In Supplements Part 1, I showed and explained my supplement hierarchy pyramid and looked at the category of General Use Supplements. Today, I’ll finish up by looking at Performance Supplements and the Esoterica Categories. Again, the list below isn’t meant to necessarily be comprehensive, there will always be very specialty use things that might have applications in very specific circumstances. Rather, it’s meant to be a broad look at products which are both research supported (in the case of performance supplements) and have the broadest application of uses for mixed sports athletes.
As opposed to the general use supplements which are meant to support basic health, etc. performance supplements are those that have (or are purported to have) direct impacts on performance in training or competition.
In this section, I’ve listed a handful of products that are supported (to one degree or another) by at least some type of strong research into their efficacy. This is basically what separates supplements in this category from the esoterica category discussed last. When products in the esoterica category have sufficient research behind them, they move into the performance supplement category; this happens rarely.
With that said, I’d like to look at the handful of current performance oriented supplements that mixed sports athlete might consider using. These are all products with at least some amount of supporting research (in healthy human athletes) which make them a worthwhile consideration. Again, this should only occur after the daily diet and other aspects of around workout nutrition and general use supplements are being implemented consistently.
If there is a single dietary supplement in existence that can be said to work, creatine is probably it. With several hundred studies supporting it’s effectiveness and safety, creatine is arguably with one the must-have supplements for most athletes including team and mixed sports athletes (with a few notes made below).
Creatine has been shown to positively impact all manners of performance measures ranging from repeat sprint performance to weight room performance and others (if creatine has a negative impact it is typically on endurance due to a slight weight gain that occurs). Most of the reported side-effects of creatine have not been borne out by research (see comments on cramping in the previous chapter) and the biggest danger of creatine use is a slight weight gain of 1-2 kg due to water retention.
For athletes who need to make weight, this can be a problem and, as noted in the chapter on hydration and cramping, will increase fluid requirements. Even those athletes who need to make a certain weight class can use creatine supplementation during their main training phase and go off at least one month before competition; this will give the body time to get rid of the extra water and drop the weight.
While a number of ‘high-tech’ creatines have come and gone, for the most part bulk creatine monohydrate works as effectively, if not more effectively, than the other types. The only possible exception is a micronized creatine which can be useful for athletes who have stomach problems with the standard monohydrate. All of the other variations on creatine (i.e. creatine ethyl-ester) are no more effective but do cost more.
Traditionally, creatine has been supplemented one of three ways, which I’ve described below:
- The method used in the studies was to consume 20 grams of creatine in 4X5 g doses per day for 5 days. While this loads the muscle with creatine the fastest, it can also cause stomach upset in some people.
- A less aggressive protocol would be to consume 10 g/day of creatine for 10 days. While this will take longer to reach saturation levels, most people report less stomach problems.
- Finally, creatine can simply be taken at a dose of 3-5 grams per day for roughly a month.
The only difference in approaches is the speed of loading. Athletes may simply wish to put 3-5 grams of creatine in their pre- or post-workout shake and be done with it. Maintenance doses are 5-10 g/day depending on the athlete’s size after loading has been finished (larger athletes need more to maintain muscular levels).
I should mention that some percentage of athletes are creatine non-responders. For various reasons, they receive no benefits from creatine, no performance improvement and no weight gain. If an athlete uses creatine in one of the above dosing patterns and no weight gain occurs, they are a non-responder and can discontinue use.
As noted above, after loading, creatine levels will drop gradually over a period of about a month if no more is consumed. Athletes who need to drop water weight should discontinue creatine supplementation at least 30 days prior to the weigh-in of their event.
A fairly recent addition to the performance supplement arsenal for mixed sports is beta-alanine. Acting as a buffer of acidosis in skeletal muscle, beta-alanine can improve certain types of performance, especially in activities that rely heavily on anaerobic metabolism (e.g. maximal efforts lasting roughly 30-60 seconds). At least one study found that beta-alanine plus creatine improved weight room gains; mixed sports athletes looking to increase strength/power or muscle mass may want to consider beta-alanine.
The biggest drawback to beta-alanine is the required dosing schedule which is 400-800 mg of powder 4 times per day (for a total dose of 1.6-3.2 grams per day). In some people, beta-alanine can cause a tingling/itching/flushing sensation. This isn’t dangerous, simply irritating. And the dose must be split in this fashion for optimal effects.
Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
The BCAA are leucine, isoleucine and valine, three amino acids that have a branching chemical structure (hence their name). Many studies have found that BCAA and specifically leucine is critical for stimulating skeletal muscle growth and protein synthesis and for this reason BCAA are often suggested for athletes trying to gain muscle mass.
Other aspects of performance have also been measured with early work suggesting that BCAA might decrease fatigue during high-intensity exercise; an equal amount of work found no effect. In some situations, BCAA may actually hurt performance through one of several mechanisms (e.g. ammonia production).
