Are sports supplements necessary?

By Jen Rawson, RD

Running seems like such a simple sport, all you need is a pair of running shoes and you can go. But upon visiting your local sports store to get your running shoes, you may have noticed an entire section dedicated to sports nutrition and supplements. Between the powders, gels, drinks, and gummies you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed and wondering about the effectiveness of these products or what impact they will have on your own running performance. So let’s break down the categories and determine who they are necessary for.

Gels/Sport Beans/Gummies 

Carbohydrates are our muscles preferred fuel source during exercise. Our body can store carbohydrates in a form called glycogen but this supply is limited and lasts only for about 90 minutes of moderate physical activity. For that reason, once a person is running longer than 90 minutes, they need to supplement with carbohydrates in order to maximize their functioning and performance.

It is recommended to consume 30-60g carbohydrate per hour when running will exceed 90 minutes. Gels, sport beans, and gummies contain quick digesting sources of carbohydrates in a convenient package and are therefore favoured by a lot of runners. However, real food can also be used for the same purpose. Dates, raisins, boiled potatoes, and fig cookies are often well tolerated and convenient options for runners.


Electrolytes

During exercise, electrolytes and water are lost via sweat. Taking electrolytes with water can speed up the process of rehydration post workout and ensure adequate hydration during a workout.

The need for electrolyte replacement depends upon sweat rates, which vary individually and are increased during longer interval activities and high temperatures.  Precise sweat rates can be calculated by weighing pre and post activity and converting weight loss into sweat losses. However, this process is rarely needed for the recreational runner. Instead, a person can determine if they need electrolyte replacement if they fit into at least one of the following categories:

  1. Salty sweater (look for white salt streaks on body or clothes post run)
  2. Long duration running (greater than 90 minutes)
  3. High temperature running
  4. Experiencing symptoms of electrolyte deficiency such as cramps or dizziness

Once you’ve established whether or not you require electrolytes, there are two types to choose from, sugar-containing (Gatorade & Powerade) and non-sugar containing (salt tablets & NUUN). Sugar-containing supplements are best used during endurance running as they provide electrolyte replacement and the carbohydrate fuel required. Non-sugar electrolytes are best for post-run rehydration as a runner can replace carbohydrates via food rather than taking in unnecessary sugar. Non-sugar based electrolytes are also good for endurance runners who require electrolyte replacement during the run but prefer other carbohydrate sources for fuel such as gels, gummies, or real food.

A key thing to consider with electrolytes is that they are also found in our food sources. Sodium (IE salt) is found in many foods and often added in cooking preparation. Potassium is readily found in vegetables and fruits. Therefore eating a post-workout snack and drinking water can be just as effective for rehydration as using supplements if sweat rates are not excessive.

Snack and Protein Bars

There is often a huge selection of snack and protein bars found at running stores. The use of these bars primarily comes down to convenience. They do not contain anything that cannot be found in our food sources. However, these bars usually have a balance of carbohydrate and protein making them a convenient and portable option for a snack post run.

While most of these bars are not recommended during runs because of their high fat and protein content, which slows digestion, they are great for other activities such as hiking.

Protein Powder

 There are multitudes of protein powders lining the shelves making the choices feel overwhelming. Runners do have increased protein needs. The protein recommendation for the general population is 0.8 g/kg (grams of protein per kilogram of body weight). Runners may require from 1.1g/kg up to 2g/kg, depending on the frequency and intensity of running.

It is always best to consume food first before choosing any supplements because food provides other benefits beyond a single nutrient. High-quality protein sources include meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. However, because size is a factor in protein requirements, people with larger bodies may find it challenging to meet their protein requirements from food alone and therefore protein powders might be a good option to ensure adequate intake. Once again, protein powders provide a convenient and portable option when a snack or meal is not available.

Bottom Line

When it comes down to it, the necessity of sports supplements varies based on the person and level of activity. Most recreational runners would be better off putting their money towards food rather than expensive supplements. However, if the added convenience or supplements ensure dietary adequacy, that is most important of all.

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