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Whether you’re an athlete, a weekend warrior, or just looking to maximize your workouts, there are a number of supplements that can improve your exercise performance and recovery. No, we’re not talking about anabolic steroids or steroid precursors. We’re talking about ergogenic aids – foods and supplements that can give you a mental or physical advantage while exercising or competing.
While there are a number of supplements on the market that claim to improve performance or recovery, we’re only going to cover the ones that have enough science behind them to actually make a difference. Always check with your doctor before trying any new supplement, especially if you are taking prescription medications.
1. Beetroot juice
Beets are a rich source of antioxidants. But it’s their high levels of nitrates (which gets converted to nitric oxide to dilate blood vessels) that may improve blood pressure and blood flow throughout the body, including the muscles, brain and heart. Consuming beetroot juice prior to exercise has been shown to diminish the muscular fatigue associated with high-intensity exercise.
2. Green tea extract
We love drinking green tea, especially before a workout. A study done using green tea extract over a prolonged period of time (10 weeks) indicated that it is beneficial for improving endurance capacity by burning more body fat for fuel. The amount of green tea extract used in the study is the equivalent of drinking about four cups of green tea a day.
3. Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs)
MCTs have gained traction with athletes seeking to increase energy levels and improve endurance during high-intensity exercise. It can also serve as an alternative energy source (through nutritional ketosis) for athletes on high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. Additionally, MCTs can be quickly mobilized in the post-exercise recovery phase to rebuild muscles and prevent muscle breakdown. The dose of MCT (specifically a pure caprylic acid, or C8, MCT oil) is about 1/4 teaspoon several times daily. MCTs can cause nausea and gastric discomfort, so start low and increase dose only as tolerated.
4. Watermelon juice
Watermelon is rich in l-citrulline, an amino acid that can be converted to l-arginine, an amino acid that is used in the synthesis of nitric oxide, a vasodilator. Consuming watermelon or watermelon juice before exercise helps cut recovery time and boost performance.
5. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs refer to the structure of three amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine, that have been studied to help improve strength, power and endurance. The best evidence seems to be with using BCAAs for endurance workouts, such as sipping on BCAA-enhanced water before and during a long workout session. Taking 5 to 20 grams of BCAAs per day, in divided doses, appears to be safe.
6. Whey protein
Protein consumption post exercise can help with muscle repair and recovery as it provides essential amino acids necessary to optimize protein synthesis. Studies show that whey protein supplementation leads to greater increases in muscle mass, larger decreases in fat mass, and better improvements in strength compared to casein or soy protein. Whey protein is safe for healthy people who do not have liver or kidney disease. Exceeding 2.5g/kg of body weight can increase risk for dehydration.
7. Tart cherry juice
Research has shown that tart cherry juice can speed up recovery from both strength training and cardio including reduced muscle damage, soreness and inflammation. Taken before exercise, it has also been shown to help with endurance exercise. Additional research has shown tart cherry juice helps reduce post-workout pain, which would be a safer alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.
Caffeine found in coffee, espresso, tea and energy drinks has been shown to improve exercise performance by reducing the perception of fatigue, and is also linked to adrenaline stimulation, fat mobilization and muscle contractility. Although caffeine has a mild diuretic effect, adequate intake of water and electrolytes will offset any such effect. Tolerance to caffeine is very personal, with excessive intake likely to cause increased heart rate and jitteriness. Always start with a smaller amount and stick to coffee or tea rather than energy drinks.
Ask any weightlifter what their go-to supplement is for performance and they will likely tell you it’s creatine. Studies using creatine have shown it’s most beneficial for resistance/strength and high-intensity interval training. Creatine supplementation in strength or resistance training can have positive effects on lean body mass, strength and overall power. The typical recommended regimen consists of two phases: firstly the loading phase and secondly the maintenance phase, each with different recommended dosages. During the loading phase it is recommended that the athlete consumes 20 grams of creatine daily for four to five days. During the maintenance phase it is recommended that the athlete consume 1 to 2 grams of creatine daily.
Find out which protein powder best fits your needs, check out The Best Protein Powders for Every Diet. And learn about some of the specific nutrient deficiencies you may have in Nutrients Athletes Might be Missing.