Athletes need to eat.
The importance of nutrition for athletic performance has been known since the Ancient Greek Olympics. Athletes ate dried figs for muscle health and stamina and used products like deer liver and lion heart to impart bravery, speed and strength. One olympic runner even won several races following a carnivore diet.
Sports nutrition is much more advanced now. In addition to whole foods, sports supplements are commonly consumed by athletes hoping to gain an edge and boost performance above and beyond what a training program and diet can do on their own.
All athletes hope to maximize training adaptations and maintain health throughout hard training cycles, and dietary supplements can help. While proper diet should come first, some athletes may fail to get sufficient nutrition through food alone. Supplements may be a great way to support general health and wellness.
Certain dietary supplements have both nutritional and ergogenic potential, meaning they can provide performance benefits beyond those gained from food alone.
Dietary supplements are categorized as foods, products intended to supplement the diet above and beyond general nutrition obtained from food. Supplements must contain a “dietary ingredient” such as vitamin, mineral, herb, botanical, amino acid, enzyme, metabolite, or various concentrations of these substances.1 Supplements often come in soft gel, liquid, powder, or capsule form and are intended for oral ingestion.
An ergogenic aid (ergogenic supplement) on the other hand, is a supplement ingested with the goal of boosting performance in an athletic event. Not all supplements are ergogenic aids, but all ergogenic aids are supplements. Ergogenic supplements are intended to enhance energy utilization and energy production, improve control and efficiency and therefore improve athletic performance during competition and training.
As an athlete, certain supplements may play a role in helping you meet macro and micronutrient goals. Ergogenic aids may allow you to train harder, adapt quicker, and recover better while promoting general health.
Why should athletes supplement? Individuals undergoing training sometimes have special needs.
Exercise stresses metabolic pathways where vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients are essential, increasing an athlete’s needs. Supplementing could help avoid particular nutrient deficiencies and even prevent unwanted weight loss.2
Female athletes may be at a higher risk for such deficiencies. It has been observed that iron, vitamin D, and calcium deficiencies are higher in women.3 This may predispose them to stress fractures and other health issues in addition to limiting athletic performance.
Training and competition also compromise the immune system, predisposing athletes to a greater risk of illness, infection, and lost training time. An all-around healthy diet helps, but supplementing with certain micronutrients might bolster your ability to fight of pesky infections while training hard.
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Aerobic performance is crucial for endurance athletes competing in events from the 5k up to the marathon and beyond. Certain supplements have been shown to boost performance in aerobic endurance events when added to a training regimen or taken before a race.
High-intensity exercise leads to a buildup of acidic ions which may impair performance. Our body deals with this through a “buffer” system that maintains pH. Bicarbonate is our body’s primary buffer.
Since our bicarbonate stores are limited, supplementing with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) has been proposed as a way to benefit performance during high-intensity exercise when the need to buffer acidic ions is high.
Bicarbonate supplementation can augment training capacity. Athletes who consumed sodium bicarbonate prior to intense intermittent exercise (think HIIT) experienced a 23% performance boost and a lower levels of perceived exertion.4 Faster performance times following bicarbonate ingestion have been shown in well-trained endurance athletes during a 3km cycling time trial.5
Sodium bicarbonate may even enhance long-term training adaptations. Taking sodium bicarbonate prior to HIIT resulted in a higher post-exercise signal for the genesis of mitochondria, our body’s energy producing powerhouses for aerobic exercise.6
When considering how to take the supplement, for acute dosing pre-exercise, take 300 mg/kg of sodium bicarbonate 1 - 2 hours before an activity. Ingest sodium bicarbonate with sufficient water to prevent gastrointestinal issues. A liter or more is recommended.
Chronic sodium bicarbonate loading is also a strategy used to accumulate and maintain sodium bicarbonate stores. A dose of 300 mg/kg body weight per day or 500 mg/kg divided into two daily doses can load bicarbonate stores.
Beta-alanine is a substance naturally produced in the liver. We need beta-alanine to synthesize carnosine, which is necessary for proper skeletal muscle function. Food sources of beta alanine include meat, fish and poultry.
