Should runners take vitamins?

As you run more often and cover longer distances, training can become harder and your speed is likely to stop increasing. At times like this, runners look for ways to speed up their recovery and increase their strength. There are a number of ways to do this, but an increasingly popular way is to look for supplements, so; do they work?

In the UK our medicines are regulated by The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), however, they do not cover food supplements, specifically stating that vitamins; “are generally subject to food safety and food labelling legislation rather than medicines control”. This means that food supplements are not subject to the same level of medical controls and trials as medicines so it’s particularly important that you look very carefully at this subject.

The majority of written advice given to runners falls into two categories:

    1. Take vitamins that contain anti-oxidants to reduce free-radical build up.
    2. Take supplements to help the joints.

Taking Anti-Oxidant vitamins

The sell normally goes like this: When you run, something called ‘Free-radicals’ build up in your muscles and this damages them. You need to introduce Anti-Oxidants in vitamins (the most popular aimed at runners are Vitamins C and E) which will break down the Free-radicals and aid your muscle recovery.

Are they safe?

As we already know, these are not subject to medical trials in the UK and so we need to do a little research ourselves. These supplements are big business and big business tends to be very good at concealing anything negative about the products which make them a lot of money. The best way to check vitamin safety currently appears to be this Cochrane Summery. This was a trial on almost 300,000 participants which looked at the deaths of those taking vitamins against those not doing so, or taking a placebo. They discovered that, far from helping people live longer lives, the vitamins appeared to increase the chances of death very slightly. The vitamins that seemed to be linked to increased chances of death were beta-carotene and possibly vitamin E and vitamin A.

Do they work?

Okay, so there’s no evidence that they help people on an everyday basis, but is there any evidence that they help runners to improve performance (if we ignore the chance that they may slightly increase our risk of dying).

There is some evidence to suggest that increased Anti-Oxidant levels in the body may improve recovery times. This study, concludes that: “The human studies reviewed indicate that antioxidant vitamin supplementation can be recommended to individuals performing regular heavy exercise.” However, your body will adapt over time to deal with increased Free-radicals from exercise. The same study points this out: “training results in increased activity of several major antioxidant enzymes and overall antioxidant status”.

A fascinating study performed in Taiwan looked at the psychological impact of taking vitamins. They discovered that people who were told that they were taking a healthy multi-vitamin pill (which was really a placebo) created an illusion of invulnerability. They smoked more and believed themselves to be healthier than the control group who were told that their pill was a placebo. This suggests that there’s a danger that taking a ‘health giving’ pill may reduce your efforts to train hard and eat properly and that’s what’s really important. Here’s the study in full.

So really, it’s down to you. Personally I do take vitamin C and I believe it helps my running, whether that’s because it’s doing something physiological, or simply that I’m experiencing an illusion of invulnerability, I don’t know. Perhaps in runners that illusion is a good thing, it could help them break down perceived barriers about speeds and times. I would be interested to see a study on that.

Take supplements to help the joints

I’ve included this here because it seems that there has been a growing industry built up around joint supplements recently, Holland and Barratt even have a whole section dedicated to it on their website. The most popular product aimed at runners tends to be a combined Glucosamine and Chondroitin pill so I’m going to focus on that.

Are they safe?

In a word: Yes. Both Glucosamine and Chondroitin occur naturally in the body and studies have shown that taking supplements does not cause the body to stop producing them and no other damage has been shown.

 Do they work?

The labels to many of these products, as well as the websites that they are stocked on imply that these products enhance the way that your body maintains joints. This therefore leads to healthier joints and less injuries for runners.

Most studies have found that there is no benefit of taking Glucosamine and Chondroitin at all. To my knowledge there has only been one study which showed benefits Рthis was a study on osteoarthritis sufferers which was funded by a Pharmaceutical company. The fact that the only study to find benefit from the supplement was funded by a company with a vested interest in doing so makes me question the benefits.

Considering that these are quite expensive, my advice is to stay away as they are very unlikely to help your running, despite what people who are selling them may tell you. If you do take them then there is no danger and they appear to give roughly the same benefit as a placebo (although reading this may have ruined that for you!).

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