When training or racing, getting the most beneficial nutrition out of every meal is essential for top performance, healthy recovery, and overall energy.
And there are a lot of choices out there for superfoods to keep you running. Perhaps one of the best to try and make part of your regular consumption is spirulina, also known as blue-green algae. Sure, it’s a cousin to pond scum and the stuff that mucks up your aquarium, but this is a serious protein-packed food that can power your runs and aid in recovery.
There are several products you can get algae from: powder to blend into smoothies; small tablets to be eaten on the go; or a larger pill form taken as a dietary supplement.
So what exactly is spirulina?
Spirulina is a single-celled, microscopic blue-green algae that grows wild in temperate zones all over the world. It can be grown commercially, harvested, and dried, where it is finished either as a powder or hardened tablet.
What I like about spirulina as a supplement for running and general health is the product, no matter how you buy it, is one natural ingredient. Think of it more as food than a supplement.
Spirulina is nearly 70 percent protein, and it is loaded with B-vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron, and antioxidants – there’s a lot packed into this and it’s easily digestible. Spirulina also has detox qualities.
According to WebMD, there are possible mental benefits of taking spirulina, too, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression and improving mental acuity. Furthermore, an early study on sprinters showed taking spirulina may improve endurance. However, since spirulina can increase the activity of your immune system, it may counter some medications for illness so consult your doctor before taking the supplement – especially if you are on any medications.
So does spirulina help with running?
It could, according to several studies. A Taiwanese research group found that three weeks of giving athletes spirulina daily increased their stamina and possibly protected their muscles from damage. In addition, performance measurements and blood samples in a group of athletes in this study from Greece by the Institute of Human Performance and Rehabilitation in 2010 showed that athletes given spirulina daily for four weeks had marked improvements in performance and in other areas.
And then there’s my personal observation. I have been eating spirulina as a supplement for my running nutrition for two years. The product I use is Energybits, which are hard 0.25 gram capsules that are swallowed with water – you can chew them up but I do not recommend it, they taste bitter.
I started taking Energybits because I found traditional fueling gels used exclusively before long runs would lead to stomach pain following my runs. I also did not like the way that gels spiked my energy level and then crashed when the sugar had been burned off after the first 30 minutes of hard running. I take 30-40 Energybits 20 minutes before the start of my run or race (especially half marathons). While you do feel more alert and strong you don’t feel the buzz associated with a caffeinated or high sugar energy gel. For me, I feel the most benefits of spirulina about 4 or 5 miles into my run – I still feel strong and do not tire. It’s not so much getting a second wind in a race. Instead, I find using the Energybits keeps me on an even keel of energy. I still supplement my longest runs and races with an organic honey product midway through though many athletes who use Energybits will fuel with the bits during a race. Experiment and see what works for you.
Nutrex also makes spirulina tablets, which are larger than the bits. They cost less but are less portable because the tabs are bigger. That said, they should not be any more difficult to take or use. Shop around and you’ll find different price points for spirulina in various forms and dosing sizes. The only word of caution would be to trust the source of your spirulina to protect against contamination of harmful bacteria. Like anything you put in your body, go with something from a company that has a proven track record. And remember: always consult your doctor before taking any supplement.
Have you tried spirulina? Did you feel its affects? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Rob Haneisen.