A few days ago I wrote an article on core supplements that athletes, and really anyone living a stressful lifestyle, should take to optimize performance. If you haven’t read that yet, go back and do it now as that a clean diet, then the core supplements make the foundation of performance before anything below matters. If you haven’t spent some time cleaning up your diet then you should stop reading this and get to work on optimizing your nutrition for your lifestyle. There are a lot of resources and nutrition coaches available that can help you if you don’t know where to start.
For this article I wanted to focus on supplements that actually have studies showing an ergogenic effect and is legal for competing athletes. If you have ever walked into your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe you have noticed that there are literally thousands of products marketed to athletes. Most don’t have any supporting science, are often cross contaminated, and not accurately labeled. Finding clean, high quality supplements is often difficult in the packed supplement market. As I stated in the previous article, I highly recommend getting NSF certified products to make sure you are getting what you think you are getting at the reported dosage levels. There are a lot of shady supplement companies and it is best to seek out higher quality products even if they cost a bit more. If you are a competing athlete you should also be familiar with the USADA drug resource tool to make sure whatever you are taking is legal both in and out of competition.
OK, so what really works? It is a pretty short list. Everything on this has been shown in at least one independent study to have a positive effect on athletic performance. It is important to realize that just because something works in a study, doesn’t mean it is going to be ideal for you. Everyone needs to experiment away from competition to see what really works for them. N=1 is what really matters.
- Caffeine- Who doesn’t appreciate that pre-race espresso or mega venti americano supreme. Caffeine does more than just act as stimulant to get you pumped on the start line. Caffeine has been shown to free up fatty acids for fuel, decrease rate of perceived exertion, decreases insulin sensitivity, increase aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and increase power output in cyclists and weight lifters. Genetically there are fast and slow metabolizers of caffeine. Fast metabolizers will process and filter out the caffeine faster. They also get a bigger health benefit from caffeine than slow metabolizers. Fast metabolizers often need a slightly larger dose to have a beneficial effect. Slow metabolisers may need a relatively small dose or avoid caffeine altogether. For them the caffeine stays in the system too long and the negatives (primarily higher blood pressure and anxiety) start to outweigh the positives. Dialing in your ideal dose for caffeine is something you would want to do well before any major competitions. Lower is often better with caffeine as higher doses can be very dangerous. If you have any cardiovascular issues you should ask a doctor before using.
- Sodium Bicarbonate- Yep, this is baking soda. You probably won’t find this at your local GNC because it is just too cheap. $1.50 will get you enough sodium bicarbonate to for an entire year! Sodium Bicarbonate is a buffering agent against acidity in the human body. There are two ways to take Sodium Bicarbonate, you can take acutely before competition or load in the days prior to major competition. The acute method is easier but has slightly lower effects. To do this you would take 200/300mg/Kg of body weight taken 45 – 90 minutes before exercise. To load you would take 500mg/kg of body weight divided into 3 – 5 doses in the 4 days prior to competition. It isn’t needed to take on the day of competition. Studies have shown that high responders to sodium bicarbonate loading can see an advantage of up to 8%. That is huge! Of course it doesn’t come with some down side. Baking soda can cause some serious intestinal distress (i.e. disaster pants). You can also use this a few times a year before the body learns how to create more acid to balance out the basic effects of the sodium bicarbonate. Try this outside of competition first and then limit yourself to using for only a few big races a year. It is important to note that sodium bicarbonate is 27% sodium and should be used with caution if you are hypertensive sodium sensitive.
- Arginine/L-Citruline/Beet Juice- There has been a lot written on the ergogenic effects of beet juice so I won’t beet (get it…) this one to death. Beet juice has a vasodilator effect that allows the circulatory system to function better increasing aerobic function. What a lot of people don’t know is that you can get the same effects from the amino acid Arginine, or its precursor L-Citruline, without the panic of seeing pink pee in the morning after a big glass of beet juice. Ideal doses for an ergogenic effect are in the 5 – 6g range for most athletes.
- Creatine- This is one of the most studied substances ever. A quick search on PubMed results in over 51000 studies. Most people view creatine as a “strength training” supplement since it help support the phosphocreatine system and quick release of energy but we are starting to see more studies showing its potential to increase performance in endurance sports. Most recently we have seen studies showing creatine increasing muscle endurance, slightly increasing VO2, increasing testosterone release, and increasing anaerobic work capacity in endurance sports. Creatine has also been shown to be very safe and early reports of kidney, liver, and cramping issues have been unfounded. Although there is a downside for endurance athletes, creatine does lead to some water retention and weight gain. This varies by the athlete but in my experience 1 – 3 pounds is pretty normal. That may be a factor if your key event has a lot of climbing and body weight is an important issue. Ideal dosage for endurance athletes using creatine is a week at 5g a day to load, then 2g per day to maintain levels. Creatine also has impressive synergistic effects with sodium bicarbonate and may be ideal to be taken together.
None of these supplements are all the revolutionary and I think that is an important thing to realize. Don’t fall for the new wonder supplement with crazy claims of athletic gains, almost all of those don’t pan out in independent studies. Also note that none of these say anything about weight loss. I have yet to see a supplement that can actually help with weight loss beyond appetite control. Save yourself some money and just go buy some high fiber vegetables to control your hunger.
To help evaluate supplements I would look to sites like Examine.com, ask coach and nutrition experts, and if you are a competing athlete make sure to check the USADA drug reference online. That is your responsibility if you are competing!