Athletes are always looking for the next best thing to give them that one percent edge over the rest of the field, and are oftentimes looking for supplements to tilt the scale in their favor. We are frequently asked about supplements; which ones to take, which are safe, and whether they really work?
Here we’ll dive into my list of go-to supplements. The complete list of supplements I use, we recommend, and which ones are worth (or are a waste of) your money.
However, any time we talk about supplements, we always have to lay the groundwork with a few disclaimers… starting with a bit of a personal one: I’m a Ph.D. candidate and health enthusiast who geeks out on science and data. With that in mind, we’re taking a deep dive into the science behind popular performance supplements.
I’m a big believer in making sure your nutrition, lifestyle and recovery are dialed-in before you start adding supplements to your daily routine. Taking supplements with a crappy diet while you get four hours of sleep every night is like getting a new paint job on your car with a blown transmission. Remember, supplements are just that, a supplement to current diet or lifestyle. Therefore, before you go supplementing your diet, it is important to know what your body needs. The most accurate way? A comprehensive blood test. Knowing exactly where your deficiencies lie and how severe they are will lead to a supplementation protocol that will optimize your body and performance.
If you are an athlete who competes in competitions policed by drug testing agencies, it is extremely important that you are choosing the highest quality supplements you can find. The supplement industry is relatively unregulated and just because you can buy a particular supplement at your local health food store doesn’t make it safe to consume. The possibility of tainted supplements coming off the production line or supplements on the shelf that contain substance that are perfectly legal to consume, yet are banned for use in competitions does exist. Always know exactly what your supplement contains by selecting quality sources that do proper quality control of their products. If this is a relevant concern for you, we have an option to only see supplement recommendations that are NSF certified safe for sport and banned-substance free.
Ok now let's get down and dirty on what I think are great go-to supplements you should try and add to your routine, and ones you might want to think twice about. This is my personal list of recommendations, and by no means is a complete exhaustive list on everything on the market. There are thousands of supplements out there and just because you don’t see certain things here doesn’t mean it might not be beneficial. When in doubt, always do your research or ask a physician before adding supplements to your daily routine.
Supplements to support physical performance
Creatine is one of, if not the most, studied supplements on the market. There are countless studies proving it’s effectiveness in building strength and power---a great benefit for the CrossFit athlete.
Creatine is naturally found in our bodies and is used to rapidly replace phosphate ions to ADP to create ATP, our cells molecule (translation: it helps your body create energy). When we perform a short, intense movement that requires maximal muscle contraction like a heavy back squat, our muscles rely on the phosphocreatine pathway of energy metabolism to rapidly produce ATP in order to lift the bar. Supplementing with creatine ensures your muscle cells are saturated and replaces that which you use during training.
There are several different types of creatine on the market but creatine monohydrate seems to have the most evidence proving it’s worth and is also the cheapest. Taking 5mg per day either before or after training seems to be the most effective, and in my experience, there is no need to do a loading phase or cycling on or off while using it. There is a possibility of excess water retention in your muscles with the monohydrate form, but unless you’re in a sport that requires weight classes, this usually isn’t a problem.
Whey and casein protein:
For athletes, supplementing with protein powders have shown plenty of evidence in increasing lean muscle mass and increasing recovery from intense exercise. To add to that, we often find athletes have a tough time getting the required amount of protein from their diets. I always prefer to get my daily protein requirements from whole food sources but have found protein supplements pretty useful at certain points in the day.
Using whey protein immediately following a workout is very beneficial in the synthesis of new muscle cells, a critical component of recovery seeing that you just destroyed many of them, this helps jump start the repair and recovery process. Whey protein is a fast digesting source that should be digested and absorbed within 30 minutes after your training sessions. I prefer 100% whey isolate protein because it is greater than 90% pure protein and other fats and sugars are filtered out.
Casein protein is similar to whey in it’s nutritional profile but is a much slower digesting protein. This makes casein an excellent choice for a meal replacement or to use before bed to improve muscle recovery and repair, much of which is done while we sleep. Your body can only absorb so much protein at once though, so stick to ranges of ~25-35 grams per serving.
Now I don’t mean rice, potatoes and bread here. I’m talking about carbohydrate supplements. These have been around for quite awhile but not many people know or think about them for use in supplementation. These can be a great addition to your pre-, intra-, or post-workout nutrition and they provide the needed energy to get you through a tough and/or long training session and quickly replenish your glycogen (energy) stores in the recovery process. For pre- or intra-workout, stick with cyclic dextran. This is a slower absorbing carb supplement that can provide more of a sustained energy source while you workout. For post-workout, you want to immediately replenish the energy you just burned through, so choose a fast absorbing source like waxy maize.
Supplements to support overall wellness
This might be my most recommended supplement that I believe everyone should take. Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin at all, but a hormone that is involved in maintaining a strong immune system, building strong bones, and improving cardiovascular health to name a few. Our body naturally produces vitamin D from cholesterol after exposure to UV light, which gives it the nickname, the sunshine vitamin.
