I get lots of questions about what supplements I take in general, but specifically what I take after workouts. I’ll preface this post by saying that in general, I do not recommend supplements to my clients. Most people do not need anything besides good old-fashioned nutrition and proper hydration.
But there are a few folks who can benefit from supplementation, like endurance athletes, power lifters, and professional athletes. And before I give you a quick glimpse into what I take, let me address the always popular protein question: no, you likely do not need to take a protein supplement. You also very likely will not benefit from taking a protein supplement the way you’re hoping you will. Most importantly, you should not replace a meal of actual food with a protein supplement! The whole protein supplementation debate deserves an entire blog post of its own, but for now just trust me that the body doesn’t process giant amounts of protein (delivered all at once) the way you want it to or the way you think.
Ok, now here’s my number 1 rule for supplementation:
Get your nutrients from real food first.
Just like you can’t “out-exercise” a bad diet, you can’t “out-supplement” a bad diet. Nutrients in food are more bioavailable (your body can get the good stuff easier) and in the most effective combinations. Food is tailor-made to fuel and repair us. Nature is cool like that! So unless you know you’re getting a solid diet loaded with nutrients (think variety, close to nature, and balanced), forget about adding anything extra. Get your basics worked out first.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are the 3 things that are staples in my post-workout routine:
- Beetroot juice
- Assessing proper hydration
I know what you’re thinking: ewww. Beetroot juice. Sounds disgusting. Well it’s not. I guess it can be, but if you find the right
source, it’s delicious. But why beetroot? There have been several studies that show the benefit of beetroot juice in muscle recovery after heavy strain (like in endurance training or heavy lifting sessions). Here’s just one study published by the NIH for reference. The authors theorize that it’s the phytonutrient content of beetroot juice in particular that cause the quicker repair of muscle damage. Whatever the exact mechanism, the bottom line is that beetroot juice has been shown in reproducible studies to not only reduce perceived muscle soreness post-strain but also lead to a quicker regain in performance.
Beetroot juice taken before training has also been shown to increase endurance (time to exhaustion) by increasing the availability of nitric oxide in the body, as well as act as a vasodilator, allowing more oxygen to flow to working muscle. The authors of this meta-analysis published by the NIH also came to the conclusion that beetroot juice supplementation may improve the efficiency of mitochondria (your body’s powerhouse cells responsible for producing usable energy), stating that chronic supplementation may be needed to achieve this effect. If you also take a caffeine supplement before or during activity, it’s important to note that the meta-analysis showed that the prolonged endurance effects of beetroot juice may be undermined by other supplements (namely caffeine) taken at the same time. I personally don’t take beetroot before my training because I do take a caffeine supplement prior to training (hop on over to my post about caffeine & endurance for more info). The prolonged endurance effects from the caffeine are virtually the same as those from beetroot juice, so I save the beetroot juice for post-run supplementation to help with recovery.
If you choose to try beetroot juice, experiment carefully with the timing (before or after training) & amount of beetroot juice, and never add anything new on race day!
I personally like humanN BeetElite™ because it mixes well and tastes great. I prefer the Black Cherry flavor and usually buy it by the canister, but they do sell individual packets which are great for race day and/or general travel. You can buy both at amazon.com.
Ok, so I made a big deal at the start of this post about not needing a protein supplement, and now I’m saying I take glutamine. Well not so fast. I stand by my statement that protein powders and protein meal replacements are generally unnecessary. But there is some solid research on the benefits of certain amino acid supplementation, specifically glutamine. Glutamine is a semi-essential amino acid, which means your body can make plenty of it under normal conditions. Sometimes when the body is stressed or ill, it can’t make enough to keep up and needs to get more from the diet.
The stress of endurance workouts leads to inflammation, which in turn leads to a drop in immune protection, which means athletes are then more likely to get an infection. This isn’t news, and is just one of those things we accept as part of the deal of endurance sport. Well, researcher now shows that it’s at least partially a drop in plasma glutamine levels after endurance exercise that causes this drop in immunity. Supplementing with glutamine post-exercise can help offset this.
There may also be a pre-exercise benefit for endurance athletes: glycogen sparing! That’s always a bonus when the goal is to run, swim, or cycle longer. Glutamine is important in our metabolic cycle (the Krebs Cycle), and some smaller studies have shown that pre-event supplementation with glutamine increased athletes’ endurance tolerance.
Glutamine comes in powders and pills. I currently use a powder made by AMRAP Nutrition, for no particular reason. It was the first one I tried. I can’t say I’m in love with it, as it is super grainy and doesn’t mix well. A good amount of it sinks to the bottom of the glass, so I end up having to refill my water over and over to get all of it. I guess it has the added benefit of extra hydration! My canister is almost empty, and I’ll likely be switching to a glutamine powder made by one of the NSF tested manufacturers. (For the record, I have no concerns about the AMRAP product I’m taking. I just don’t love the grainy texture and how difficult it is to mix, so I’ll be trying another brand.)
Right, no supplement here. But I want to talk about post-endurance hydration status because it is such a big deal and mostly overlooked. If you want some basics, check out my post on Athlete Hydration: The Basics.
I always check whether I’ve hydrated adequately during my long runs. This is a basic 3-step process:
- I weigh myself (birthday suit style, and after using the bathroom) before I head out for my run.
- I weigh myself again (birthday suit only – remove all workout gear!) right after the run.
- I figure out what % body weight I’ve lost. If it’s 0%, I did great.
For example: on Saturday morning, I went on a 12 mile run. Beforehand, I weighed myself (naked, and after using the bathroom) and was 145 pounds. I weighed myself again right after my run (naked) and before re-fueling or re-hydrating. I was 143 pounds.
The loss of 2 pounds means a loss of 1.4% of my body weight (2 divided by 145, multiplied by 100).
I could have hydrated better.
Now, anything up to about 2% of body weight loss over an endurance event is acceptable, but performance goes down significantly with every 1% lost (again, check out my post on Athlete Hydration: The Basics for more info). And anything over 5% becomes life-threatening.
My Saturday run sucked. It was tougher than it should have been, and my post-run hydration gave me a big clue as to why. I should’ve hydrated more during the run, and I should have started hydrating earlier. Fail on my part. This is why checking my hydration status is always part of my long-run “supplementation.”
If you’re looking for more info on supplements, I’d suggest checking out the book
It’s written by two dietitians who are athletes and work with athletes. It’s one of my go-to resources.