The supplement industry has grown exponentially over the years. In fact, the US supplement industry alone is worth $36.7 billion! The funny thing is, only a few of these supplements actually work and are evidence-based. That’s a lot of money spent on placebo!
Working in a sport environment, I have to make sure I follow best practice, not only using appropriate supplements but making sure such supplements are actually backed by solid evidence. Having said that, I thought I’d share with you supplements which have been extensively studied and used in labs to determine whether or not they actually can improve your exercise performance. It’s only a handful of supplements, but they do work!
Have you ever taken a pre-workout supplement and felt a tingling sensation? That’s beta-alanine doing work. Now think of another situation. Have you ever felt a burning sensation while exercising? That’s lactic acid building up in your blood.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid produced by the body and also found in foods such as chicken and fish. Put simply, beta-alanine helps buffer muscle acidity which essentially will allow you to exercise for a longer period of time. Through supplementation, your lactate threshold will increase, so you’ll experience that burning sensation at a much later stage during your workout. Obviously, the less lactic acid accumulated, the more exercises, sets and reps you can perform within your workout.
The evidence-based supplementation protocol for beta-alanine is 5g/day (2.5g pre-training and 2.5g post-training) for a period of 4 weeks, as it takes this long for beta-alanine to saturate the muscle. You may take beta-alanine for this time period and more depending on your workout routine and intensity. The washout period is around 2 months, so even if you stop supplementation within 4 weeks you’ll have a decent amount of beta-alanine saturation within the muscle and still experience its benefits after cessation of use.
Beta-alanine is safe to use. The only known side effect is paresthesia – prickling of the skin in different parts of the body (i.e. face and hands).
Beta-Alanine will help those partaking in high-intensity exercise (i.e. weight lifting), high-intensity interval training and high intensity sports (i.e. sprinting)
Probably the most widely used drug in the world, and one of the most evidence-based supplements in the literature. Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in leaves, nuts and seeds of various plants. It is al found in coffee, tea, energy drinks and soft drinks.
Caffeine helps reduce your perception of effort. Let’s say you’re running at 14 km/hour in reality, with caffeine supplementation, you may feel like you’re working at 11-12 km/hour. If you’re lifting a 20kg dumbbell, it may feel like you’re lifting an 18kg dumbbell. You get the point.
Among the other benefits of caffeine are an increase in mental concentration, awareness and sharpness. Put together, such factors will allow you to focus entirely on your workout and allow you to perform at your best.
In terms of supplementation, the evidence suggests to supplement with 1-3 mg/kg/bodyweight of caffeine one hour before exercise. You may drink a cup of coffee, or consume caffeine through gels or chewing gums.
Caffeine is considered safe to use, however, you may experience side effects such as an increase in heart rate, anxiety, disturbed sleep and shakiness.
Caffeine has shown to benefit those who partake in various sports and exercise (i.e. weight-lifting, cross-fit, high-intensity sports, etc…).
To date, approximately 1,000 articles have been published on creatine supplementation, with 70% of studies typifying an improvement in exercise capacity and performance.
Creatine is a naturally producing compound in the body mainly stored in muscle, with some creatine stored in other tissues such as the brain. Creatine may be provided by foods such as meat and fish.
The most widely known benefit of creatine supplementation stems from its ability to increase resting creatine stores, which essentially increases the body’s ability to repeat and sustain high-intensity bouts of exercise. By increasing creatine stores in the muscle, the body will be able to increase ATP synthesis (i.e. energy) which will ultimately improve exercise performance by providing more energy to complete a given exercise.
So, as creatine helps you do more work and increase high-intensity efforts, you’ll gain more strength and muscle and be able to perform more exercises, sets and reps within a given workout. That’s another benefit of creatine supplementation.
The best way to supplement with creatine is to begin with a ‘Loading’ protocol, supplementing with 20g/day (4 x 5g spread over the day), following by a ‘Maintenance’ protocol, supplementing with 2-3g/day.
Creatine is absolutely safe to use. The only known side effect is an increase in body weight. While this is partly due to water retention, it is mainly down to an increase in muscle mass due to an improvement exercise capacity (doing more work which will lead to an increase in muscle mass).
Creatine is best used for weight-lifting, high-intensity interval training, and high-intensity sports such as football (soccer) and basketball.
4. Dietary Nitrate
Nitrate is produced by the body but may also be found in various foods such as leafy greens and beetroot. Upon digestion, nitrate is converted to nitric oxide, which is the primary nutrient responsible for the many benefits experienced with dietary nitrate supplementation.
Basically, nitrate (or nitric oxide) helps increase the delivery of blood, oxygen and other nutrients to working muscles. This will allow you to exercise using less energy and oxygen, thereby improving your ‘exercise economy’, in other words, making you more ‘economical’ (in the exercise sense).
The best way to supplement with nitrate is via Beetroot Shots, which are available in the market. Each shot contains around 400mg of beetroot, which is the known dosage to improve exercise capacity and performance. More specifically, supplementing with 4-9 mmol of nitrate (1-2 beetroot shots) 2-3 hours before aerobic exercise has been deemed the best way of supplementation. Supplementation at the higher end of this range has shown to more beneficial, while also supplementing for a 3-4 days rather than consuming the supplement as a one time before your exercise session.
Fortunately, there are no known side effects with dietary nitrate supplementation. If you do consume beetroot shots as a means of supplementation, then you may experience Beeturia (red/pink urine). Otherwise, it is completely safe to use.
Dietary nitrate is best used for endurance athletes (recreational or competitive). It can be used prior to running, cycling or swimming, especially if performed for greater than 25 minutes. There is also evidence to suggest it will help for those who partake in endurance activities lasting longer than 90 minutes.
There you have it, performance-enhancing supplements that are evidence-based and have been shown to improve exercise capacity and performance. Not only is it key to follow the correct dosages and timing of supplement intake, it is also important to periodize your supplementation. For example, if you are going through periods of light training, there may be no need to supplement at the given dosages, or even supplement at all. The opposite holds true if you are going through intense exercise periods.
Remember, these are performance enhancers. While they will help you perform better, they won’t entirely do the work for you. You still have to put 100% effort in each session and work at the best of your abilities at all times!