Because our lifestyles nowadays keep us indoors for the majority of the day, and depending on where you live, sun exposure can be nonexistent for half of the year, leaving the majority of North Americans deficient in Vitamin D.
Vitamin D3 in particular, will help improve mood, sleep, and brain health as it is needed to produce neurotransmitter serotonin from tryptophan. In turn, serotonin can then be converted to melatonin which helps regulate our sleep cycle. For this reason I like to take mine at night, and based on your blood tests, InsideTracker will recommend the perfect dose for you.
Magnesium is another essential mineral and electrolyte used for over 600 chemical reactions in body. Most western diets are deficient in magnesium because of the high dependency on processed and refined carbohydrates and grains that lack magnesium which make up a large majority of people’s diets. Alternatively, magnesium can be found in large quantities in dark leafy greens like kale or spinach. Again, InsideTracker’s recommendations will give you the perfect dose based on your blood tests. When choosing a supplement, avoid the oxide or chloride forms as they are usually poorly absorbed and can cause stomach irritation. Instead look for carbonate, citrate or malate forms. Like vitamin D, I like to take magnesium at night because it will help relax tense muscles and can help with sleep as it aids in production of melatonin and helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Other popular supplements
This could easily have gone into my go-to choices for supplements to take for performance. It is the most widely used “supplement” in the world and there is a wealth of evidence proving its effectiveness to increase alertness, boost energy, and lower perceived exertion levels. Also, it is one of the only ingredients found in over the counter pre-workout supplements that actually works to increase athletic performance. The reason why it failed to make my cut as a go-to is because of the fact that it is so widely used.
The average person consumes 1-3 cups of coffee per day and because of this, their tolerance to caffeine is to the point that supplementing with it before a training session rarely has the desired effect. It is possible to decrease your tolerance overtime by eliminating your daily caffeine consumption. Something else to keep in mind is that it is recommended to completely hold of on consuming any caffeine as night time approaches as not to interfere with your natural sleep cycle, so for those training in the afternoon, I would not recommend this at all.
If you are someone who has eliminated most caffeine sources from your lifestyle, you could benefit from it’s performance enhancing powers, but you’re not completely in the clear here. Caffeine can be considered a banned substance if you have more than ~500 mg (equal to almost 6 cups of coffee) at the time of competition.
Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are a group of three amino acids, (the building blocks of all protein) leucine, valine and isoleucine. These three amino acids are considered essential amino acids because our bodies cannot make them on their own, rather, they are generated solely from one's diet. They are believed to be involved with muscle growth and repair as well as fat loss while preserving lean muscle mass, but these findings have yet to be confirmed by published research. Research shows that the only beneficial use of BCAAs is found in those who follow a predominantly vegan or vegetarian diet. While there is no downside to supplementing with BCAAs, the lack of research slips them into my limbo list – they might just be a waste of your money.
Another amino acid, glutamine is the most abundant amino acid found in skeletal muscle tissue. Supplementing with glutamine has been shown to aid in muscle synthesis, recovery, and repair, however these effects are slight at best. Unlike BCAAs, Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid (NEAA), so through proper nutrition, your body can can make enough of it.
Another NEAA, beta-alanine helps produce carnosine when combined with fellow A.A. histidine. Carnosine is used by skeletal muscle to buffer acidosis when exercising, thus prolonging muscle fatigue and increasing muscle endurance. As you can probably tell, this is highly beneficial in the sport of CrossFit. While the research does actually prove beta-alanine to have very beneficial and consistent results, I personally have never noticed a difference in using it and is why I do not have this as a go-to supplement.
Nitric oxide boosters:
Several supplements will fall into the category of nitric oxide boosters. these include arginine, citrulline malate, betaine, and several others. These supplements aid in the production of nitric oxide which among several things increases blood flow and vasodilation. More blood flow means more oxygen to your muscles, thus better performance. Although they are backed by solid scientific research, like beta-alanine, the real physiological effects are sometimes hard to be seen.
Don’t waste your money on these supplements
Pre-workout supplements usually come in the form of powders with an almost infinite ingredients list and often contain “proprietary blends” of hidden contents. The only active ingredient that has proven research to show its effect is usually caffeine. While caffeine is in my list of go-to supplements, a $2 cup of coffee is a A LOT cheaper than any pre-workout. Also, pre-workouts are usually designed to increase alertness, energy, blood flow, and heart rate, which might not be exactly what you want at the start of your WOD when you’re trying to control and pace yourself.
These could be the most expensive supplements on the market. Usually they appear as a combination of herbs or other “adaptogens” that have been used to support natural testosterone levels. Most of these products do not increase free testosterone (T) in the body but support free-testosterone (FT) production. There is no evidence that use of these “test-boosters” cause an increase in serum levels of T or FT. Most effects of these adaptogens seem to affect mood. With the lack of research into these products and the large amount of negative side effects that can arise from improper hormone regulation, I’d save your money and stay away from these altogether.
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