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Nutrition

Ask Stacy: Are Supplements Necessary for Endurance Athletes?

It can be hard to know which, if any, are the right supplements to take for optimal health, wellbeing, and performance.

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As athletes, we often think we need more than the general population to stay healthy—because we train, we sweat, we put our bodies under a lot of stress. But, we also eat more than the general population, and, in most cases, we are more aware of the best and healthiest foods to help fuel our training and performance. So should endurance athletes bother with supplements?

There is a consensus among the scientific community that research does not support supplement use—in fact, a large study published in early 2019 looked at the health benefits of vitamins from food versus vitamins from supplements. The results showed that vitamins A and K, magnesium, zinc, and copper from food were linked to a lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke, and an overall lower risk of dying during the following six years. But, interestingly, these findings did not hold true when the same nutrients came from supplements. The prevailing thought is that supplement forms could just have different effects than the natural form. In food, the body can regulate and limit the absorption of nutrients. In supplements, the body doesn’t have the same regulatory impact.

The caveat with supplements, however, is vitamin D3. Nowadays, we cannot get enough vitamin D3 from the foods we eat, nor from sunlight exposure (especially in the winter months). That said, even in the darkest depths of winter a minimal dose of 800-1000IU is adequate. 

To answer the question concisely: no, supplements are not needed as we tend to get what we need from our food. There is a time and a place for supplementation, particularly if you have specific deficits (e.g. iron, vitamin D3), but this should only be when clinically warranted. Save your money on supplements and eat real food—lots of real food—and often.