22 Mar Supplements for Athletes Part 2
Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
If you’re an athlete, you may have read about or were recommended to add supplements to your nutrition and workout regimen. Whether your goal is to increase muscle size and strength or maximize endurance, supplements may help you to achieve those goals. From creatine to branched chain amino acids, the world of supplements can be very confusing and you may not know what is right for your body and level of activity. Working with a registered dietitian to come up with the best plan for you and your goals can help take out the guesswork. Always consult with your doctor before beginning anything new.
There are many dietary supplements on the market that claim to enhance exercise and athletic performance. Athletes may choose to take supplements to improve strength or endurance, increase exercise efficiency, achieve a performance goal faster, and increase tolerance to more intense training. Some supplements also help enhance recovery from exercise and reduce chance of injury.1 Supplements come in a variety of forms including capsules, liquids, powders, and bars.
While there is evidence that supplements can enhance athletic performance, a nutritionally adequate diet and sufficient hydration are imperative for any individual to perform at his or her best. Athletes require enough carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fluids as well as vitamins and minerals. Dietary supplements are only effective when they are adding to an already adequate diet, not substituting important macro and micronutrients from food. Some individuals may also need to increase their micronutrient intake through supplements based on their food intake and lab values. Athletes engaging in endurance activity for more than an hour or in extreme environments, such as high altitudes or very hot or cold temperatures, may benefit from supplements to improve performance, gain a competitive edge, and recover from training.2
So, what’s the evidence behind these supplements? Do they really work as claimed? Let’s take a deeper dive into 6 of them.
Creatine is thought to improve strength, increase lean muscle mass, and help muscles recover more quickly. Creatine is found naturally in your muscles, but your body can only produce so much, which is why it is taken as a supplement by those engaging in certain sports. It is used most commonly in activities such as weight lifting and sprinting because its muscular boost helps achieve bursts of speed and effort. Studies show that creatine is a safe supplement with few known side effects. The most common adverse effect is water retention when just starting the supplement. When combined with other supplements or taken at high doses, there have been cases of kidney and liver complications.3
There are two main types of creatine, creatine hydrochloride (HCL) and creatine monohydrate. Creatine monohydrate is more commonly used than creatine HCL and there is extensive research that shows it increases energy, power, and stamina. Creatine HCL has a water molecule attached, which increases its solubility and absorption. You can take less of this kind and there is no risk of water retention.
Pre-workout supplements are gaining in popularity to improve fitness and energy to power through challenging workouts. Some fitness experts say that they are not necessary and potentially dangerous. Pre-workout supplements are typically taken as a powder that you mix into water before exercise. They usually include amino acids, beta-alanine, caffeine, creatine, and artificial sweeteners. Since these substances are not regulated by the FDA, many have not been tested for purity or quality. There is limited research showing pre-workout’s effectiveness, but some studies suggest that some may have a benefit on athletic performance.4
Whey protein is frequently recommended for athletes because it is easily and quickly digested. Research shows that whey protein can help improve your muscles’ ability to recover faster and adapt to more intense exercise because it is found to stimulate muscle protein synthesis more effectively than casein or soy proteins.5. One study showed that supplementing with whey protein during a prolonged period of strength and resistance training lead to significantly greater increases in muscle mass and strength compared to the same training without protein supplementation.6 While it is certainly possible to consume adequate protein through food, whey protein supplementation may be helpful for increased muscle strength.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids are essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are primarily found in meat, dairy, and legumes and they help stimulate the build-up of protein in muscle and they reduce muscle breakdown. Research also shows that drinking branched-chain amino acids during a workout may help speed up recovery. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that those who took 100 milligrams per kilogram branched-chain amino acids had significantly less muscle soreness after a high-volume squat workout.7
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which refers to an herb that is thought to have health benefits. While adaptogens are most frequently used for their effects on decreasing stress and anxiety, ashwagandha is thought to have benefits for athletic performance. One review looked at 12 studies in men and women who took 120mg to 1250mg of ashwagandha per day. The studies showed that the athletes had enhanced strength and oxygen use during exercise.8. Additionally, few studies show ashwagandha’s potential benefit in increasing muscle strength. Much more research is needed on benefits and dosing of ashwagandha for athletic performance.
For both strength and endurance athletes, intense training may cause tiny muscle tears and lead to muscle damage and inflammation. Too much inflammation can delay the recovery process and result in injury over time. Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids known for their anti-inflammatory effects and may be a good addition to a recovery regimen. Research shows that taking omega-3 fatty acids may reduce post-exercise soreness and speed up the recovery process.10
- Kreider RB, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Campbell B, Almada AL, Collins R, Cooke M, Earnest CP, Greenwood M, Kalman DS, Kerksick CM, Kleiner SM, Leutholtz B, Lopez H, Lowery LM, Mendel R, Smith A, Spano M, Wildman R, Willoughby DS, Ziegenfuss TN, Antonio J. ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2010;7:7
- Office of dietary supplements – dietary supplements for exercise and athletic performance.
- Hall M, Trojian TH. Creatine supplementation. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2013;12(4):240-244. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31829cdff2
- Harty PS, Zabriskie HA, Erickson JL, Molling PE, Kerksick CM, Jagim AR. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements, safety implications, and performance outcomes: a brief review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):41. Published 2018 Aug 8. doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0247-6
- Cribb PJ, Williams AD, Carey MF, Hayes A. The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006;16(5):494-509. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.16.5.494
- Cermak NM, Res PT, de Groot LC, Saris WH, van Loon LJ. Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;96(6):1454-1464. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.037556
- Shimomura Y, Inaguma A, Watanabe S, et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010;20(3):236-244. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.20.3.236
- Bonilla DA, Moreno Y, Gho C, Petro JL, Odriozola-Martínez A, Kreider RB. Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) on Physical Performance: Systematic Review and Bayesian Meta-Analysis. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2021;6(1):20. Published 2021 Feb 11. doi:10.3390/jfmk6010020
- Jouris KB, McDaniel JL, Weiss EP. The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to eccentric strength exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2011;10(3):432-438. Published 2011 Sep 1.