I’d note that BCAA are found to some degree in all high quality proteins with the highest concentration being found in the dairy proteins: whey and casein. This is yet another reason for athletes to consider adding those specific proteins (either in powder or food form) to their diet; this will help to ensure that BCAA intake is optimal.
In that vein, my general feeling is that, if sufficient dietary protein is being consumed (e.g. you’re following the recommendations in this book), additional BCAA is unnecessary and will have little to no effect. In most studies where BCAA had a benefit, it was on a background of inadequate protein intake.
As noted above, BCAA may protect immune system and athletes involved in very heavy training might consider extra. BCAA are fairly expensive, with daily doses running from 10-20 grams per day and supplements can be bitter tasting. I would consider BCAA supplementation as something for athletes to use only when everything else in their diet was taken care of.
Depending on the specifics of their sport, mixed sports athletes often undergo a tremendous amount of joint pounding, either as a function of running around the playing field or due to other athletes slamming into them (e.g. football, mixed martial arts). While keeping joints healthy isn’t strictly a performance issue, clearly an injured athlete won’t be performing well, if they can perform at all.
A number of supplements are potentially beneficial for overall joint health (and or to deal with certain types of injuries). The most common cocktail is chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine sulfate, both of which provide the building blocks for connective tissues and have been shown to help heal certain types of joint injuries (especially arthritis). MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) may also have some benefit.
One problem with these supplements is that they often take 4-6 weeks to start working. In that vein, people who report no benefit after 4-6 weeks of proper dosing don’t ever seem to get a benefit. Put differently, if the supplements haven’t worked after 4-6 weeks, they aren’t going to start working and you can stop taking them. Dosing for glucosamine and chondroitin are in the range of 1.5 grams per day of each, MSM is often added in amount of 1.5 grams as well.
Additionally, papain and bromelain, the enzymes found in raw pineapple have been shown to have beneficial effects, probably by controlling inflammation. I’d mention fish oils here again as they can help control inflammation, which is key to keeping injury rates down. This is yet another reason to ensure adequate fish oil intake on a daily basis.
Stimulants of varying sorts have been popular with athletes for decades and for good reason, they work. Stimulants before training or competition can improve performance in a variety of parameters important to athletes. These range from direct performance improvements (e.g. increased strength or power output) to glycogen sparing due to increased fatty acid use to many others.
I would note that a potential drawback and this is especially true of excessive stimulant use is cramping. As well, under the wrong conditions (usually dehydration plus heat and humidity plus intensive training), there have been deaths associated with excessive stimulant use. If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that more is not better.
The old standby as a pre-workout stimulant is simply caffeine, perhaps the most used compound on the planet. Doses of 3-5 mg/kg (so 180-300 mg for a 60kg athlete) taken 30-60 minutes prior to training or competition can improve certain types of performance, and certainly those important to mixed sports.
Caffeine hits peak levels in 60-90 minutes and lasts several hours so, unless training is exceedingly long, a single dose is usually sufficient; you won’t run out. Here again, even ignoring the cramping issue, more is not better and very high doses of caffeine, especially on an empty stomach can cause stomach upset.
I would mention that, in theory, stopping caffeine for several days prior to an important competition will make it work more effectively; in practice, individuals used to using caffeine on a day to day basis won’t ever do this due to negative effects such as headaches and performance decrease. So a neat idea in premise but almost impossible to accomplish in practice.
There are numerous other stimulant type products, with perhaps ephedrine the most well known, available to athletes and companies continue to look for pre-workout boosters. Many show up on the banned list (caffeine is not banned since it is so universally used) and, as noted above, excessive stimulant use can cause problems with cramping.
Before trying any stimulant product, an athlete must check to see if its banned and test it during training to see if there are any negative effects. As noted above, never try anything new on game-day.
For the most part, I recommend athletes simply stick with good old caffeine. For standardization I prefer tablets (usually available in 100-200 mg doses) as the caffeine content of coffees can vary widely and the amount that needs to be consumed to hit the 3-5 mg/kg dose above usually means excessive fluid intake which causes problems with having to pee all the time.
Pretty much everything else in the world of supplements falls into this category. Hundreds of products come out yearly and 99% of them fade away to never be heard of again. While I remain optimistic that a true new ergogenic compound will come along, the history of the supplement industry simply doesn’t support it.
When you have your daily diet, around workout nutrition and everything else dialed in, you can worry about the stuff in this category. Just realize that, 6 months from now, it will probably be long-forgotten because it never had any chance of working.
As I noted above, occasionally a product that starts out in the esoterica category will have sufficient research appear to move it into the performance supplement category. While athletes always tend to think that the newest magic pill will be the one that this will happen with, the statistics simply don’t bear this idea out.
As I mentioned above, easily 99% of the products in this category disappear within 6 months to never be heard from again. Waiting to see if the newest magic bullet actually pans out is the only thing that makes logical sense.