Beta alanine benefits performance by increasing production of natural proton buffers, preventing the accumulation of acidic ions during exercise that lead to fatigue. There is also evidence to suggest beta alanine can help reduce oxidative stress associated with muscle damage and perhaps reduce muscles soreness. Endurance athletes can benefit from beta-alanine supplementation by improving their ability to exercise at a high intensity for longer. Studies show time trial performance improves after beta alanine supplementation.7
Six weeks of beta alanine supplementation paired with high intensity interval training led to greater improvement in V02 max and time to exhaustion compared to a training regimen alone.8 Women who supplemented with beta alanine for 28 days increased their exercise threshold by 13.9% and time to exhaustion by 2.5%.9
There doesn’t seem to be an upper limit for carnosine in our body, suggesting that supplementing with beta alanine can boost stores above normal. In trained athletes, 4 - 10 weeks of supplementation has been shown to significantly increase muscle carnosine stores.10 A dose of 4 - 6 grams daily divided into equal doses of 2 grams for a minimum of two weeks can boost muscle carnosine stores by 20% - 30% and an additional 40% - 60% after four weeks of continued supplementation.
Caffeine is the drug of choice for most Americans. Endurance athletes have long known about, and believed in, the ergogenic benefits of caffeine on performance.
Caffeine is metabolized in the liver and within 45 minutes, levels begin to rise in the blood. Peak caffeine concentration appears around 60 minutes post ingestion.
Exactly how caffeine boosts performance is highly debated, but two hypotheses dominate.
Caffeine blocks the binding of a sleep-promoting molecule in the brain called adenosine, and therefore has a stimulating effect on the central nervous system. This action likely benefits performance by reducing perceptions of fatigue. In one study, caffeine ingested before a cycling time trial nearly doubled the levels of pain-reducing beta endorphins in the brain.11 No pain, more gain.
Caffeine may also shift substrate utilization during endurance exercise, lowering reliance on glycogen and carbohydrate for energy and increasing fat oxidation. This would theoretically boost endurance during moderate-intensity exercise by conserving energy stores and sparing muscle glycogen.
Caffeine is proven to be ergogenic for endurance athletes. Various studies on athletic performance have reported that pre-exercise caffeine ingestion leads to improved cycling time trial performance by 4% - 5%, increases time to exhaustion, and augments work capacity in runners.12,13,14
Caffeine intake after exercise may even boost recovery. When consumed with a post-workout carbohydrate source, caffeine enhanced muscle glycogen resynthesis by 66% in trained athletes.15
High doses of caffeine aren't required. A dose of 3mg/kg - 6 mg/kg is effective. For a 150lb athlete, this is about 200 - 400 milligrams of caffeine. The ideal time to ingest caffeine is 60 minutes before exercise but, ingestion 15 - 30 minutes prior has also been shown to enhance athletic performance.
However, caffeine comes with a caveat. There are non-responders to caffeine, where the substance actually can make performance worse.16
Nitric oxide is the molecule in our body primarily responsible for relaxing blood vessels and increasing blood flow, making it critically important to endurance exercise performance.
Dietary nitrates, found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot juice, can be directly converted to nitric oxide under conditions of low oxygen as an “alternate” source of nitric oxide. Plasma nitrate concentration has been linked to aerobic exercise capacity in humans.
Supplementation with nitrates often involves consumption of beetroot juice or sodium nitrate. Both are shown to improve exercise efficiency by lowering the oxygen cost of submaximal exercise.17,18 Nitrates can boost your running and cycling economy.
Beetroot consumption has been shown to improve performance in a variety of activities including four-kilometer and 16-kilometer cycling time trials and a five-kilometer run.19,20 Endurance athletes who consumed beetroot prior to exercise also ran faster in the last 1.8k of the time trial.
Since low oxygen availability is a limiting factor for nitric oxide production, supplementing with nitrates may become more beneficial during high-intensity training and races that occur near maximum capacity.
