Since the dawn of competitive sport, athletes have sought ways to gain a competitive edge and this certainly shows no signs of slowing down as evidenced by a quick look at the supplement industry.
Have you ever walked into a store and been overwhelmed by the stacks of containers promising to help you burn this and build that? Ever left loaded down with bags and a maxed-out credit card but no real idea what it was all for?
While MTMM advocates a whole foods first approach and encourages our members to only supplement in the context of clinical deficiency, there are a few substances out there that can safely give you a bit of a boost.
This blog will break down the select few legal and safe substances that are nearly unanimously considered to aid performance. Of course, there are many more out there purported to have bigger and better effects, however, proper clinical research has either not been undertaken on these aids, or no consistent benefit to their use has been demonstrated, so you’ve gotta ask, “is it worth it?”
We all know and love it. What we might not realize is that caffeine is the most widely accepted performance enhancer out there, whether it’s being used in the home, gym, or office.
Caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist with central, neuronal, and metabolic effects. In sport it can help recruit more motor units, decrease fatigue, and improve neuromuscular coupling, all of which will improve performance. It can also cause a slight increase lipolysis which is why it is used as adjunct in many “fat burner” compounds.
Don’t take this as a free ticket to espresso city though – doses of 3mg/kg provide performance enhancing effects, but this might be relatively high for some people (an average 12oz drip coffee contains about 80mg), and possible side effects include insomnia, GI irritation, tremor, increased heart rate, and adrenal impairment if you’re already under eating, overtraining, or highly stressed. Moderation is key when it comes to caffeine, however it does maintain the number one spot in terms of most researched, effective, and safe pre-workout formulas.
Creatine is hands-down the most widely researched performance-enhancing nutrient on the market. Creatine is a component of the intracellular energy storage compound phosphocreatine and is essential for explosive, dynamic movements and activity. Increasing creatine stores promotes optimization of the P-Cr pathway and thus provides an edge for strength and sprint athletes.
Supplementation with 3g/day and greater is associated with muscular hypertrophy and improved contractile performance in high-intensity exercise.
Loading phases and creatine cycling were both previously advocated approaches to supplementation, however research does not show a benefit with such protocols, and consistent daily supplementation has been shown to have the greatest effects (we recommend taking it away from your caffeine though as this can cause some major GI upset).
3. Buffering Agents
Buffering agents have historically been used during very high-intensity exercise to help clear lactate and increase fatigue resistance (think of it as helping delay or decrease that burning sensation you get 90-120 seconds into a near max effort workout).
In the past, sodium bicarbonate was used to buffer cellular biproducts, but it resulted in some pretty significant gastrointestinal upset and even vomiting – not so performance enhancing. More frequently beta-alanine (a precursor to carnosine) has been shown to improve performance for high-intensity exercise when consumed in doses of 4-6g/day. It too comes with its own harmless but annoying side effect: paresthesias (tingly skin). Beta-alanine also won’t help improve your aerobic performance, so if you struggle during longer moderate intensity workouts then that is probably something you want to address in your activity choices, after-all there’s no shortcut to fitness!
And the number one performance enhancer?
4. Real Food!
It should come as no surprise that just as there are no short-cuts to fitness, there’s no safe, legal supplement that can hold a candle to an appropriate diet rich in micronutrients and with carbohydrates, protein, and fat adjusted to meet your specific needs.
Protein in key for both maintaining and building lean mass (and therefore strength and power), however there is no scientific evidence to suggest that either protein or amino acid supplementation is superior to adequate amounts of protein obtained from whole food sources! While a shake may be a convenient option (especially in that post workout period where it may take you a while to get to your meal) whole food always comes with more synergistic benefits than isolated sources!
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source and varying amounts need to be consumed for different types and amounts of exercise. There is a role for intra-workout carbohydrate supplementation during some types of activity exceeding 60 minutes, however this should always be assessed and prescribed on an individual basis, and appropriate carbohydrate intake from your diet and meals away from exercise will always help you maximize your potential.
Finally, fats. While we don’t use fats as a primary energy source intra-workout it is important to have an appropriate mix of saturated and unsaturated fats in your diet (making up 20-30% of total intake on average). This is particularly significant for ensuring hormonal health – if your hormones aren’t functioning nothing else will be either. While we want to keep them away from workout times we definitely want to ensure we’re consuming quality fats on a daily basis!
At Married to My Macros we strongly advocate that all of our clients achieve their nutrient needs through whole food sources. However, there are certain circumstances where we might need a little bit of a boost. If you’re interested in finding out what supplements, if any, you should be taking and/or how to adjust your current nutrition regime to adequately meet your needs, book in with one of our nutritionists today: