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6 Best Supplements for Athletes to Consider

basketball player sitting on bench holding hand on ball

Whether you’re a professional athlete, a member of the military, a bodybuilder or an avid gym-goer, it is likely that you take some sort of supplement to enhance athletic performance.

This guess is backed by data which shows that while elite athletes take supplements more frequently, recreational athletes are still avid users.

When we are striving to be the best, whether it be a gold medalist runner, or the best in a race against ourselves, supplements are often used to help us get here. Many types of supplements exist, but not all are as efficacious as they claim to be.

Supplement Facts Examination By Characters

Credit: Chris Phillips

Some of the most popular supplements we see on the market today are:

  • proteins,
  • BCAAs,
  • caffeine,
  • and creatine.

But you will notice that not all of these make the list. How come?

Many may have research proving their efficacy, but not all have enough conclusive research to definitively show the potential to improve athletic performance.

If a supplement you take didn’t make the list, and you want to see what the research has to say about the supplement in question, I suggest you head over to the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements and check out their “Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance” post in the Fact Sheet for Health Professionals section.

6 Most Helpful Sports Supplements

Caffeine

Caffeine Extract

If you are anything like 64% of Americans, then it is likely you start your day with a cup of Joe. But did you know that cup of coffee has ergogenic effects that can actually help enhance performance in endurance activities? (1) It’s true and the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) agrees.

The ISSN released a position statement on the use of caffeine for performance that included the following statements:

(a) Caffeine is effective for enhancing sports performance in trained athletes when consumed in low-to-moderate dosages (~3-6 mg/kg) and overall does not result in further enhancement in performance when consumed in higher dosages (≥ 9 mg/kg).

(b) Caffeine is ergogenic for sustained maximal endurance exercise and has been shown to be highly effective for time-trial performance.

(c) Caffeine supplementation is beneficial for high-intensity exercise, including team sports such as soccer and rugby, both of which are categorized by intermittent activity within a period of prolonged duration (2).

So what does this mean?

Well in short, it means that caffeine works when we have around 3-6 mg per kilogram of body weight before an activity. In amounts more than this though, caffeine does not exert a stronger effect – there seems to be a cap on its effectiveness.

In addition, caffeine is great for athletes that are in both endurance activities such as running or team sports like soccer and when taken before these activities, it can enhance performance.

ⓘ However, too much caffeine is not only ineffective but can also lead to adverse effects.

The Office of Dietary supplements states that when pure caffeine at rates of 10-14g are consumed (about 150-200mg/kg) the following may occur:

  • insomnia,
  • restlessness,
  • nausea,
  • vomiting,
  • tachycardia,
  • and arrhythmia.

These rates are hard to reach with caffeinated coffee alone but are possible when using caffeine supplements (1).

Official Rankings

Protein

Protein Powders

If you have recently stepped foot into a health food store it is likely you have come across some sort of protein supplement.

There are protein supplements available for meat-eaters and vegetarians & vegans alike; and each claims the same thing, to optimize recovery after training.

Various clinical trials have been conducted on the use of protein in exercise recovery, and results have been positive for its use in athletics. But not all protein is created equal.

When we discuss the sports benefits of protein supplementation, we are referring to protein sources that contain all nine of the essential amino acids. These essential amino acids are protein building blocks that our body cannot make on our own, so we must consume them through the food we eat.

So what does this mean?

These amino acids are all also important in the efficacy of protein supplements, and it has been shown that all nine must be present for a protein supplement to help increase muscle mass and strength (1).

Whey and casein proteins are the best options as they contain all nine essential amino acids. Soy protein, pea protein, and other plant-based proteins do not contain all nine and this should be considered when using them for supplementation purposes.

How & When to Take Protein

Protein supplements have been found to be most effective immediately following exercise, in the first two hours after completion. An amount of 1 gram per kilogram of body weight is recommended in this time period.

Supplementing with protein has been shown to be safe and no upper limit currently exists. That being said, limited studies have been published examining protein taken in amounts of more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight.