A dosing regimen of 2 - 6 days (up to 15 days) with sodium nitrate or beetroot juice containing around 5mM - 9mM of supplementary nitrates leads to levels shown to enhance performance.
An acute dose of .5L beetroot juice (containing 6.2mM nitrates) taken 2 - 3 hours before exercise will lead to peak nitrate concentrations in the body.
Nutritional ketosis may have the ability to unlock your potential as an endurance athlete.
The advantages of using exogenous ketones to achieve a state of ketosis for endurance performance are now being realized. Ketones provide an excellent fuel source for the body during prolonged exercise.
Supplementing with exogenous ketones can enhance endurance exercise performance. This is achieved through a switch in fuel preference–a lower reliance on carbohydrate and stored glycogen and enhanced muscle fat and ketone oxidation. Ketones have been shown to contribute 16% - 18% of total energy production when taken exogenously before exercise. This lowers lactate production and spares muscle glycogen, both limiting factors in prolonged endurance activity.
Cyclists who consumed a ketone ester along with carbohydrate performed 2% - 3% better compared to when they only consumed carbohydrates.21
If you’re involved in endurance activities where fuel storage might limit performance, exogenous ketones act as a high-quality superfuel to boost your performance.
Ingest one serving of a BHB monoester or other exogenous ketone 30 minutes prior to exercise along with your usual pre-workout fuel of carbohydrates, caffeine, or hydration beverage.
For recovery, a serving of exogenous ketones ingested 30 minutes post-exercise with usual nutrition such as a meal or shake can enhance replenishment of muscle glycogen.22
An herbal supplement popular in Ayurvedic and indigenous medical systems, Ashwagandha has been used for its proposed cognitive enhancement properties. However, the applications to physical performance are now being realized and explored.
In a single blind placebo controlled study of 40 college-aged students, Ashwagandhda supplementation (500 mg/day for eight weeks) led to an increase in maximal oxygen consumption (V02 max) and faster sprint ability.23 Supplementing for 8 - 12 weeks with 300mg Ashwagandha also led to improvements in max aerobic capacity.24 These studies provide evidence that aerobic endurance may be enhanced following supplementation with this herb.
How long should you supplement? 2 - 12 weeks of supplementation is the time needed for performance improvements to appear.
Training hard means nothing if you don’t properly recover. The time between workouts is when the body soaks up adaptations to make you faster and stronger. Certain supplements may help with mitigating damage during training so you can recover quicker and get back to training sooner.
We’ve got you covered. Here’s an entire post dedicated to recovery supplements for athletes, from BCAAs to CBD.
It’s not just bodybuilders who need to build muscle.
Runners, triathletes, team sport athletes, and anyone looking to build muscle mass can benefit from certain supplements that may increase training capacity. The increased training ability can promote greater muscle mass and strength gains when paired with resistance exercise.
Creatine is one of the most popular and scientifically-supported sports supplements available to athletes. Studies show it clearly increases levels of creatine in the muscle, improves performance, and promotes long term adaptations to training.25
While creatine can be adequately consumed in the diet (sources include red meat), achieving greater levels by supplementing can saturate your stores. Creatine is necessary to form phosphocreatine (PCr) , which is broken down during high intensity exercise to produce ATP. Phosphocreatine supplies are limited, and creatine monohydrate supplementation may increase the time before PCr depletion occurs.
The theory behind creatine supplementation: it allows you to train harder.
Creatine monohydrate supplementation for 3 - 4 days resulted in a 3.7% boost in peak anaerobic cycling power, a 6.6% increase in ankle torque production, and greater anaerobic energy production in a group of males and females.26 Creatine supplementation for 12 weeks during resistance exercise training resulted in greater improvements in fat free mass compared to protein supplements.27 Forget the whey protein, creatine is where it’s at.
There is also evidence to suggest creatine supplementation enhances the rise in satellite cells and myonuclei in skeletal muscle following resistance exercise, indicating a greater signal for muscle protein synthesis needed for muscle mass gains.28
A normal diet contains about 1 - 2 grams of creatine per day. Supplementing can increase stores up to 20% - 40% above normal.
