The Ultimate Supplement Guide for Track and Field

My name is Joseph Maxwell and I’m an All-American shot putter for the University of Tennessee.

I’m going to share with you a small snippet of my road to the elite levels of athletics and based on personal experience, my ultimate supplement guide for track and field athletes.

My Road to NCAA Competition

I come from a rural place in Northern Ontario, Canada called Manitoulin Island. From a young age, I also showed an aptitude for sports. Although I played almost everything as a kid, track and field was easily my favorite.

Inspired by an elementary school coach, I became determined to earn myself a scholarship at a top NCAA university. By high school, I realized that I’d have to specialize in a particular event and showing the most natural ability for it, I began to focus my training efforts on the shot put throw.

Without a proper shot put circle or a weight room within 90 miles of my parent’s home, I invested all my savings in some weight-lifting equipment which I set up in the basement. My Dad helped me build a regulation size, concrete shot put circle on our 92-acre property.

Practicing on our homemade shot put circle in Northern Ontario

With unwavering enthusiasm and above-average parental support, I trained hard, traveled around Canada for competition and began to see success. I won several Canadian championships and garnered the attention of NCAA coaches. After several official visits around the US and a lengthy decision process, I signed with the University of Tennessee on scholarship during my senior year of high school. 

After a very difficult and unsuccessful freshman year at Tennessee, I knew I had to make a change. The talent and work ethic that had separated me from my rivals in high school wasn’t working anymore. If I wanted things to get better, I needed a “secret weapon” that would give me an advantage over my competitors.

After speaking with several Olympians and nutritionists, I decided that my “secret weapon” would be a strict supplement routine. The program I developed began to pay dividends almost immediately. By my sophomore year, I had essentially turned my career around.

To date, I’m proud to be an All-American, 3x SEC medalist and among the top 50 in the world. I attribute this success in large part to my supplement routine.

Unique Challenges Facing Track and Field Athletes

As track and field athletes, we are a unique group of people. Our sport presents us with physical challenges on a daily basis. Supplements are one way to overcome these challenges.

With only three and a half months from when official training starts in September to our first indoor competition in December, track demands a quick turnaround time. As an athlete, it’s essential to make the most of these three months of training. This means ensuring strong overall health, high energy levels, quality sleep, and optimal recovery.

In my estimation, track and field is the most diverse sport on the planet. An event like shot put demands elite strength, technique, and explosive power while a long-distance race requires unwavering endurance and mental toughness. Because of this wide range, supplement routines should be customized to an athlete’s event and its unique demands.

I don’t think there are any “bad” supplements, but certain ones benefit some track events more than others. With that mind, I’ll be dividing this guide into three sections:

  • Supplements for all events
  • Supplements for power events (throws, sprints, jumps)
  • Supplements for distance events distance events (800m and up). 

Four Supplements for all Track and Field Events

As I mentioned before, quality recovery, health, sleep, and energy are essential for all track and field athletes regardless of their event. The following supplements have been a part of my routine for over four years now and have been invaluable to my development.

#1: Multivitamin for Overall Health

Athlete or not, a multivitamin should be the basis of any supplement routine. Even with a healthy, complete diet, it’s difficult to get all the vitamins and nutrients our bodies require from food alone.

Before I started taking multivitamins, I struggled with chronic fatigue and a weak immune system. During my freshman year of college, I was constantly exhausted and sick. I caught pneumonia two times during my first semester!

As an athlete, sickness is particularly debilitating with the damage it causes to your body and the training you’re forced to miss. With the time constraints of a track season in particular, it’s essential you avoid getting sick at all costs. Personally, it wasn’t until I started taking a multivitamin that my frequent illnesses decreased.

With essential nutrients like vitamins C and zinc, multivitamins have been shown to contribute towards a healthy immune system. I haven’t been sick in over two years, and I attribute part of this to the multivitamin I take.

#2: Melatonin for Sleep

One of my coaches at Tennessee once told me: “you are what you sleep.” This simple but meaningful phrase has stuck with me and I’ve found it to be true in my life. The truth is, good sleep is the basis for everything we do as athletes.

I’ve noticed that when my sleep is good, everything else falls into place: I’m productive on the track and attentive in the classroom. The problem I face however, is a chronic difficulty sleeping. I’ve always struggled to fall and stay asleep.

To combat this lifelong issue, I’ve added melatonin into my supplement routine. I take it 20-30 minutes before bedtime and it’s made a world of difference. I have a much easier time falling asleep, and the sleep I get is deeper and more restful than it has been in the past. If sleeping isn’t an issue for you personally, you probably don’t need melatonin. If you have trouble sleeping like me though, it’s an excellent, drug-free sleep aid.

#3: Omega-3s for Injury Management

I’ve suffered a number of injuries over the course of my career, and they represent some of the darkest, most difficult moments of my life. It’s tough when something seemingly out of your control takes away the sport that you love.

Over the past 8 years, I’ve dealt with elbow, knee, and shoulder tendinitis along with chronic lower back problems. I’ve gotten better at managing these issues recently, and a key part of that management has been my supplements: particularly omega-3s (like fish oil).

