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Pill Popping 101

WHEN you take your nutritional supplements can be just as important as which ones you take…

…there are so many of them out there, which ones do you take, and when?  So let’s break ’em down.

Multivitamins. The most commonly used supplement among both athletes and the general population, a multi typically contains the major fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and water-soluble vitamins B and C.  Multi’s that contain fat-soluble vitamins should ideally be consumed with food that contains fat, since you absorb these vitamins best when animal or vegetable fat is present in the stomach.

The B and C vitamins will often cause some mild nausea or acid sensitivity when taken on a light stomach, so they should also be consumed with a meal.  However, a heavy, greasy meal can interfere with absorption of these vitamins.  While this may seem paradoxical, since you just learned that fat-soluble vitamins should be consumed with a fat-based meal, the type of meal that would interfere with absorption of water-soluble vitamins would be something extremely greasy, like a butter soaked omelet with gravy and sausage-a meal most cyclists, runners, or triathletes aren’t consuming on a typical day (Miss Virginia, how much butter DO you really use?)

The exception is B12, it is actually absorbed best on an empty stomach.  So if you are taking an energy powder or energy drink, which usually contain high doses of B12, you’d be best served to use it in the mid-morning or afternoon on an empty stomach, or mid-training session or race.

Bottom Line: Take a multivitamin with your main meal of the day, unless that meal is directly before a workout or race, in which case you should take your multivitamin with dinner.

Fish Oil. The beneficial cardiorespiratory effects of fish oil are proven, but fish oil, or any other omega-3  fatty acid supplement, doesn’t need to be taken immediately before a workout or race for this effect.  As a matter of fact, while carbohydrates empty from the stomach within 30 minutes to two hours after consumption, protein can take 1.5 to six hours, while fat can take much longer, since only 10 grams of fat can be processed by the digestive tract each hour.  For this reason, fatty acid supplements like fish oil may actually cause gastric distress an indigestion when consumed immediately before a workout or race.  For this reason, you should take fish oil at the same time you take your multivitamin: with your primary meal of the day.

Bottom Line: Take fish oil with your main meal of the day, unless that meal is directly before a workout or race, in which case you should take your fish oil with dinner.

Iron. For many endurance athletes, especially female athletes, iron may be a necessary supplement.  It should ideally be taken on an empty stomach for the best absorption, and taken separately from other supplements that may interfere with absorption, especially calcium and vitamin E.  Some individuals experience nausea or upset stomach with iron intake, in which case a very light meal would be acceptable.

Bottom Line: Take iron in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon on an empty stomach, and include a light snack if you experience frequent upset stomachs.

Minerals. Calcium and Magnesium are the two most common and beneficial minerals for active individuals.  During exercise, energy is produced by the conversion of fatty acids and amino acids with calcium dependent enzymes, so calcium, which should always be accompanied by magnesium in an approximate ratio of 2:1, is a good supplement to take before a workout.  Since absorption of both minerals is enhanced when they are consumed with meals, your pre-workout meal is the perfect time for mineral intake.  Calcium and magnesium can also assist with sleep and muscle relaxation, so additional supplementation can be beneficial before bed or with dinner!

Bottom Line: Take minerals with the main pre-workout or pre-race meal, and take magnesium again before bed.

High-Fiber Supplements. Many triathletes use superfood blends or “greens” supplements, which contain ingredients like powdered broccoli, spirulina, kelp and inulin.  While these can be beneficial nutrient-dense energy sources, the high fiber in these supplements will significantly slow gastric emptying, and may also cause gas, bloating or bowel movements.  For this reason, their use before a workout or race will necessitate eating the pre-workout meal one to two hours earlier than usual.  Since fiber can decrease the absorption of fat, you may also benefit from taking a greens supplement at a different time of day as a fatty acid supplement.  Finally, since many of these nutrients are stored by the body, it is fine to simply use a greens supplement before bed, provided it does not contain caffeinated compounds like green tea or yerba mate extract.

Bottom Line: Take high-fiber supplements with the main pre-workout or pre-race meal, but move the meal to about three hours before competition or exercise; or, take the high-fiber supplement early in the day before an afternoon or evening workout.

Antioxidants. The antioxidant family includes compounds such as coenzyme Q10, bioflavonoids,  and phytochemicals such as quercetin and resveratrol, and vitamins C and E (although vitamins C and E are also found in multi’s, antioxidant supplements generally contain larger amounts of these vitamins).  Interestingly, several studies have observed that antioxidant intake before exercise actually decreases insulin sensitivity and eliminates activation of the body’s need for natural antioxidant activity, which helps it adapt to stress and respond to exercise, antioxidant consumption can actually blunt the workout benefit.  For this reason, antioxidant beverages and capsules should be consumed only in moderation, and not as a consistent part of the pre-workout or during-workout nutrition protocol.  Think of antioxidants as cleaning your bike chain once a month, or getting your oil changed in your car, both vital to the longevity and performance of your whole body’s systems.

Bottom Line: Take antioxidants with a pre-race meal, and only before very difficult workouts.  Otherwise, keep your antioxidant intake low to moderate, and attempt to consume them as far as possible from an excessive session.

If you have any questions about any of this, leave me a comment and I will get back to you as soon as I can.  I hope this research has helped you all as it has/will continue to more-so in my endeavors!

What did you do today to get better?


Posted by ryanlevander on March 3, 2011

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