A dietary supplement most of us can get behind is caffeine. There are 27 mg of it in a 1.4 ounce serving of dark chocolate. Caffeine can help athletes in endurance activities like distance running.
“Just imagine how much easier our lives would be if we were born with a ‘user guide or owner’s manual’ which could tell us what to eat and how to live healthy.”
― Erika M. Szabo
“To all my little Hulkamaniacs, say your prayers, take your vitamins and you will never go wrong.”
— Hulk Hogan
“I … take tons of vitamins and vitamin infusions. If you believe that these things work, you will feel better.”
— Simon Cowell
I loved beets when I was a kid. It’s been years since I’ve gotten near them, which is a shame. Studies show they can be a nutritional supplement to boost athletic performance.
The maroon root is among 10 dietary supplements that have passed their tryouts as friends of the fitness-minded. How do they help, who should use them, and when? All in good time.
A supplement can come in the form of a pill, but it doesn’t have to. It can also be a powder, liquid or anything consumed to make up for something missing from your diet, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee. It might provide one of more of the following:
In order to be a sports supplement, it must be capable of improving physical performance, stamina or recovery.
One of the first things this Burstology blog will show is that a supplement need not come from the vitamin store. Case in point: the terrific 10 supplements:
- Baking soda
- Tart cherry
- Vitamin D
I know. It sounds like a weird grocery list. Take baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. Lots of baking recipes call for it. So do many science experiments for kids, such as the classic exploding volcano.
But studies show that sodium bicarbonate can do more make like Mount Vesuvius. It can improve athletic performance in intense, short-term activities like swimming and in intermittently intense sports like tennis or boxing.
Claims about nutritional supplements can be confusing, to put it mildly. Benefits are touted one week and cautions issued the next.
The information in this Burstology blog is probably more credible than most. It’s from scientists at the National Institutes of Health and nutritionists at the US Olympic Committee.
To compose this list, many supplements were put through their paces. A select few got good report cards.
Regardless of how promising the supplements may be, in general, please check with your healthcare provider before using anything as a dietary supplement. Depending on the state of your health and any medications you are taking, some supplements can have serious side effects.
No. 1 Baking Soda
Want to give sodium bicarbonate a whirl? Be cautious and work up to the full amount gradually. Your dosage (formula below) should be fully dissolved first in two cups of cold water. Putting in a splash of clear fruit juice wouldn’t hurt. Then sip the concoction slowly, over 20 to 30 minutes. A good time to take it would be about an hour-and-a-half before exercise.
The most available source of the supplement is the bright yellow box of Arm and Hammer baking soda. It’s in the baking section at the supermarket. Each one-eighth teaspoon is about 0.6 grams of sodium bicarbonate.
A common dose is 90 to 135 mg of baking soda for each pound of body weight.
Banish any thoughts of buying baking soda in the form of a commercial supplement. Scientists recommend using only a product that is pure baking soda. Some of the augmented products sold as supplements contain additives like cornstarch.
Sodium bicarbonate has stood the test of time as a supplement. One reason is that the effects of lactic acid have been with us for a long time. Athletes recognize lactic acid in their muscles by the achiness it produces. Exercising intensely over at least several minutes is enough to signal muscles to start generating acids.
As if causing muscular pain weren’t enough, the acids reduce muscle force and cause fatigue. The beauty of simple baking soda is that it can reduce the buildup of acids.
More good news is that the supplement might offer some athletes a performance benefit. This is especially true with strenuous exercise that lasts several minutes or intermittent, intense activity.
Like many supplements, sodium bicarbonate has different effects on different people. So, listen to your body. In some cases, it can even hinder athletic performance.
Some people find the high levels of sodium in the supplement, dissolved in liquid, way too salty. As a result they have a tough time getting it down the hatch. That’s no surprise. Each teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate contains 1,260 milligrams of sodium.
