John Davis

Written by John Davis

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Can Vitamin C Help Improve Recovery from the Marathon and Ultramarathon?

If you’re looking for the ultimate challenge in long-distance running, you’ll find it in the marathon and ultramarathon.

While most runners are familiar with the marathon distance, fewer (although the number is increasing) have heard of or run an ultramarathon before.

A term reserved for races that are further than the standard 26.2 mile marathon, “ultras” range from 50 km (31 miles) all the way up to 100 miles or more.  They are often on difficult, hilly trails, or run up and down the side of a mountain.

The challenge of the marathon and ultramarathon are mental, physical, and logistical.

Not only do you need to possess the fitness and the mental grit to complete a race that could last you the better part of a day, but you need to be able to manage your food and water intake over the course of the race, plus any issues that crop up on the way like blisters, bad shoes, and navigating the course.

The presence of these qualities in marathoners and ultramarathoners makes them particularly attractive subjects for scientific study.  Physiologists are often drawn to extreme physical specimens, so there have been a number of fascinating studies on how specifically the ultramarathon affects the human body.

As anyone who’s run an ultra can attest, the physical effects are tremendous: your muscles are sore for days, new injuries can crop up, and you’re very prone to getting sick following an ultramarathon race.

Naturally, scientists have wondered whether there’s a way to blunt the damage to your body from running such a long race.

Blood bio-markers of the stress and damaged caused racing an ultramarathon

The fatigue, soreness, and susceptibility to illness that are associated with running an ultramarathon appear to be related to levels of certain chemicals in your blood.

After finishing an ultra, your body releases a cascade of hormones and other chemicals in response to the physiological stress of the race.  This response is known as oxidative stress, as it is related to the large amount of oxygen that your body uses during exercise.

Some of the chemicals released in response to oxidative stress are known to cause inflammation and dampen the immune system.  Because of this, being able to reduce or alter these inflammatory and immune-suppressing chemicals should improve recovery after an ultramarathon.

Can vitamin C mitigate these effects?

Using some basic knowledge from biochemistry, researchers hypothesized that taking vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, could limit the damage from oxidative stress on the body.

Why vitamin C?

Vitamin C plays an important role in the healing process by building new protein for the skin, scar tissue, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. Vitamin C also helps our bodies maintain cartilage and bone tissues.

In addition to the healing properties, vitamin C offers internal protection against free radicals. Free radicals are molecules in our body that can cause significant damage and come from our external environment, such as the foods we eat, high intensity work outs (like running), and chemicals we are exposed to.

Promising studies

Early research into this idea was promising.  A 1993 study by E.M. Peters and other researchers at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa found that ultramarathoners who took 600 mg of vitamin C every day for three weeks before the Comrades Ultramarathon (a 90 km race) had significantly fewer upper respiratory infections in the two weeks following the race.

Some 68% of runners who did not take a vitamin C supplement came down with a cold following the race, while only 33% of the vitamin C group did.

Later work by the same group of researchers bolstered this finding with another study that showed a decrease in some of the chemicals associated with oxidative stress when a group of runners took 1000 mg of vitamin C for seven days before another Comrades Ultramarathon.

Is vitamin C really a miracle supplement?

Some other research has questioned this, however.

A research team from Vanderbilt University and Appalachian State University found no difference in blood markers for oxidative stress when a group of ultra runners took 1500 mg of vitamin C for seven days before the 80 km Umstead Ultramarathon in North Carolina.

Another paper by a group of scientists at Oregon State University also found only minor changes in vitamin C-supplemented ultra runners after a 50km race, and found no effect on muscle soreness and fatigue following the race.

Conclusion

At best, it seems that taking a vitamin C supplement could reduce your risk of coming down with an upper respiratory infection in the weeks following an ultramarathon.  You’ll still be quite sore and your muscles will still be quite fatigued.

If you think dodging illness post-race would be nice, you can follow the protocols laid out in the studies we’ve looked at above: take 600-1000 mg of vitamin C every day for about a week before your ultramarathon, and continue to take it on race day and for two days post-race.

Foods rich vitamin C include: citrus, berries, kiwi, peppers and broccoli.

Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin that your body does not have the ability to make, which means you need to consume it on a daily basis.

Even so, Peters et al. found that your risk of illness only drops by about half, so don’t expect the humble vitamin C tablet to ameliorate all of the effects of an ultramarathon.

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References

1. Nieman, D. C.; Dumke, C. I.; Henson, D. A.; McAnulty, S. R.; McAnulty, L. S.; Lind, R. H.; Morrow, J. D., Immune and Oxidative Changes During and Following the Western States Endurance Run. International Journal of Sports Medicine 2003, 24 (7), 541-547.
2. Peters, E. M.; Goetzche, J. M.; Grobbelaar, B.; Noakes, T. D., Vitamin C supplementation reduces the incidence of postrace symptoms of upper-respiratory-tract infection in ultramarathon runners. . American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1993, 57 (2), 170-174.
3. Peters, E. M.; Anderson, R.; Theron, A. J., Attenuation of Increase in Circulating Cortisol and Enhancement of the Acute Phase Protein Response in Vitamin C-Supplemented Ultramarathoners International Journal of Sports Medicine 2001, 22 (2), 120-126.
4. Nieman, D. C.; Henson, D. A.; McAnulty, S. R.; McAnulty, L. S.; Swick, N. S.; Utter, A. C.; Vinci, D. M.; Opiela, S. J.; Morrow, J. D., Influence of vitamin C supplementation on oxidative and immune changes after an ultramarathon. Journal of Applied Physiology 2001, 92 (5), 1970-1977.
5. Mastaloudis, A.; Traber, M. G.; Carstensen, K.; Widrick, J., Antioxidants did not prevent muscle damage in response to an ultramarathon run. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2006, 38 (1), 72-80.

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