Sports scientists are on a constant mission of discovery when it comes to potentially performance-enhancing supplements. However, one should always be skeptical when entering the supplement world. The FDA (Food & Drug Administration) does not regulate the claims often made by supplement companies.
Furthermore, a lot of supplements have not been involved in any well-controlled research studies to back some of their pretty amazing claims. Even the supplements that have been involved in well-controlled research studies have shown mixed results, meaning that not all will "respond" the same way to a certain dose of the supplement.
It is recommended to discuss with your physician any potential side effects or interactions associated your supplement of choice. Furthermore, it is never recommended to exceed the doses recommended by the manufacturer, even if you don't find yourself "responding". Below, I provide a sampling of some of the more popular sport supplements on the market today.
Protein & Amino Acids
In Greek, protein means "to take first place," a feat many of us in the endurance world would like to accomplish. Scientifically speaking, proteins are large, complex molecules that make up 20% of our body weight in the form of muscle, bone, cartilage, skin, as well as other tissues and body fluids.
whey During digestion, protein is broken down into at least 100 individual chemical building blocks known as amino acids that form a little pool within our liver and are used to build muscle, skin, hair, nails, eyes, hormones, enzymes, antibodies and nerve chemicals.
Inadequate protein intake leads to a dehydrated amino acid pool and consequent breakdown of healthy cells without repair, ultimately leading to elevated injury risk, slowed recovery time, increased feelings of lethargy and poor athletic performance.
Consequently, scientists have been evaluating the effectiveness of protein and amino acid supplementation for improved muscle performance and enhanced muscle recovery in endurance athletes.
Branch Chained Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Branch chained amino acids, which include leucine, isoleucine and valine, are essential for aerobic metabolism and may have performance enhancing qualities for endurance events lasting greater than 3 hours.
During endurance activity, BCAA levels decrease. They are taken up by skeletal muscle, which triggers the ratio of serum BCAA to tryptophan to skew in favor of tryptophan, an amino acid that increases serotonin formation, ultimately enhancing the perception of fatigue. Furthermore, a decline in BCAA may accelerate breakdown of muscle glycogen, thereby contributing to premature muscle fatigue, otherwise known as "hitting the wall".
Edward Blomstrand, PhD, of Research Laboratories in Stockholm, Sweden discovered that supplementation with three grams of BCAAs helped to maintain adequate BCAA levels, thereby muting the increase in serotonin levels and improving the usage of available fuel and protecting against protein breakdown in 7 highly trained endurance cyclists.
Featured Supplement: Amino Vital
- Amino Vital provides a unique blend of amino acids, including branch chained amino acids, arginine, and glutamine in the ideal concentration for a quick, yet steady absorption rate. Amino Vital has been shown to help minimize muscle damage and soreness as well as promote quick muscle recovery during intense endurance training. To implement Amino Vital into your training regimen, mix 1 pack into a 20-ounce water bottle and drink over the span of one workout.
According to Amino Vital, endurance athletes engaged in strenuous and/or dehydrating training may warrant use of 2-3 packs over a single exercise session. Flavor is neutral. New is Amino Vital Ready to Drink, 20-ounce water bottles, containing 1,260 mg of BCAAs in a mild orange or lemon lime flavor.
To obtain the recommended 3 gram BCAA intake by Blomstrand, one should aim at consuming 2-3 bottles, before, during, and after exercise. For more information, click here.
Accounting for more than 60% of the total intramuscular free amino acid pool, glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body and consequently essentially every cell in the body uses it. Because glutamine is synthesized in both skeletal muscle and in adipose tissue in addition to the lungs, liver and brain, it is not considered an essential amino acid.
However, there is evidence that our body cannot produce enough glutamine during times of stress, like intense exercise, to keep up with demand, thereby making it more essential than some may think. Clinical research has verified that overtrained endurance athletes suffer from chronic low plasma glutamine levels, which have been shown to contribute to muscle breakdown, diminished immune function and reduced performance.
Supplementation with 6-8 grams/day of BCAA and glutamine has been shown to decrease protein degradation during ultra-distance triathlon competition, decrease exercise induced muscle damage after prolonged running, and improved performance in 40 K cycling time trial performance. Furthermore, there seems to be an immuno-enhancing effect.
Endurance athletes should aim at consuming 6-8 grams of glutamine with a pre-exercise meal approximately 1-2 hours before a long training session (i.e. greater than 2 hours), and supplement with .5-.75 grams/hour during training in addition to a carbohydrate containing energy replacement drink. Furthermore, a dosing of glutamine immediately following long exhaustive exercise will help enhance muscle recovery.
Featured Supplement: EAS L-Glutamine
- EAS L-Glutamine powder has no taste or odor and dissolves easily in water. It can be mixed with your favorite protein shake to enhance dietary intake of Glutamine.