The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 supplements can reduce the symptoms of overuse injuries which are common in track and field. While they won’t fix your problem overnight, taking omega-3s long term can lead to better joint health and reduced pain. In addition to these benefits, they play an important role in heart, brain, and eye health.

#4: Protein Powder for Muscle Recovery and Growth

By far the biggest issue I faced as a college freshman was a lack of size and strength. The shot put is an event that demands enormous bodyweight and power. My 205-pound freshman frame wasn’t nearly big or strong enough to handle the 16-pound college shot put (the high school weight is lighter).

The moment I added whey protein shakes into my routine, my recovery improved and I started to put on muscle. By my junior year, I had added 60 pounds of lean mass.

Now, I understand not everyone needs to put on 60 pounds. In fact, doing so would be detrimental to a sprinter, jumper, or distance runner. Even if adding size isn’t a goal of yours, protein powder is a great way to boost your muscle recovery – an essential process for every track and field athlete. I’ve had good luck with whey protein powder myself, but there are a number of effective plant-based options as well. 

Two Supplements for Power Events

I want to preface this section by clarifying that I’m not saying distance runners shouldn’t take these supplements. What I’m saying is that the benefits of these things are more suited to power athletes. However, that’s not to say that an endurance athlete wouldn’t benefit from them too.

As I’ve stated before, track and field is a diverse sport and nutrition should vary depending on the event. Power athletes like myself need quick bursts of explosive energy, and these are the best supplements to help with that.

#1: Creatine for Explosiveness

The sprints, jumps, and throws are events that require incredible explosive power. A sprinter has just 40 steps to run a 100m race in 10 seconds. That demands an enormous production of force in a short period of time. A shot putter has just a few feet of space to accelerate a heavy ball to speeds over 30 MPH.

Creatine is by far the best supplement to help with these demands. It’s a naturally occurring substance in the body, but when additional doses are taken it’s been shown to help muscles produce energy faster. It’s certainly done this for me and I’ve also found it speeds up my body’s recovery process significantly.

I usually get my creatine in unflavored powder form and mix it with my after-workout protein shake. 

#2: Pre-Workout for Quick Energy

One of the keys to success as a track and field athlete is the ability to maintain high energy levels consistently through practice and competition. I’ve had days where this is easy, but others where all I want to do is lie down and take a nap.

A caffeine-based pre-workout has proven be an excellent remedy for me on those drowsy days. It can provide that extra boost of energy when you really need it – just make sure not to overdo it. Taking caffeine supplements regularly can form dependencies which leaves you needing higher and higher doses just to get to normal.

I personally save pre-workout for competitions and exceptionally difficult workouts only. I like the brands that include amino acids in their formula, as these have been shown to boost recovery. 

Two Supplements for Distance Events

While I don’t have much personal experience in this area, several of my close friends are elite-level distance runners. I’ve learned enough from them to speak with confidence on what supplements the top distance athletes rely on. The keys to success in distance running are optimal oxygen uptake and long-term muscle endurance.

#1: Beetroot Exract for Oxygen Uptake

In any endurance sport, and in particular distance running, oxygen is an athlete’s limiting factor. When muscles are put under strain for long periods of time, they require oxygen at rates faster than the lungs can provide.

As muscles become starved for oxygen, lactic acid kicks in. That’s why you’ll see many athletes run out of gas on the final few laps. According to a study by the NIH, the nitrate contained in beetroot actually reduces your body’s oxygen uptake which allows you to exert yourself for longer. I’ve never personally used this supplement, but a number of distance running teammates swear by its benefits.

#2: Glutamine for Long-Term Energy Production

Distance events require significant energy for long periods of time. The longest races in track and field can take over 30 minutes! That’s a long time for the body to requires high energy levels.

Unlike creatine, which is great for quick energy production, glutamine helps your body produce energy for long periods of time. During the offseason, I do very intense aerobic exercise to help build my overall work capacity. When I’m firing off these aerobic workouts, I’ve found glutamine supplementation to be helpful in maintaining my energy levels for long periods of time.

NSF Certifications

It’s essential that all supplements used as a track and field athlete are NSF Certified for Sport.

The NSF is an organization that independently tests supplement products and verifies them as “banned-substance free.” This is of huge importance to athletes. Supplement companies are not heavily regulated by law in the US. As a result, it’s easy to find a legal supplement like protein powder that’s been contaminated with a banned substance. 

I personally know a number of athletes who have faced drug-related bans due to contamination. It’s one thing for a company to claim their products are clean, but the NSF certification is the only way you can be sure.

Seriously, keep this in mind when you’re selecting brands. You’ll notice that NSF certified brands are generally a little more expensive, but the security they offer is well worth the extra money.

The 1% Difference

The athletes who rise above the norm in track and field have all, in their own way, discovered what I call the 1% difference. It’s the idea that precise attention to details outside of practice and competition can make you 1% better than your rivals. Supplements are one of those details.

It’s important to understand that a strong supplement routine isn’t magic; it won’t turn you into an olympian overnight. It will, however, give you that slight edge over your competitors when you need it most. The track and field supplement routine I’ve shared here has been one of the secret weapons on my path to becoming an NCAA All-American athlete.

The Ultimate Supplement Guide for Track and Field
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