Maybe it's not this difficult for some people, but for me, choosing a supplement is more complicated than trying to understand the mechanic as he explains what's wrong with my car.
I have the overwhelming urge to ask him if I should attend a class on auto mechanics before we continue this conversation. Likewise, I feel a couple classes on chemistry and physiology might be necessary for my survival in the supplement jungle.
The sad part about supplements is that there aren't a lot of people selling them who know what's in those expensive bottles, and an even smaller number who can help you customize your supplements to your training needs.
Example: I finished running eight miles on the treadmill at the gym a couple months ago. I stumbled to the front counter and asked one of the alleged trainers which of the many shiny bottles with impressive claims would help me recover if any.
Long pause where only my panting can be heard.
"Well, a lot of runners like this one," the trainer says pulling out something with "Chocolate!" on the front of it.
"Have you tried it?" I asked. "Does it taste OK?"
Another pause. (Notice the lack of scientific specificity in my questions.)
"No," she said. "I usually just drink Gatorade."
"OK," I said desperately. "I'll try it."
"That's $3.11," she says as she pushes buttons on the cash register.
For that price, I think to myself, this better turn me in to the bionic woman. But alas, not only doesn't it do much for me physically. It tastes like a melted chocolate milkshake. I have a seriously upset stomach the rest of the day and consider whether I even need any kind of supplement.
When I consult with my trainer, Neil Anderson, he was unequivocal when it comes to whether or not endurance runners can get by without a daily supplement.
"No," he said. "Not serious ones."
The reason, he said is simple. Runners expend a lot of energy and do a lot of damage to their muscles running seemingly insane amounts of mileage each week.
"Runners actually need more protein than body builders," Anderson told me. "You need a lot of nitrates, which are found in protein."
But runners also need carbohydrates, and if possible, some kind of energy drink with electrolytes in it.
Neil explained substances like potassium bicarbonate and sodium bicarbonate will help your muscles expel lactic acid and recover faster. I looked up several articles on potassium and found it's the main base ion of the fluid in cells. Potassium and sodium help the nerve and muscles function efficiently.
I had been getting headaches after some of my runs, and I took to drinking extra Emergen-C. It helped, although, I had no idea why until I talked to Neil.
"Vitamin C helps your body repair tissue," he said. "Also, when you damage yourself (like you do with running), you damage your immune system to some degree. Vitamin C ensures its recovery as well."
The most difficult aspect of supplement shopping is trying to marry what's palatable with what will serve your specific training needs. With some general idea of what I needed, I headed to Diet and Sport Nutrition in South Jordan. Owner Ken Hollen helped me out with supplements when I ran my first marathon, and one thing I liked was that he let me try anything and everything in the store, and he had a lot of different carb and protein combinations.
He's also extremely knowledgable about what different products offer and helped me tailor my supplements to my needs.
Once I settled on a whey protein and carbohydrate recovery powder, which also contained potassium, magnesium, sodium, vitamins A and C and a bit of calcium, I had to figure out the best way to take it.
Neil told me to take the carbohydrate supplement about 30 minutes before my workout, but not to eat within 90 to 120 minutes of the workout.
"If you eat food before your workout, your body dumps insulin into your system," he said. "If you have a bunch of insulin in your system, it's taking the sugar you need during that work out. That's really going to hurt you during your workout."
Also, digestion takes a lot of energy, but if you ask your body to both digest and run, it will take the blood supply from your stomach and send it to your limbs during the run.
"That means that food is just fermenting in your stomach," he said. It takes no imagination to imagine the problems that causes a person.
In short, he said, "It's best to go into most of your workouts fasting."
Now, if you take runner's goo or eat a banana within five minutes of a workout, that will actually help you as the sugars go directly to the blood because the body doesn't have time to dump the insulin, and exercise inhibits the production of insulin during a workout.
Still, you need protein and carbohydrates to recover, so in the end, I decided to take the carbohydrate drink about 30 minutes before working out and the protein mixed with some of the carbohydrate drink immediately after my workout.
In short, I have never felt better. I feel awesome during my runs, and I feel like I have energy hours after working out, even on those long-run or circuit-weight days.
"Remember what the word supplement means," Neil said. "It's to supplement your regular dietary intake. It's to supplement deficiencies in your diet."
It's generally best to eat whole foods, but supplements help your body recover and give you stamina during a workout when you either don't have time to prepare whole foods or need more than you're getting in your regular diet.NEXT UP: Need training help? Avoid the pitfalls and dangers of the wrong kind of personal training.