To meet the recommendations stated above, aim at consuming 1.5 scoops in the 1-2 hours prior to long training bouts, approximately 1/6 scoop each hour of training, and another 1.5 scoops immediately post training. For more information, click here.
With its complete amino acid profile and high percentage of BCAAs, soy protein is a popular protein supplement for vegetarian athletes as well as athletes looking to reap the benefits of the phytochemicals found in soy which have been shown to promote already healthy cholesterol levels, support already healthy bone health and boost immune function.
Studies have established a suggested daily requirement of at least a half-gram of protein per pound of body weight for endurance athletes. Many researchers encourage a total daily intake of 25 grams of soy protein to reap the most health benefit.
Featured Supplement: Hammer Pro SOY
- With no added sweeteners, flavorings, or other "cosmetic" additives, Hammer Nutrition's soy protein, is a highly concentrated formulation providing a whopping 31.5 grams of high quality protein per serving. And unlike many other soy protein supplements, Hammer Pro contains only naturally derived soy protein and absolutely no GMO (genetically modified organism) soy protein.
Genetically altered foods pose potential health threats, including the introduction of new or more potent allergens and toxins, and reduced nutritional content. Hammer Pro Soy can be mixed with Hammer Gel to provide a pre-workout energy boost, to help spare muscle glycogen during training, as well as part of your post-workout recovery regimen.
It can also be mixed with juices, smoothies or other soy-based drinks to make a satisfying and healthy meal. For more information, click here.
Whey Protein Isolate
One of two protein types found in milk, whey protein contains all the essential amino acids and has a 25% higher BCAA composition as compared to other protein sources. Because of its quick absorption rate, whey is also well-tolerated by athletes.
A recent study conducted at James Madison University by Saunders and colleagues discovered the addition of whey protein (1.8% concentration) to carbohydrate post workout reduced post-exercise creatine phosphokinase (CPK) levels, a common indicator of muscular damage, by 83% (p < .05) as compared to athletes only consuming carbohydrate, which indicates whey protein has a potential ergogenic effect for endurance athletes engaged in intense training.
Featured Supplement: Jay Robb Whey Protein
- With no added sugars, or chemicals, or cheap fillers, Jay Robb's whey protein provides 23 grams of high quality whey protein along with a superior amino acid profile that includes more than 6 grams of Branch Chained Amino Acids per 1 ounce serving.
Delicious smoothies can be made with each one of Jay Robb's six flavors, including tropical dreamsicle, chocolate, vanilla, watermelon, pina colada and strawberry. For more information, click here.
Vitamin & Mineral Supplements
I like to think of vitamin and mineral supplements as oil that you put into a finely-tuned engine. More oil doesn't necessarily make the engine run more efficiently and can actually cause harm in some instances.
The same goes for vitamin and mineral supplementation. Most people who take vitamins probably don't really need them and much of what is consumed is not actually absorbed so in the end, the supplement becomes expensive urine.
There certainly are instances where vitamin and mineral supplementation is warranted, including individuals who are:
- not eating a balanced diet (multivitamin),
- lactose intolerant and not consuming any dairy (calcium, magnesium, vitamin D),
- athletes over the age of 50 (vitamin B12),
- pregnant or breastfeeding (folic acid, calcium, iron),
- battling high blood levels of homocysteine (vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folic acid,
- anemic (iron),
- battling an intestinal condition (multivitamin),
- on a weight reduction diet (multivitamin),
- vegetarian athletes (vitamin B12).
Food still remains the number one source of nutrients and supplementation should merely supplement a well-balanced diet if you so choose to go this route.
There is a plethora of antioxidants spotting the supplement aisle, including the most popular ACES complex (vitamins A, C, E, Selenium), as well as the less known compounds oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), Alpha Lipoic Acid, grape skin, grape seed, beta-carotene, lutein and tocopherols, tocotrienols.
These antioxidants are thought to help reduce the damage to and potential death of cellular proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and DNA by free radicals, which are created as a by-product of oxidative stress including exercise. Studies have shown that endurance athletes produce more free radicals than sedentary individuals and are therefore more vulnerable to cellular damage and consequent decline in aerobic capacity.
A diet rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables provides superior antioxidant protection but for the athlete whose food intake revolves around processed convenience foods, antioxidant supplementation may help to maintain the integrity of cell membranes, enhancing the blood's oxygen carrying capacity and positively affecting aerobic performance.
Within a few months of consuming more antioxidants in the form of colorful fruits and vegetables and potentially supplementing with an antioxidant compound, research indicates that there will be faster recovery and better workouts.
Featured Supplement: Trigenix Recovery
- Not a big fan of fruits and vegetables? Then your antioxidant protection may be less than adequate to support your vigorous training and Trigenix Recovery may be the perfect answer for you. Each serving of Trigenix Recovery is packed with 36 fruits and 20 vegetables that are derived from the actual plants themselves, thereby preserving its nutrients, including the sterols and sterolins.
