurance athletes we tend to be very aware of what we put into our bodies. To keep up with the taxing rides, workouts and competitions, the body demands very specific fuel. Hang around a group of elite athletes long enough and you’ll see all sorts of dietary habits. However, nutrition from food alone often isn’t enough and so many use vitamin and mineral supplements to keep performance and recovery at their peak.
But which supplements should you take? A stroll into any given supplement store can be highly overwhelming with one brightly coloured jar after another yelling “I’m the magical pill you’re looking for.” We reached out to registered dietitian and pro cyclist Breanne Nalder to learn more about what the pros are taking and which supplements she’d recommend for everyday athletes like ourselves.
“A well-fueled body will undoubtedly perform better. But, going overboard with some nutrients can be as detrimental as skimping on them,” Nalder said. “Supplements are meant to be used if we have a deficiency of a given nutrient or we can’t get it through food alone. They are great as long as we use them realistically for our body’s needs.”
To understand exactly what your body needs, Nalder advised you consult a dietitian or physician first, but she was willing to recommend a few supplements athletes should consider taking in order to keep bones healthy, hormone levels regulated and allow the body to properly recover from training and racing.
Inside a pro’s medicine cabinet
“I’m pretty sure all of us [professional athletes] use electrolyte mixes during exercise and some sort of protein supplement to aid recovery. Those are the most common and, in my opinion, mandatory products to take because we sweat a lot and have to repair muscles in order to perform again the next day,” said Nalder.
Nalder herself has a strict daily supplement regimen that consist of:
– MultiV and Optygen. “I use these specifically because they have a good chelated iron and perfect doses of other essential nutrients for athletes, as well as beta alanine which aids in oxygen utilization (which helps increase Vo2, improve endurance and increase lactate utilization).”
– Beets “Before workouts or races, I always use my beet supplement to increase nitric oxide production, which aids in vasodilation (so blood delivers oxygen to muscles more efficiently).”
– Electrolytes “During training and racing I use Maxim electolytes with my hydration strategy to get calories, sodium, potassium, magnexium, and chloride. The longer or harder the ride, the more of those products you need. Post workout it is essential to get a recovery mix in to replenish depleted nutrients, carbs, electorlytes, water, and a little protein (choose a product that has all 22 amino acids including BCAAs, but we only need 15-20g total protein. Carbs and hydration are more important) to get the muscles repair started within 30 minutes of finishing the effort.”
– Calcium, Magnesium and Vitamin D
“I am a plant-based athlete so it is important to me to eat all of my nutrients from food and supplement the things I don’t get enough of from food, which for me includes Calcium, Iron and Vitamin D.”
Calcium: “Female athletes especially should make sure they get 1,200 to 1,500 mg of calcium daily from food or supplements. If you don’t eat dairy, you likely need to supplement. Try to take the Citrate form. This is often times in a Cal-Mag-D combination, and that is great as long as they are Calcium Citrate.” Naturally found in: dairy products, beans, fortified cereals, dark leafy greens and broccoli.
Magnesium: “This mineral is a powerhouse for all levels of cyclists, from weekend warriors to pro endurance athletes alike. Magnesium is a component of more than 300 enzymes involved in energy metabolism, plus it plays a role in bone formation. You lose magnesium through sweat, so munch on some good sources of it before and after a hard workout. The recommended intake for endurance athletes is 500 to 800 mg daily.” Naturally found in:Dark leafy greens, almonds, halibut, and quinoa.
Vitamin D: “Soaking up some sun doesn’t just boost your mood – it can pump up your power, too. Why? Sunlight helps your body make Vitamin D. Without enough Vitamin D, the mitochondria in muscle fibers can’t adequately regenerate energy after your muscles contract, making you feel tired more quickly. It also helps the body absorb Calcium and has many other uses, so get your sunshine! Naturally found in: Milk, salmon, trout, egg yolks.
Supplements to avoid:
Nalder reiterated that vitamins and minerals are best obtained through eating a balanced diet. Even those with dietary restrictions, get plenty of nutrients.
“Even if you don’t eat dairy, our almond milk is fortified with calcium. If you don’t eat meat, cereals are fortified with B vitamins, etc,” explained Nalder. “But there are a few supplements that are marketed as important that we definitely don’t need to waste any money on: Creatine and Vitamin C are two that come to mind.”
“Creatine is an old school method used to bulk muscle, but really it just adds water weight. Vitamin C is in almost every food, so there really is no need to take a specific supplement if you eat fruits and veggies,” she said.
A note about supplements and professional competition:
“Make sure that anything you put into your body that is not pure food doesn’t have any ingredients that you don’t know,” warned Nalder. “If it does, it’s really easy to check the various anti-doping agencies’ websites to make sure that anything you take or are thinking of taking is safe.”
Eat in colour!
“I want to be sure to emphasize that we should get as much nutrition from food as we can. And by definition, supplements are meant to make up for what we lack in our diet or cannot get enough of from food alone. So choosing supplements is influenced by individual needs, diet choices, food tolerances etc,” said Nalder.
“The wear and tear of cycling on our bodies definitely necessitates increased intake of calories, but the focus here is on micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. Choosing nutrient dense foods can help us perform better, feel stronger, and lend to our long-term health. The simplest tip I can give is to eat in colour. If your plate is full of a variety of colours, you are more likely to be getting all of your necessary nutrients.”
Breanne Nalder, MS, RDN has a Master’s degree in nutrition with an emphasis in sports dietetics at the University of Utah. She is a Registered Dietitian, the nutrition coach at PLAN7 Endurance Coaching, and races for Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling team.