Published on December 9, 2011
With all the buzz about nutritional supplements and sports performance aids, one neglected topic is when you should actually take these supplements.
When should you swallow fish oil? Before breakfast? After a workout?
What about antioxidants? Do they actually hurt you during exercise, or are they helpful?
Are there some supplements you should avoid with others, like a high fiber supplement and a multi-vitamin?
This post will answer all those questions and more, addressing popular supplements in no particular order of importance.
The most commonly used supplement among both athletes and the general population, a multi-vitamin compound typically contains the major fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and water soluble vitamins B and C. Compounds 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 this a paradox, 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 a butter soaked omelette served with gravy and sausage – a meal most triathletes aren’t consuming on a typical day.
One exception, vitamin B12, is actually best absorbed 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 by using it in the mid-morning or afternoon on an empty stomach, or mid-training session.
Take-Away Message: Take a multi-vitamin with your main meal of the day, unless that meal is directly prior to a workout or race, in which case you should take your multivitamin with dinner. If you're going to take a multi-vitamin at all, I recommend a liquid version.
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 prior to a workout or race for this effect. As a matter of fact, while carbohydrates empty from the stomach 30 minutes to 2 hours after consumption, protein can take 1.5 to 6 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 and indigestion when consumed immediately prior to a big workout. For this reason, you should take a fish oil at the same time you take your multivitamin, with your primary meal of the day. If you don't take a multivitamin, then take your fish oil with Vitamin D.
Take-Away Message: Take fish oil with your main meal of the day, unless that meal is directly prior to a workout or race, in which case you should take your fish oil with dinner.
For many active individuals, and especially female exercisers, 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.
Take-Away Message: Take iron in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon on an empty stomach, and include a light snack if you experience stomach upset.
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, and magnesium should always accompany calcium in an approximate ratio of 1:2 prior to a workout. Since absorption of both minerals is enhanced by consuming with meals, your pre-workout meal is the perfect time for mineral intake.
Both calcium and magnesium can also assist with sleep and muscle relaxation, so prior to bed or with dinner, additional magnesium supplementation can be beneficial (I take Natural Calm before bed, and use topical magnesium before workouts).
Take-Away Message: Take minerals with the main pre-workout or pre-race meal, and take magnesium again before bed.
Many health conscious people utilize superfood blends or “greens” supplements, (like Enerprime, CapraGreens or SuperGreens, which you can find here)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 prior to a workout or race will necessitate eating the pre-workout meal 1-2 hours earlier than usual, or taking much earlier in the day.
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 green supplement before bed, provided it does not contain caffeinated compounds like green tea or yerba mate extract.
Take-Away Message: Take high-fiber containing supplements with the main pre-workout or pre-race meal, but move meal 3-4 hours prior to competition or exercise or take the high-fiber supplement early in the day prior to an afternoon or evening workout.
Proteolytic enzymes like bromelain, papain, trypsin and chymotrypsin are found in many recovery capsules and pills, such as Recoverease or Capraflex, and for recovery and anti-inflammation will work best on an empty stomach. If taken with a meal, these supplements simply serve as digestive enzymes, but will not significantly enhance muscle recovery.
Take-Away Message: Take proteolytic enzymes on an empty stomach in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, preferably after the day’s workout has already taken place.
Probiotics (like Caprobiotics) include elements such as acidophilus and lactobacillus, and are important for a healthy digestive system and useful for treating Candida (a big problem in high-calore consuming active individuals) and for replenishing the intestinal flora, especially after taking prescription antibiotics. They should be taken on an empty stomach.
Take-Away Message: Take probiotics at night, prior to bed, 2-3 hours after final meal of the day.
The antioxidant family includes compounds such as coenzyme Q10, bioflavonoids and phytochemicals, quercetin, resveratrol, and Vitamin C and E (although the levels of Vitamin C and E in a typical multi-vitamin is relatively low compared to an antioxidant supplement). Interestingly, several studies have observed that antioxidant intake prior to exercise actually decreases insulin sensitivity and eliminates activation of the body’s natural defense mechanism against oxidative damage.
By shutting down the body’s need to for natural antioxidant activity that helps adapt to stress and respond to exercise, antioxidant consumption in high doses of a single isolated antioxidant (like Vitamin C or Vitamin E) could potentially blunt the workout benefit.
For this reason, antioxidant beverages and capsules should be A) full spectrum (like LivingFuel SuperBerry) and B) consumed only in moderation, and not as a consistent part of the pre-workout or during workout nutrition protocol.
Take-Away Message: Take antioxidants with a pre-race meal, and only before very difficult workouts. Otherwise, limit antioxidant to low to moderate intake only, and attempt to consume as far as possible from an exercise session.
If you’re confused about when to take what, simply use the table below to help you navigate through the timing of your daily supplement intake, and remember you’ll get benefits no matter what, but ideal benefit from following these rules!
And finally, what about those “shotgun” supplements that give you every possible vitamin, mineral and nutrient in one convenient capsule or powder? Be careful. While convenient, these all-in-one products can inhibit you from receiving full benefits from your supplementation.
Below, you can leave your comments, questions or feedback about when to take supplements!
P.S. Since there wasn't a podcast this Wednesday, I didn't have a chance to mention it, but on Thursday, December 15th, at 6pm I'm teaching a USA Triathlon webinar, in which you'll learn how to transition like a pro triathlete, even if you’re just getting started! You’ll learn tips and tricks to shave seconds and even minutes off your swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transition times. You’ll also have ample opportunity to ask your questions about faster transitions. Here's the link to register for “Lightning Fast Transition Secrets”.