Plant (phyto) sterols and sterolins are plant "fats" present in all fruits and vegetables that have been clinically proven to significantly modulate the effects of the immune system. Loading your body with these powerful nutrients will make all the difference in how you feel, how you recover, and how you perform. For more information, click here.
Other Promising Supplements
An adaptogen is defined as a substance safe for daily use that helps to increase the body's resistance to the catabolic effects of stress, including physical stress such as strenuous exercise, possibly by exerting favorable effects on the secretion of a hormone that is released by the adrenal cortex.
During intense training, physiological stress on the body is heightened, which forces your body to use its natural defense mechanisms to help repair and replace any damage that has occurred. Use of adaptogens seems to help this defense mechanism work more efficiently. Ginseng, ashwagandha, schisandra, rhodiola, cordyceps, reishi and maitake are all well studied adaptogens.
Both Rhodiola and Cordyceps have clearly been shown to 'adapt' to the stresses brought on by intense physical activity, thereby helping to improve performance in athletes. Rhodiola, an herbal supplement, has been known to slow glycogen utilization and increase fatty acid utilization, hence reducing lactic acid build-up, leading to improved athletic performance.
The stimulating affect of Rhodiola is clearly manifested in the performance of physical work as shown by Dr. Tuzov, who found that athletes under the influence of Rhodiola extract were able to increase the volume of repeat work performed after proceeding proportioned work by 28%. Furthermore, after administering Rhodiola rosea in an experiment on 140 athletes, 74% of the test subjects obtained their best results in a 3,000 meter run.
It was concluded that Rhodiola rosea extract increased physical work capacity, decreased fatigue and improved the general mental and physical state of the test subjects. Similarily, a recent study done with Cordyceps CS-4 showed significant improvement in Peak VO2 and VO2 max, both of which are good indications of aerobic capacity, which also have important performance implications.
Featured Supplement: Optygen
- Optygen is a groundbreaking new supplement that utilizes a blend of two adaptagens, Rhodiola Rosacea and Cordyceps, both of have been shown in scientific research to boost oxygen utilization, optimize fuel usage, and enhance the body's ability to adapt to physical stress.
Furthemore, Optygen utilizes an exclusive blend of phosphates known to reduce lactic acid and increase ATP (aka "energy") formation, thereby helping to increase anaerobic threshold, all very important for peak endurance performance.
First Endurance instructs athletes to load with 6 capsules every morning for the first 7 days and then taper back the dose by 50% (3 capsules taken each morning). For more information, click here.
Recent studies show that a specific formulation of phosphates, amino acids, vitamins and minerals work in synergy to buffer lactic acid build-up and reduce the accumulation of ammonia. Phosphates have many potential performance enhancing properties, including increased oxygen intake and decreased lactic acid buildup. Both anaerobic and endurance exercises increase phosphate needs.
In fact, studies researching this area almost always show pathologically low levels of blood phosphate after intense or prolonged activity, which can slow muscle recovery. Repeated studies of phosphate supplementation indicate that it buffers lactic acid as well as raises the level of 2,3-diphosphoglycerate (2,3-DPG), an enzyme that unloads oxygen into muscle.
There is further evidence that phosphate supplementation, through its incorporation into numerous enzymes in energy production, improves the production and use of glycogen for fuel.
Featured Supplement: Sport Quest Direct Vantage
- VANTAGE (90 tablets) is a cutting-edge product, with its unique, clinically profiled blend of safe and effective nutrients that have been shown to enhance energy and endurance during periods of intense training and competition. The phosphates in VANTAGE are in the form of sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium: thereby providing phosphates a proper balance of essential macrominerals/electrolytes to maintain peak performance.
The synergistic and combined biochemical effects of VANTAGE (phosphate supplementation) on performance are dramatic. Results from various studies have shown that phosphate supplementation reduced lactic acid accumulation, increased 2,3-DPG production during exercise, increased VO2 Max by 11-12% and increased time to exhaustion by 20%.
One study tested both anaerobic and endurance exercise. During anaerobic phosphate trials, maximal power output increased by 17%. That's equivalent to adding 51 pounds to a 300-pound maximum bench press. During the aerobic phosphate trials, time for the 40 km time trial on the ergometer bicycle was reduced by 3.5 minutes. For phosphate loading, Sport Quest Direct recommends taking 3-4 tablets of VANTAGE after lunch or immediately prior to going to bed for three consecutive days leading up to race day.
On longer training days, it is recommended to consume 2-3 tablets of VANTAGE per hour of activity. For more information, click here.
About The Author
Kim Brown, MS, RD is a registered sports dietitian and competitive endurance athlete who provides nutritional counseling and meal planning to athletes all around the world.