Supplements: how we enhance our body. This week, we are focusing on some of the most exciting supplemental nutrients, those that specifically enhance performance. Metrics that we can improve include strength, power, endurance, speed, focus, and recovery. When working with your nutrition coach, it is important to consider which of those performance metrics to optimize. As I mentioned in the piece on protein, different athletes will choose different supplements. A CrossFit athlete encompasses multiple of the previously listed metrics, while an ultra runner would focus on endurance, focus, and recovery. Below, you will find indications for, dosing, timing, and sources of creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, and HMB. Before taking any of these supplements, be sure to review them for potential interaction with any medications you may be taking.
Creatine is one of the most researched performance-enhancing supplements. It is naturally occurring in animal protein sources, but our body also makes it in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. The muscles use it for energy especially during high-intensity exercise such as CrossFit. It has the potential to increase muscle mass, increase strength, and augment explosiveness. Research does not support its use in endurance sports. The best dietary sources of creatine are wild game meats, lean red meat, and fish. It is produced in several forms including powders, capsules, tablets, chews, and more.
Dosing is very important, and creatine should be taken on a regular basis to reap the full benefits. Initially, the athlete takes a loading dose: 5 grams of creatine monohydrate four times a day for a total of 20 grams per day, for about 3-5 days. Following this, the maintenance dose is 2 grams per day. It is recommended to take this with carbohydrates, such as fruit juice, carbohydrate powders, or starch like rice or potato. Timing should be in the immediate workout window, consumed right before or during your high-intensity workouts. Consider it as a top-off for the tank!
Caffeine is a stimulant and nootropic, meaning it can make neurons more sensitive and increase mental stimulation. It has a variety of health benefits from cancer prevention to decreased dementia risk. Caffeine creates alertness and wakefulness by blocking receptors that cause sedation and relaxation, thereby increasing dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. Research has shown that it can decrease the perceived effort of exercise, increase power, and enhance endurance. It can also increase focus, provide energy, and help burn body fat. Dietary sources include teas, coffee, and dark chocolate. So, this is a supplement that can be used by any athlete. It should be taken before or intra-workout.
Keep in mind, tolerance to caffeine is common. Recommended doses are about 200-400mg/day. A cup of coffee has about 50mg. Exceeding 400mg will not benefit you, and having periods of time without caffeine resensitizes you to its effects. One way to do this is by choosing specific workouts that you would like to enhance throughout the week, use caffeine on those days, and then work out the remainder of the days without it. Be aware as well, some research shows that it can counteract the effects of creatine, further supporting the argument to cycle using caffeine. It can also increase heart rate and blood pressure as well as worsen conditions such as reflux, so it is wise to discuss using this with your nutrition coach or health care provider.
Beta-alanine is a buffering agent present in muscle prior to cells contracting. It can reduce acidosis, meaning it can reduce the sensation of lactic acid buildup during high-intensity exercise. This can lead to an increase in performance in short, power-based exercise. It can also decrease how much fatigue and exhaustion an athlete experiences. In addition, it may increase power and endurance, just enough to give you a competitive edge. Most research shows the most benefit in exercise lasting 1 minute to less than 3 minutes. Finally, when paired with exercise, beta-alanine stimulates increases in lean muscle mass.
Take caution when using this supplement, because it can cause “paresthesias” or numbness and tingling on the skin, including the face, abdomen, and chest. It is safest to take less than 800mg at a time, in multiple doses at least 3 hours apart. Beta-alanine should be taken immediately pre-workout, specifically one in which you will be performing maximum power output for short durations of time. It comes in powder forms and is often included in pre-workout blends.
HMB, or beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, helps to prevent the breakdown of muscle protein. It is a by-product of leucine metabolism. Leucine is an amino acid, the building blocks of protein. This means that instead of inducing muscle growth, it helps to reduce the rate of muscle breakdown, protects muscle cell structure, and may help retain lean mass while training. Some research shows improved speed, strength, and muscle mass in strength or high-intensity athletes, with endurance enhancement in cyclists and runners. It may reduce the amount of time you need to spend recovering between workouts. You could experience less muscle soreness!
Doses range from 1-3 grams per day. Your body makes some HMB, and foods such as fish and meats contain HMB. For supplementation, it most often comes in powder and pill forms and should be taken 30-45 minutes pre-workout for best effects. If taken in combination with creatine, they exhibit synergistic effects!
These four supplements stand up to the rigors of research. It is imperative to keep in mind that without a strong and well-balanced diet that fuels your body optimally, none of these will matter. It is impossible to “out-supplement” a bad diet. Consider working with a nutrition coach to learn how to progress to the next level and understand how you can take your performance and body composition further!