Performance Supplements: Is There an Edge?
In my last article I discussed supplementation with a focus on optimising health and wellness. The goal of using those supplements is to either complete or enhance your lifestyle and diet (the foundation on which immunity, function and vitality stand on).
In this article I want to outline performance-based supplements that have legit support in their use and why/when you would use them. Recall back to my previous article and the definition of supplements: they’re not magic. The magnitude of effect is minimal, particularly when the more powerful variables of caloric balance, micronutrient and macronutrient profiles are not dialled in.
As Dr Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodisation states, “The reality of the matter is that supplements don’t make nearly the kind of difference in your results that many would have you believe. In fact, our best analysis has shown that supplements used to their full potential have around a 5% total effect on body composition (how much muscle and fat you carry) when compared to other diet variables like calorie balance, macronutrient amounts and timing”
Protein powders are by the most popular and well known form of supplements. There are several forms – whey isolate, whey concentrate, casein, plant and vegan proteins. Why would you take such a supplement? Protein powders can be helpful if you aren’t getting enough protein from actual whole foods (i.e. real food), or if you need the convenience and ease of a protein source that won’t ruin easily.
Regardless of your individual goals, it’s important to get enough protein. Protein intake is necessary for human function and is integral to muscle growth, recovery and body composition.
If you’re struggling to meet your protein requirements and need a convenient source it’s a lot easier to have a protein shake than a chicken breast, and protein powder makes a better fruit smoothie than, say, a steak. For those of us who don’t get protein from animal sources you may also wish to consider the wide variety of vegetarian and vegan options to ensure you’re getting enough protein in your diet.
- Consider your goals and the purpose behind taking a protein supplement before choosing the type and brand.
- Determine digestibility before selecting a protein source. (You may have to experiment.)
- The method in which the protein powder is used will also influence your selection (e.g., shakes, bars, added into meals, etc).
- By choosing a “cheap” protein powder, you’re likely to get higher amounts of lactose, fat, fillers, and so on not removed during the isolation process. Just like real whole foods, aim for the best source and place value on quality.
Creatine is an amino acid derivative constructed from arginine, glycine and methionine. It is produced naturally by the body in the kidneys, liver, and pancreas at a rate of about 1-2 grams/day. Creatine can also be obtained from food (particularly red meat) and supplementation.
The goal of supplementation is increasing stores of muscle creatine and phosphocreatine. This can enhance performance especially during explosive or high intensity exercise. Performance is enhanced because of temporal and spatial buffering of ATP and to increase muscle buffer capacity. In plain English creatine increases the body’s ability to produce energy rapidly.
Creatine use can improve performance in high-intensity events (e.g., weight training, sprints, etc). Longer duration aerobic workouts may not benefit from regular creatine use.
When following high-dose creatine loading strategies, body mass can be increased by up to 2 kg in just 7 days. This is mainly due to increases in total body water.
Interestingly, studies show approximately 20 percent of creatine users are considered “non-responders.” This may occur because they already have a high enough dietary intake of creatine from real food.
- Use the monohydrate form
- Consume 3-5 grams of creatine per day
- Dissolve the creatine in a warm beverage like green tea
- Creatine supplementation may be even more beneficial in those on a plant-based diet, due to the lack of creatine consumption from food.
- You can also take your creatine before and/or after workout sessions with your workout nutrition
- Cycle usage by resting from creatine supplementation after using for 12-16 weeks
Glutamine is a what I would deem as a very “conditional” supplement – there is a contextual need to supplement it. There are risks for certain people such as those with diabetes and epilepsy. When can it be useful? In times of stress, trauma and recovery.
As Dr John Beradi writes, glutamine is the most abundant free amino acid in the body. It is produced by the muscles and carried to needed areas around the body by the blood. Glutamine helps maintain the integrity of the GI tract, it is used as a fuel source, it can help to boost the immune system, and it aids in recovery. Glutamine may also play a role in preventing muscle catabolism, increasing muscle mass, and keeping the muscles hydrated. It is a building block of protein and essential in bodily processes such as providing fuel to cells and making amino acids and glucose. If the body uses more glutamine than the muscles are making, muscle wasting occurs.
Glutamine is considered gluconeogenic and creates muscle glycogen from blood glucose. This aids in increased performance. Glutamine is found in high levels dairy, meat, and eggs. Whey and Casein protein both have high levels of glutamine. There are also many isolated Glutamine supplements.
- Heathy, well fuelled athletes have no real need for glutamine
- Seek advice from an experienced dietician if you are wanting to aid recovery from stress, trauma or certain diseases.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are named this way due to their structure, which includes a “side chain” of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. There are three BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Of these, leucine is the most heavily researched, and appears to offer the biggest physiological benefit
Branch Chain Amino Acids can help promote muscle protein synthesis, increase muscle growth, keeping blood sugar levels constant and aiding in preventing muscle catabolism. They can also help prevent fatigue and reduce Tryptophan levels in the brain. BCAAs are found in meat, dairy products, and eggs. They are also found in Whey Protein and Casein.
When taking a BCAA be sure to look into the quality and ingredients of the product. Many BCAA products have other supplements in them (i.e. caffeine, etc) and also may contain numerous artificial flavours, colours, and sweeteners.
- Adequate consumption of BCAAs may help manage body fat, spare muscle mass, and regulate glucose/insulin balance.
- Try adding BCAAs into your workout drink at a rate of 5 g BCAA per hour of training.
- During periods of lower calorie intake, try adding a BCAA supplement every 2-4 hours during the day.
- As always quality is critical.
I’m going to be honest. There is nothing I like more than caffeine. I am a coffee fiend. We all have days where we lack energy and need a boost. A pre-workout or caffeine supplement can help. It can assist with issues like fatigue and help support energy, focus, and endurance in the gym. I haven’t used many pre workouts in the past due to the major issue of safety. Many pre workouts are filled with synthetic caffeine and various other stimulants that can leave you feeling jittery. I just like to consume cups of coffee regularly (in fact, too regularly). Take caffeine with caution. Like anything, too much is definitely a bad thing.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world and occurs naturally among several plants such as coffee bean, kola nut, tea leaf, and cacao seed.
Considered a drug, caffeine is one of the most highly studied ergogenic aids.
Caffeine also increases the force and rate of the heart. Along with its derivatives, it can also relax the airways, which allows for increased oxygen consumption.
Caffeine can increase performance, especially with endurance events. Athletes can typically last longer and work harder. But even brief bouts of activity can be improved with caffeine use. This may be due to increased alertness and awareness. Indeed, caffeine can be addictive for many athletes because of these performance benefits.
- Be careful! Quality is KEY and when considering a pre-workout supplement you must check what is inside.
- 3-5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight can provide a performance effect without health risks. At 3 mg/kg, an 80 kg person would need 240 mg of caffeine.
- If using caffeine to increase performance, try consuming it 30 to 60 minutes before the event/exercise. Blood levels of caffeine are maximised about 60 minutes after consumption, but effects are noticed by 30 minutes.
- Take caution if you plan on mixing caffeine with other supplements. Using multiple stimulants (e.g., synephrine, ephedra, forskolin, yohimbe, etc.) can put one at risk for sudden arrhythmic death.
And there it is. Nothing magic. Nothing that promises drastic “shredding” or “gains”. Just some simple facts about what is common and what may aid you in being consistent in training hard and living healthy.
Thanks to Dr’s Mike Isratael, John Beradi and Robb Wolf for their information and studies.
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