ⓘ For this reason, supplementation above the 2g per kg (or 2.20lbs) is not recommended.

Official Rankings

Creatine

Creatine Supplements

Creatine is one of the best-studied and most used supplements. Creatine supplements are commonly used for their effect as an ergogenic aid.

It works by creating ATP in the body, which is the energy we use when exercising. If we can increase the amount of energy available, we can increase the amount and intensity of exercise being completed (1).

How to Take Creatine

A common way to consume creatine is in two-phases. The first is 5-7 days where an individual consumes 20 grams per day, also known as the loading phase.

The next phase is the maintenance phase, where the individual consumes 3-5 grams per day (1).

While no consistent adverse side effects have been reported, weight gain is possible with creatine supplementation.

Creatine not only increases water retention but also it has the potential to increase muscle mass thus increasing body weight.

The ISSN claims that creatine monohydrate is the most effective supplement on the market for enhancing capacity for high-intensity exercise and consequently it is the most widely studied and used form of creatine.

Official Rankings

Sodium Bicarbonate

Sodium Extract

If you looked in your pantry right now, it is likely you could find sodium bicarbonate sitting on the shelf next to your sugar and flour. That is because sodium bicarbonate is actually just baking soda.

This common baking ingredient not only makes your cookies soft and fluffy, but also might improve performance in short-term, high-intensity exercise.

ⓘ Do not consume baking soda. Sodium Bicarbonate comes in supplement form.

In aerobic exercise, our body uses oxygen, but in anaerobic exercise such as short-term and high-intensity exercise, our body no longer has that oxygen to draw on. When there is a lack of oxygen, lactic acid is a natural byproduct.

This lactic acid is what is thought to bring fatigue to athletes.

Sodium bicarbonate is basically acting as a buffer in our body and temporarily increasing the pH of our blood when consumed. This helps lower the lactic acid in our body and thus prevent fatigue (1).

Sodium bicarbonate has been shown to have an effect on a variety of athletes including swimmers, cyclist, and rugby players alike. The dosage at which it is effective has been found to be around 300mg per kilogram of bodyweight.

Unfortunately for us, recreational athletes, this supplement may not be as effective as studies have only shown effectiveness in trained athletes.

Side effects that may occur include stomach issues like pain, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting.

These can be avoided if the dose is split into smaller ones over a period of one hour. Sodium bicarbonate, as the name implies, has a large amount of sodium and should be avoided by those who are avoiding high intakes of sodium (1).

Betaine

Sources Of Betaine

Betaine was originally used to overcome muscle weakness in polio symptoms. With vaccines, its use for polio is no longer necessary and it has since been studied for its ability to enhance physical performance (3).

When tested on individuals completing a weight lifting program, betaine was shown to enhance body composition, arm size, bench press work capacity, and power. However, it did not have an effect on strength in the study participants (4).

Betaine has also been studied in non-athletes. In particular, a study conducted with untrained collegiate-aged females, betaine was shown to lower fat mass when accompanied by a resistance training program (5).

So what does this mean?

When paired with exercise, betaine has the potential to decrease fat mass, increase lean mass, and increase overall power.

Short-term use of 2-5 grams for 15 days has been found to be safe and at this time, with no known significant adverse effects of supplementation. While these clinical trials are promising, conflicting results for its use as an ergogenic aid exist.

ⓘ Larger randomized control trials are necessary to determine the exact function and dosage at which betaine may increase performance (6).

Official Rankings

Beetroot

Beetroot Extract

Nitric oxide is a gas that is naturally present in our body. Sounds a little intimidating, but it actually works to expand our blood vessels and allows more oxygen to get to important places, such as our muscles.

When we consume a food that has nitrates in it, some of the nitrates are converted to nitric oxide having the aforementioned effect.

Why do we care? Well, beets and beet juice are actually some of the richest sources of nitrate.

