Serious athletes are always trying to get the upper hand in our training. Keeping the engine revving with quality fuel is part of that. A balanced diet of whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, creates a foundation for health and performance.
However, even the healthiest diet can benefit from a little extra nutritional juice (AKA supplementation) to ensure our bodies are in tip-top condition. Although the vitamin aisle can be overwhelming and pills can quickly break the bank, supplements can round out a balanced diet of natural foods. Plus, they might give you an extra edge on race day.
Of course, performance gains can only be made through a healthy diet based on whole and unprocessed foods. Supplements aren’t a magic bullet. You can’t achieve your personal best simply by taking a capsule and no pill can reverse every one of your health-related woes overnight. However, when used properly, supplements can help keep you healthy and strong.
Here are a few supplements that help athletes with overall health and well-being and explicitly aim to enhance performance.
Caffeine has long been used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts at the gym—and sometimes even at the office! Not only does caffeine provide a quick pick-me-up for early mornings on the trail, but it can reduce perceived exertion and help delay fatigue. That makes tough sessions more bearable. As a bonus, caffeine can increase fat oxidation, which can aid weight management.
Since caffeine reaches its highest blood concentration in about an hour, we suggest drinking your cup of joe 60 minutes before a workout. If coffee isn’t your thing or it upsets your stomach before a workout, try some of the popular pre-workout mixes on the market or get it in a caffeinated gum such as RunGum, designed with performance in mind by Olympian Nick Symmonds.
Supplement-savvy athletes looking for an extra boost have embraced nitrates. Beet juice increases blood nitrate levels, decreases blood pressure and reduces oxygen consumption during running. Beetroot is loaded with nitrates that convert to nitric oxide, enhancing blood flow and making oxygen consumption during high-intensity training more efficient. The more efficient use of oxygen leads to better stamina, which drives more energy and a longer, faster workout. To increase nitrates in your diet, you can simply eat more beets. However, a concentrated source like BeetElite in powdered form, or AltRed in pill form
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) refer to three kinds of nutrients that are found in proteins: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Kyle Pfaffenbach, a nutrition and physiology professor at Eastern Oregon University, says they are particularly effective in limiting muscle breakdown and triggering muscle repair and growth in response to training. Beef, poultry and some cheeses contain BCAAs, but in the thick of high-volume training, an extra boost could speed up recovery and keep your muscles healthy. Like nitrates, BCAAs are sold in capsules, such as GU’s Roctane BCAA capsules, or in powders like Base Performance Aminos.
Probiotics, the healthy bacteria that live in your gut and in fermented or raw foods, are essential for health and wellness for everyone. But because we ask so much of our bodies, their benefits are especially significant for athletes. Without healthy digestion, foods aren’t broken down completely, absorbed efficiently or appropriately eliminated. In turn, without a healthy gut, harmful proteins that haven’t been broken down can invade the bloodstream and cause inflammation and immune dysfunction. When immune function is decreased, overall health is compromised and it’s impossible to recover from a tough workout.
Luckily, the hype around a healthy gut has created a huge market for probiotics with some designed specifically for athletes. Recently, I’ve used Hyperbiotics, but a simple internet search will reveal endless other options for everyone and every gut.