Whether you are a professional athlete, a member of the military, a bodybuilder, or an avid gym goer it is likely that you take some sort of supplement to enhance athletic performance. Data show that while elite athletes take supplements more frequently, recreational athletes are still avid users.
When we are striving to be the best, whether it be a gold medalist runner, or the best in a race against ourselves, supplements are often used to help us get here.
Many types of supplements exist, but not all are as efficacious as they claim to be.
Many types of supplements exist, but not all are as efficacious as they claim to be. Some of the most popular supplements we see on the market today are proteins, BCAAs, caffeine, and creatine but you will notice that not all of these make the list.
While they all have some research proving their efficacy, not all have enough research to show that they definitively work.
If a supplement you take didn’t make the list, I suggest you head over the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements – Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals – website to see what the research has to say about the supplement.
6 Key Supplements for Athletes
If you are anything like 64% of Americans, then it is likely you start your day with a cup of Joe. But did you know that cup of coffee has ergogenic effects that can actually help enhance performance in endurance activities (1)? It’s true and the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) agrees.
The ISSN released a position statement on the use of caffeine for performance that included the following statements: “(a) Caffeine is effective for enhancing sport performance in trained athletes when consumed in low-to-moderate dosages (~3-6 mg/kg) and overall does not result in further enhancement in performance when consumed in higher dosages (≥ 9 mg/kg). (b) Caffeine is ergogenic for sustained maximal endurance exercise and has been shown to be highly effective for time-trial performance. (c) Caffeine supplementation is beneficial for high-intensity exercise, including team sports such as soccer and rugby, both of which are categorized by intermittent activity within a period of prolonged duration (2).”
So what does this mean?
Well in short, it means that caffeine works when we have around 3-6 mg per kilogram of body weight before an activity. In amounts more than this though, caffeine does not exert a stronger effect – there seems to be a cap on its effectiveness.
In addition, caffeine is great for athletes that are in both endurance activities such as running or team sports like soccer and when taken before these activities, it can enhance performance.
Too much caffeine is not only ineffective but can also lead to adverse effects. The Office of Dietary supplements states that when pure caffeine at rates of 10-14g are consumed (about 150-200mg/kg) that insomnia, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, and arrhythmia may occur.
These rates are hard to reach with caffeinated coffee alone, but are possible when using caffeine supplements (1).
Related: Top 10 Best Caffeine Supplements
If you have recently stepped foot into a health food store it is likely you have come across some sort of protein supplement.
There are protein supplements available for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans alike and each claim the same thing, to optimize recovery after training. Various clinical trials have been conducted on the use of protein in exercise recovery and results have been positive for its use in athletics.
But not all protein is created equal.
When we discuss the benefits of protein supplementation, we are referring to protein sources that contain all nine of the essential amino acids. These essential amino acids are protein building blocks that our body cannot make on our own, so we must consume them through the food we eat.
These amino acids are all also important in the efficacy of protein supplements and it has been shown that all nine must be present for a protein supplement to help increase strength and muscle mass (1). Therefore, whey and casein proteins are the best options as they contain all nine essential amino acids. Soy protein, pea protein, and other plant-based proteins do not contain all nine and this should be considered when using them for supplementation purposes.
Protein supplements have been found to be most effective immediately following exercise, in the first two hours after completion. An amount of 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight is recommended in this time period.
Supplementing with protein has been shown to be safe and no upper limit currently exists. That being said, limited studies have been published examining protein taken in amounts more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight.
For this reason, supplementation above this amount is not recommended.
Creatine is one of the best-studied and most used supplements. Creatine supplements are commonly used for their effect as an ergogenic aid. They works by creating ATP in the body, which is the energy we use when exercising. If we can increase the amount of energy available, we can increase the amount and intensity of exercise being completed (1).
A common way to consume creatine is in two-phases. The first is 5-7 days where an individual consumes 20 grams per day, also known as the loading phase. The next phase is the maintenance phase, where the individual consumes 3 grams per day for 5 days (1).
While no consistent adverse side effects have been reported, weight gain is possible with creatine supplementation. Creatine not only increases water retention, but also it has the potential to increase muscle mass thus increasing body weight.
The ISSN claims that creatine monohydrate is the most effective supplement on the market for enhancing capacity for high-intensity exercise and consequently it is the most widely studied and used form of creatine.
Related: Top 10 Best Creatine Supplements
If you looked in your pantry right now, it is likely you could find sodium bicarbonate sitting on the shelf next to your sugar and flour. That is because sodium bicarbonate is actually just baking soda. This common baking ingredient not only makes your cookies soft and fluffy, but also might improve performance in short-term, high intensity exercise.