The science behind beets makes sense and the studies have backed it up. Clinical trials examining the effects of beet juice on performance have shown its effect on aerobic (meaning the exercise requires oxygen) endurance activities like running and swimming (1).

Generally, beet juice is safe when consumed 1-2 cups per day but beware, it may turn your urine pink or red.

While studies have been conducted with beet juice, we are less sure as to whether beets in powdered form have the same effect (1).

Official Rankings

What You Should Know When Choosing

As we discuss the best supplements for athletic performance, we must consider that not all supplements are created equal.

While the FDA regulates supplements, they do not review and/or approve supplements before they hit the market. Rather it is up to the company to provide accurate information regarding health claims and product ingredients.

Although the FDA can retroactively remove these products from the market, nothing is stopping from getting there in the first place. This is important to keep in mind as consumers to ensure the source of your supplement is wholesome.

There are also several ingredients that are now banned from supplements and should be avoided due to adverse health effects, which include serious illness and even death.

These banned ingredients include:

  • ephedra,
  • dimethylamylamine,
  • and androstenedione.

Thankfully, there are third-party companies working to certify that supplements do contain what they claim to and that they do not contain any banned substances.

The NSF (nsf.org) and Banned Substances Control Group (bscg.org) are two organizations doing just this. If you see the NSF sticker on any supplement, that means they have been tested and approved by this agency.

In addition to the quality of a supplement, it is also important to consult with your doctor when beginning any sort of supplement regime. Some supplements may have drug interactions and a medical professional should determine if it is appropriate for you to consume such supplements.

Overall, many of the above supplements can be consumed through diet alone. This should be considered when choosing a supplement regime as well. Ideally, a healthy balanced diet that meets your needs should be sufficient to support training. Supplements should not replace any one part of your diet rather supplement a healthy diet.

Recap on Using Supplements for Sports

From the Olympic athlete to the average gym-goer, supplementation for athletic performance is an incredibly popular practice that is continuing to grow momentum.

Many supplements exist that have efficacy, and when used properly can help in improving power, strength, and performance.

Some of the most popular and efficacious supplements on the market today are:

While many other supplements that work to enhance athletic performance exist, it is important to review the existing literature to ensure efficacy. As mentioned, a great resource to keep up with up to date research on such issues is the Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance Fact Sheet.

You should also consider the brand you choose and whether it has been tested by an outside agency for efficacy and purity.

Supplements can be used healthfully to improve athletic ability, and as more research in this area surfaces, we are learning more and more about how they can be used in exercise and sport.

Still, it is advised that you chat with your doctor before beginning any new supplement regime. Some of these supplements may interact with other medications you may be taking and some have side effects not listed in this review.

Keep reading: 9 Most Helpful Supplements for Runners

ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Allison.

References
  1. Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance – Fact Sheet for Health Professionals [Internet]. National Institute of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. 2017 [cited 2018 May 12]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-HealthProfessional/#disc
  2. Goldstein ER, Ziegenfuss T, Kalman D, Kreider R, Campbell B, Wilborn C, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr [Internet]. 2010 Jan 27 [cited 2018 Dec 11];7(1):5. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20205813
  3. Craig SA. Betaine in human nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr [Internet]. 2004 Sep 1 [cited 2018 Nov 26];80(3):539–49. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/80/3/539/4690529
  4. Cholewa JM, Wyszczelska-Rokiel M, Glowacki R, Jakubowski H, Matthews T, Wood R, et al. Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone. J Int Soc Sports Nutr [Internet]. 2013 Aug 22 [cited 2018 Nov 26];10(1):39. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23967897
  5. Cholewa JM, Hudson A, Cicholski T, Cervenka A, Barreno K, Broom K, et al. The effects of chronic betaine supplementation on body composition and performance in collegiate females: a double-blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr [Internet]. 2018 Dec 31 [cited 2018 Nov 26];15(1):37. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30064450
  6. Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance [Internet]. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. 2017 [cited 2018 Nov 12]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-HealthProfessional/

Stock Photos from Raw Pixel / puhhha / Shutterstock

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