Top 5 Non-Supplements for Runners

When looking for innovative ways to improve sports performance, reduce muscle damage, and improve recovery time, a lot of folks think the first place they should turn to is the supplement store. Actual food is old news, the best way to become a better athlete is with the latest cutting-edge supplements, isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Today, the landscape of the supplement industry is chaotic. It’s awash with products and marketing claims that give a distorted picture of the science. Here’s a great example: For years and years, American athletes were told that sipping branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) would boost protein synthesis and muscle mass gain. (BCAAs refer to the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and are often advertised in whey protein supplements.)

The problem? It’s probably a placebo effect. Several studies published in 2017 showed that these fancy protein powders — which, by the way, are usually made from duck feathers — are significantly less effective at spurring muscle growth than simply eating a healthy diet[*][*][*].

If you’re eating food, and enough protein from any source, you don’t need them.

The same can be said for many other post-workout or pre-workout supplements: Usually, natural foods are all your body needs for optimal performance. Don’t get us wrong, some of those lab-created compounds can have merit, but the following supplements are made from natural, whole foods and can have a profound effect on your athletic performance, particularly with regards to endurance.

Here’s how you can take your performance to the next level.

Cordyceps for Energy Production

Top 5 Non-Supplements for Runners

The cordyceps mushroom has a pretty crazy origin story: It's an endoparasitoid, meaning that it grows as a parasite — typically on insects. There are hundreds of species of cordyceps all over the world, but most of them can be found in Asia, where they’ve been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years.

“It does seem to have positive effects on steroid hormone synthesis and antioxidant capacity, at least in animal studies,” says Trevor Kashey, a nutrition consultant who holds a PhD in biochemistry. That means it can have a beneficial effect on your testosterone levels. “For men and women if testosterone goes up, their concentration tends to go up, and so does overall vitality, work efficiency, and attention span.”

Multiple animal studies support the idea that cordyceps may help increase the amount of time it takes to reach fatigue during exercise[*][*].

“It may increase your lactate threshold, which is basically the amount of energy you can put into exercise before you swap to anaerobic metabolism,” says Kashey. “Basically, you can have higher intensity low intensity work, meaning you might be able to push harder during long runs without having negative effects on your endurance or muscle soreness.”

Most human evidence is anecdotal, but extremely promising. Regularly taking 1 to 3 grams of cordyceps pre- or post-exercise seems to be the most effective way of supplementing.

Beet Root Juice for Oxygen

Beets contain more sugar than most vegetables, but they also contain a lot more nitrate as well. Nitrate is an ion that's present in a variety of fruits and vegetables (particularly greens), but it’s highly concentrated in beet root juice.

“Nitrate can get converted to nitric oxide, and that nitric oxide changes your smooth muscle function,” says Kashey. “That means it changes your vascular system and can alter your blood pressure in a positive way.”

But the kicker is that these nitrates increase the efficiency of your mitochondria — the “powerhouses” of your cells — so that you don’t waste as much oxygen during long-distance runs. Or in Kashey’s words, “You get more out of the oxygen you breathe in.”

Rhodiola to Reduce Fatigue

Top Non-Supplements for Runners

Sometimes called Arctic root or golden root, rhodiola has been traditionally used in both Scandinavian and Chinese medicine as an adaptogen. That means that it can help the body to adapt to stressful situations, and it’s worth emphasizing that exercise counts as stress.

“Exercise and stress are one and the same to me,” says Kashey. “Rhodiola decreases your perceived stress in either situation, so if you have a stressful meeting it helps you endure that and not feel the effects, and the same goes for a long run: you may have fewer mental blocks and be able to push yourself harder.”

It’s often considered as a supplement for reducing fatigue, but it’s referring to a specific type of fatigue that you feel when you’re stressed — whether that’s from a punishing workout or from making too many high-pressure decisions at the office[*].

Ginseng for Energy and Immune Support

The word “ginseng” might bring to mind brightly colored, highly caffeinated energy drinks — many of them tend to throw ginseng in and imply it’s a stimulant.

Ginseng does have some links with energy production, but the real magic happens when you look at ginseng’s potential as an immune booster.

“In terms of sports performance, immune supports are extremely underrated,” says Kashey. “When you’re sick for a week, you can’t do shit. It’s an indirect benefit, but it’s absolutely worth bringing up.”

It appears that it helps to stimulate T-cells, which are very important for immune function[*]. It also seems to help reduce the physical effects of stress, which also helps your immune system — you may be aware that it’s much easier to fall ill when you’re stressed out[*].

“There are active ingredients in ginseng that inhibit enzymes that synthesize stress hormones,” Kashey explains. “Plus it also has a positive effect on glucose metabolism, which probably has an impact on mood.”

Ashwagandha

The ashwagandha root has a long history of being used in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional system of healing with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent.

“There are adaptogen-like qualities associated with it, and it decreases cortisol and increases your pulse,” says Kashey.

This can be a good thing for folks looking for an increase in performance, since an increase in pulse rate can mean better force of contraction in cardiac muscles.

“It also alters oxygen consumption, which may have a positive effect on performance — in this case, aerobic exercise,” Kashey continues. “You’ll be hard pressed to find any supplement that improves strength because that’s almost all nervous system stuff. But it does have an effect on cardiovascular endurance.”

In a 2012 study, an eight-week course of supplementing ashwagandha in cyclists found that 500 milligrams of the stuff per day resulted in a significant increase aerobic capacity and total time for the athlete to reach exhaustion[*]. There’s even some evidence that it may improve focus and reduce stress[*]. Kashey cautions that it’s best to read this as an ability to bring you back to baseline if you’re so stressed you’re having trouble focusing, as opposed to “supercharging” your focus.

Out With the Unnatural

Supplements for Runners

While it’s tempting to think that the secret to human performance can be found in a lab, some of the best supplements to support endurance athletes have already been formulated by Mother Nature herself.

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