If you are looking to improve your athletic performance the best thing you can do is to exercise, eat a nutrient dense ancestral diet, get adequate sleep, and optimize your recovery. No supplement will outperform these big rocks. You need to optimize your lifestyle appropriately in order to perform your best.
That said, when you are looking to squeeze out every last bit of performance you can on competition day, certain supplements can help. Here are the top 3 supplements that will provide you the most bang for your buck!
That’s right the big ole cup of joe you drink every morning is quite the performance enhancer. Endurance athletes seem to benefit from caffeine the most, but studies done on strength, speed, and power athletes have also shown performance improvements, just not as large.
Caffeine has an effect on the central nervous system which alters rating of perceived exertion, muscle pain, and muscle contraction. In other words caffeine can make physical activity feel easier, dull the pain during physical activity, and allow for more efficient muscle contractions, all of which allow for better performance! In addition, caffeine can improve cognitive function, which results in better decision making during competition.
When it comes to dosing, most studies show a benefit from ingesting 3-6mg/kg of body mass. If you weigh 150lbs, that is about 70 kg, so you would take around 280mg of caffeine assuming you chose 4mg/kg of body weight.
The other thing to consider when talking about caffeine supplementation is timing. Caffeine has a half-life of 4-6 hours, meaning after 4-6 hours half of the caffeine you ingested is cleared from the body. If you take caffeine too early, it might not give you as great of a performance boost. The general recommendation is to time your caffeine supplementation about 60 minutes prior to exercise. If you are an endurance athlete you might also consider supplementing caffeine during your exercise as it can fight off physical and mental fatigue via the mechanisms I mentioned above.
The final thing to consider when it comes to caffeine is how it is consumed. Most people are going to instinctively turn to coffee, as it is the best known and most widely consumed caffeine source. However, that is probably not the best choice as the amount of caffeine in coffee can vary greatly, not only from one brand to the next, but even from one cup to the next .
When it comes to caffeine it is best to use a measured supplement. The most popular form is caffeine tablets, which you consume just by swallowing. Other popular options are sports gels/chews and gum.
In addition, the form in which you consume caffeine can affect how quickly you experience its effects. For example, caffeine ingested via a gum may impact you more quickly than a supplement you need to swallow and needs to be digested. This is important to keep in mind when it comes to timing your caffeine supplementation.
There can be a lot of individuality when it comes to the performance impact of caffeine supplementation. Genetics can play a role in how it affects you. Some people do better with much smaller doses and larger doses can negatively affect their performance. It is important to experiment with caffeine in training to find the right supplementation form, dosage and timing for you.
For a very comprehensive review of caffeine and its performance impacts you can read the ISSN’s position stand on the topic which goes into much more detail.
One of the things that causes a reduction in performance is the burning sensation in the muscle we get when our exercise intensity gets really high. As our intensity increases, our muscles are not able to use fat and oxygen to provide energy to the muscle quick enough. When this happens the muscle turns to glycogen to provide the fuel it needs. The downside of using glycogen is that it produces excess hydrogen ions. If these hydrogen ions can’t be cleared fast enough they build up, causing an acidic environment resulting in a burning sensation in the muscle. As a result muscle contractions become slower in decreased performance.
Beta Alanine helps clear hydrogen ions in the muscle which in turn avoids the slowing of muscle contractions.
Since the mechanism of action for Beta Alanine is clearing hydrogen ions, if no hydrogen ions are produced or they do not build up there is no point in using it. So if you are an ultra-endurance athlete exercising and racing at an aerobic effort Beta Alanine won’t be of much benefit to you. Also if you are doing a super short effort like a 1 rep max deadlift again Beta Alanine won’t help there either because you are not working long enough to tap into glycogen stores. The sweet spot in terms of exercise duration for Beta Alanine supplement is most likely around 1-4 minutes.
With Beta Alanine you need to take it each day for a few weeks in order for it to be effective. Most research suggests that the effective dose is 4-6 grams/day spread out in 2 grams of less doses throughout the day. At a minimum, you would need to supplement with Beta Alanine for 2 weeks before noticing any positive effects, the biggest benefits are seen after 4 weeks of supplementation.
The only side effect of taking Beta Alanine is sometimes people can experience a tingling or itching sensation after taking it. If you experience that sensation you just need to drop the dosage a bit and increase the number of times you are taking it throughout the day.
If you want to dive deep into Beta Alanines performance benefits you can check out the ISSNs position stand.
There has been no supplement that has been studied more than creatine and it has been proven time and time again to be beneficial for sports performance. Creatine is particularly beneficial in power and speed sports because it helps increase adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production.
What is ATP?
Most people are familiar with the fact that the body can use fat and glucose (carbs) for fuel. In order to use fat as a fuel the body requires oxygen. Once there is not enough oxygen present due to the intensity of the work you are doing, the body will switch from predominantly using fat to using glucose. However if the exercise you are doing is so short and so intense that neither of those fuels can be used, the body relies on ATP to fuel its work.
Creatine is naturally found in red meat and seafood. The body can also synthesize creatine from amino acids in the body. However, the body does not naturally max out its creatine stores, so this is where supplementation can be beneficial. Athletes that don’t eat red meat or seafood can get even greater benefits from creatine as their creatine stores will naturally be lower.
The recommended supplementation protocol for creatine is to take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate for about 3 weeks in order to fully saturated creatine stores. Alternatively you could take 5 grams four times a day for 5-7 days to load your creatine stores quickly.
The only potential downside to creatine supplementation is that you might retain a bit more water in your muscle. Other than that, creatine has been proven to be safe and effective in many studies.
For a more complete understanding of creatine’s effectiveness in sports you can read the ISSN’s position stand on the subject.
The Icing On The Cake
Are there more supplements that could increase your sports performance?
Probably, but these three supplements have a very strong track record of both effectiveness and safety.
As I said above supplements are always going to be the “icing on the cake” when it comes to your sports performance. Nothing is going to help you more than living a healthy lifestyle and focusing on your training. This is why for all athletes I work with, we focus on the main pillars of sleep, stress, social connection, diet, exercise, movement and social connection. If any of these are out of line no amount of supplementation is going to help. To learn more about how to align your lifestyle for optimal sports performance my newsletter can be a valuable source of information. To sign up to get weekly actionable content on how you can improve your sports performance via optimizing your lifestyle fill out the form below.
- (n.d.). Caffeine content of common beverages – PubMed. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/762339/ ↑