Creatine supplementation often involves an initial loading dose of five grams taken four times per day for 5 - 7 days to fully saturate creatine stores.
After creatine loading, a maintenance dose of 3 - 5 grams per day will keep muscle creatine stores elevated. Consuming creatine with carbohydrate or protein can promote greater retention, so taking this supplement with a meal is recommended if you want to get the most out of supplementation.
Not to be confused with the ketone beta-hydroxy-butyrate (BHB), HMB is a metabolite of the branched-chain amino acid leucine. Bodybuilders and power athletes supplement with HMB to enhance muscle growth and body composition.
HMB stabilizes muscle structure and lessens protein breakdown.29 HMB supplementation significantly lowers markers of muscle damage and proteolysis following 2 - 6 weeks of supplementation.30 This is accompanied by greater muscle strength and improved body composition after a resistance training program.
If you’re looking to supplement, HMB commonly comes in capsule form. 1.5 - 3 grams per day. This should be split into daily doses of one gram taken at breakfast, lunch or pre-exercise, and bedtime over a period of 3 - 6 weeks to effectively enhance athletic performance.
Pounding out miles and pumping iron takes a toll on your bones, tendons, and joints. Some supplements have been shown to promote strong bones and cushy cartilage. This may enhance your athletic longevity.
Glucosamine is derived from shellfish. It’s often sold as a joint health supplement alongside chondroitin, due to the known additive effects on collagen synthesis, cartilage degradation, and osteoarthritis symptoms.
Doses as high as 3,000 milligrams may slow the degradation of joints in athletes involved in high impact sports. Glucosamine supplementation significantly lowered markers of collagen breakdown in soccer players.32 Three grams of glucosamine per day for three months reduced markers of collagen degradation in bicycle racers.33 The effect was dose-dependent; more was better in these two studies.
If you're looking to go right to the source, think about adding a collagen supplement into your recovery regimen. Add a base of MCT oil powder to get some additional healthy, ketogenic fats.
Glucosamine comes in capsules, salts, and even chews. Athletes should take 300 - 500 milligrams three times/day with food (for daily dose of 900 - 1500 milligrams).
Training and competition require you to be at the top of your mental game. These supplements may help you get there.
Caffeine is great for concentration, attention, and focus, but may cause jittery feelings and anxiety. L-theanine is an amino acid that can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and promote “zen state” alpha brain waves.
Taken together, these compounds may prime the nervous system, providing balance for the brain and extreme athletic concentration.
Consume caffeine + L-theanine 60 minutes before a workout, competition, or cognitively demanding task. Most studies use 80 - 100 milligrams of L-theanine and 50 milligrams of caffeine (a dose typically found in tea).
Bacopa Monnieri is an herbal supplement known for its medicinal properties and has been used traditionally as treatment for certain mental conditions. The cognitive-enhancing effects are a topic of recent interest. Bacopa Monnieri gives a boost to your central nervous system by raising antioxidant activity in the brain, increasing neuronal density, and reducing beta amyloid.
Studies have shown that 90 days of bacopa monnieri supplementation improved performance in working memory, information processing speed, and anxiety.36,37 These benefits are likely to enhance any athlete’s ability to perform under high-stakes conditions where nerves must be calmed and decisions made quickly.
A dose of 300 - 400 milligrams per day for 12 weeks can result in the benefits listed above.
Obviously, no athlete needs to experiment with all supplements on the sports nutrition market.
Specific activities require different energy systems, which might not benefit from having more of this and less of that. Adding something new to training doesn’t always translate to improved capabilities or a personal record.
If you’re prone to a certain deficiency due to diet or training, consider supplements specific to your needs. Ask yourself: is the supplement worth the cost? Is there enough evidence to support taking a particular supplement for your sport or overall health? Ultimately, it might take a bit of experimenting with supplements to find what works for you. Do your research, find high quality products and let results be your guide.
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