A combination of minerals helps women run faster, according to research done by an Ohio State professor of human nutrition. Credit: courtesy of Ohio State

A few seconds might not seem like a lot, but in the world of competitive running it can spell the difference between placing first or last.  

Claire Wiles, a third-year finance major and long-distance runner on Ohio State’s track-and-field team, said shaving time off her runs gives her a boost of confidence both mentally and physically, proving what her body can do. But as she has discovered, getting that razor-thin edge over the other runners can sometimes take more than just practice and a balanced diet.

“I take an iron supplement because I don’t get as much as I need from my diet and most of the women on our team take iron supplements,” Wiles said. “None of us are actually [iron] deficient but for how much work we are doing and what we are putting our bodies through, we need enough.”

Not only competitive athletes can benefit from more iron. In a recent study funded by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Robert DiSilvestro, a professor of human nutrition at Ohio State, created a new supplement, Vionica, which may have groundbreaking potential to decrease running times for the everyday leisure athlete, specifically those who are women.

Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, the substance that transports oxygen in the blood. If the body’s store of iron is too low, a person is at risk of developing moderate deficiencies of iron or, even worse, iron deficiency anemia, a sickness that causes people to feel weak, have shortness of breath, feel tired and have muscle fatigue. Adequate iron in the body, therefore, means more oxygen in the body.

Through his previous research, DiSilvestro realized that women especially do not get enough iron and other essential nutrients. This could be because of menstruation and its effects on nutrient loss, and women’s tendency to eat less meat, the most absorbable source of iron.

DiSilvestro, aside from teaching at Ohio State and publishing journal articles on his research, also attends many nutrition industry trade shows. It was these shows that sparked his interest in designing products like Vionica.

“There is so much junk out there and there is lots of things people don’t need and if someone eats wonderfully then they don’t need my formulation,” DiSilvestro said. “But, a lot of people don’t and I just thought somebody could do a whole lot better job of designing these products than the people that are doing it, because most of them don’t have any nutrition background.”

To create Vionica, DiSilvestro combined iron, copper, zinc, and two other nutrients —carnitine and phosphatidylserine. He is careful to stress that Vionica is not itself an energy booster, but rather a catalyst that can help tap the fuels that give energy to the body.

“None of the nutrients found in the supplement actually give energy,because people get the energy from carbohydrates, fats, and protein,” he said. “But to get that fuel, there are a series of steps that have to go on. The three minerals plus the carnitine are important in terms of releasing the actual energy from the fuels.”

To test the supplement, DiSilvestro studied the athletic performance of 39 college women ages 18 to 27 years old who ran for fitness and not competitively. He also tested Vionica on biking and step tests, to look for benefits beyond just running. The study was done in two trials over a span of four weeks each.

In each trial, there was a group who took the Vionica, and a group who took a placebo supplement. The subjects didn’t know which they were taking.

In the first trial, DiSilvestro along with his fellow researchers found the group of women who took the supplement for four weeks decreased their average three-mile running times by more than a minute. In the second trial the dosage of the supplement was decreased but they still saw a decreased time of more than 40 seconds. The placebo group however, did not show any significant changes.

After conducting a second trial, also with positive results, DiSilvestro decided to take Vionica to the market in early March. Currently, Vionica is available online.

However, with so much talk of doping and illegal stimulants in athletics and other sports, the inevitable question arises: Does Vionica give any unfair advantages to those who take the supplement? DiSilvestro acknowledges that this is an important issue and that people would naturally question something that promises to reduce running times and improve overall performance. DiSilvestro has submitted Vionica for testing and has yet to receive the results. But he is confident that the supplement will pass without issue.

“Nothing I am adding has any track record of issues,” he said.

DiSilvestro has not yet tested Vionica on any competitive athletes or runners, but believes the supplement will find a ready audience among elite athletes, especially women runners and those who are vegan.

“We are not specifically marketing to an athlete group but if I was a college cross country runner and I was a woman and my diet wasn’t getting all these nutrients then I would take it,” DiSilvestro said. At this point we are not making any claims about it for athletic competition. We have not tried it in competitive athletes. I would assume it would work just as well in them.”