In aerobic exercise, our body uses oxygen, but in anaerobic exercise such as short-term and high intensity exercise, our body no longer has that oxygen to draw on. When there is a lack of oxygen, lactic acid is a natural byproduct. This lactic acid is what is thought to bring fatigue to athletes. Sodium bicarbonate is base, acting as a buffer in our body and temporarily increasing the pH of our blood when consumed. This helps lower the lactic acid in our body and thus prevent fatigue (1).
Sodium bicarbonate has been shown to have an effect in a variety of athletes including swimmers, cyclist, and rugby players alike. The dosage at which it is effective has been found to be around 300mg per kilogram of bodyweight.
Unfortunately for us recreational athletes, this supplement may not be as effective as studies have only shown effectiveness in trained athletes. Side effects that may occur include stomach issues like pain, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting.
These can be avoided if the dose is split into smaller ones over a period of one hour. Sodium bicarbonate, as the name implies, has a large amount of sodium and should be avoided by those who are avoiding high intakes of sodium (1).
Betaine was originally used to overcome muscle weakness in polio symptoms. With vaccines, its use for polio is no longer necessary and it has since been studied for its ability to enhance physical performance (3).
When tested on individuals completing a weight lifting program, betaine was shown to enhance body composition, arm size, bench press work capacity, and power. However, it did not have an effect on strength in the study participants (4).
Betaine has also been studied in non-athletes. In particular, a study conducted with untrained collegiate-aged females, betaine was shown to lower fat mass when accompanied by a resistance training program (5). When paired with exercise, betaine has the potential to decrease fat mass, increase lean mass, and increase overall power.
Short-term use of 2-5 grams for 15 days has been found to be safe and at this time, there are no adverse effects of supplementation. While these clinical trials are promising, conflicting results for its use as an ergogenic aid exist. Larger randomized control trials are necessary to determine the exact function and dosage at which betaine may increase performance (6).
Related: Top 10 Best Betaine Supplements
Nitric oxide is a gas that is naturally present in our body. Sounds a little intimidating, but it actually works to expand our blood vessels and allows more oxygen to get to important places, such as our muscles.
When we consume a food that has nitrates in it, some of the nitrates are converted to nitric oxide having the aforementioned effect. Why do we care? Well beets and beet juice are actually some of the richest sources of nitrate.
The science behind beets makes sense and the studies have backed it up. Clinical trials examining the effects of beet juice on performance have shown its effect on aerobic (meaning the exercise requires oxygen) endurance activities like running and swimming (1).
Generally, beet juice is safe when consumed 1-2 cups per day but beware, it may turn your urine pink or red. While studies have been conducted with beet juice, we are less sure as to whether beets in powdered form have the same effect (1).
Related: Top 10 Best Nitrate Supplements
Picking the Right Supplement
As we discuss the best supplements for athletes, we must consider that not all supplements are created equal.
While the FDA regulates supplements, they do not review and/or approve supplements before they hit the market. Rather it is up to the company to provide accurate information regarding health claims and product ingredients.
Although the FDA can retroactively remove these products from the market, nothing is stopping from getting there in the first place. This is important to keep in mind as consumers to ensure the source of your supplement is wholesome. The FDA does not regulate supplements and therefore, producers of supplements can make claims and include ingredients
There are also several ingredients that are now banned from supplements and should be avoided due to adverse health effects, which include serious illness and even death. These include ephedra, dimethylamylamine, and androstenedione.
Thankfully, there are third party companies working to certify that supplements do contain what they claim to and that they do not contain any banned substances. The NSF (nsf.org) and Banned Substances Control Group (bscg.org) are two organizations doing just this. If you see the NSF sticker on any supplement, that means they have been tested and approved by this agency.
In addition to the quality of a supplement, it is also important to consult with your doctor when beginning any sort of supplement regime. Some supplements may have drug interactions and a medical professional should determine it if it is appropriate for you to consume such supplements.
Overall, many of the above supplements can be consumed through diet alone. This should be considered when choosing a supplement regime as well. Ideally, a healthy balanced diet that meets your needs should be sufficient to support training. Supplements should not replace any one part of your diet rather supplement a healthy diet.
The Bottom Line
From the Olympic athlete to the average gym goer, supplementation for athletic performance is an incredibly popular practice that is continuing to grow momentum. Many supplements exist that have efficacy and when used properly can help in improving power, strength, and performance.
Some of the most popular and efficacious supplements on the market today are weight loss supplements, pre-workout supplements, caffeine, protein, creatine, and sodium bicarbonate. While many other supplements that work to enhance athletic performance exist, it is important to review the existing literature to ensure efficacy.
A great resource to read about up to date research on such supplements is the Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance Fact Sheet.
You should consider the brand of supplement you choose and whether it has been tested by an outside agency for efficacy and purity.
Supplements can be used healthfully to improve athletic ability and as more research in this area surfaces, we are learning more and more about how they can be used in exercise and sport.
*It is advised that you chat with your doctor before beginning any new supplement regime. Some of these supplements may interact with other medications you may be taking and some have side effects not listed in this review.
Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Allison.
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