Hopefully, you’re not one of those unlucky folks who experience gastrointestinal symptoms, which can include nausea and vomiting. Water retention from the sodium can lead to weight gain. The possibility of these side effects is one reason athletes should use small increments in ramping up the dose of sodium bicarbonate.
No. 2 Beets
As we move on to the next supplement, we’re staying in the kitchen, because that’s where you’ll find the lowly beet. I’ll never look at a beet the same, now that I know it’s among the best food sources of nitrate.
Beets, in other words, just might improve your athletic performance. The reason is that the body converts some of the nitrate to nitric oxide, which expands blood vessels. The expansion increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to exercising muscles. In addition, it speeds up the removal of waste products that cause muscle fatigue.
Many, though not all, studies have found that beet juice can improve performance and endurance. This is good news for athletes involved in aerobic activities like running, swimming, cycling, and rowing.
It’s unknown whether the nitrate helps with strengthening and bodybuilding exercises. What is known is that beet juice is more likely to benefit recreational exercisers than highly trained athletes. Fortunately, that’s most of us.
The usual approach to dosage in beet studies is for participants to drink two cups of the juice, two-and-a-half to three hours before exercise. Scientists say drinking moderate amounts of beet juice is safe. It can, however, turn your urine pink, so get ready not to panic if that happens.
The bottom line on beets is that they might improve aerobic exercise performance if your activity level is recreational. It has not been determined whether dietary supplements containing beetroot powder have the same effects.
No. 3 Beta-alanine
We’re still in the kitchen when we talk about beta-alanine. Foods such as meat, poultry, and fish contain the amino acid. People typically get up to about 1 gram a day of beta-alanine, depending on their diet. Your body uses beta-alanine to make carnosine, which is highly concentrated in muscles when they are working.
The ability to fight lactic acid is something beta-alanine has in common with beets. Supplements with the amino acid increase muscle carnosine levels by different amounts, depending on the individual.
Some studies have shown that beta-alanine produces small performance improvements in swimming and team sports. It’s especially helpful in sports like hockey and football, sports that require high-intensity, intermittent effort over short periods.
Whether beta-alanine helps with endurance activities like cycling isn’t clear. It’s also uncertain whether the supplement benefits mostly trained athletes or recreational exercisers.
In most studies of beta-alanine, participants took 1.6 grams to 6.4 grams a day for four to eight weeks.
As to the safety of beta-alanine, taking 800 milligrams or more can cause up to an hour an a half of a tingling, prickling, or burning sensations in your face, neck, back of hands, and upper trunk. Sustained-release forms can eliminate the symptom, though it is not considered harmful.
Scientists have yet to learn whether it is safe to take beta-alanine supplements daily for more than several months.
Sports-medicine experts disagree on the value of taking beta-alanine supplements to enhance performance in high-intensity, intermittent activities. The International Society of Sports Nutrition says healthy athletes who want to try beta-alanine should do so. They recommend 4 grams to 6 grams daily, in divided doses with meals. After about two weeks, it should be evident whether the supplement is helping.
No. 4 HMB
The name is kind of cryptic. It stands for beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate. Your turn to say it. So, now we know why it’s called HMB. But what is it? Your body creates it naturally, converting a small amount of leucine, an amino acid in foods, to HMB. Your liver converts the HMB into another compound believed to help muscle cells restore their structure and function after exercise. HMB also helps build protein in muscle and reduces muscle-protein breakdown.
“Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and proteins are the building blocks of muscle,” Mark Juhn, who practices family and sports medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, told WebMD ( https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20001010/can-supplement-hmb-help-build-muscle#1 )
It’s tough to tell whether you might benefit from HMB supplements. The reason is that the research so far hasn’t involved that type of detail. Study subjects have included adults of very different ages and fitness levels. Making things more complicated is the fact that subjects took a range of doses over different lengths of time.
The results were, however, enough to convince scientists of HMB’s worth. It seems to speed up recovery from exercise that’s intense enough and lengthy enough to cause muscle damage. Therefore, it would probably of greater benefit to a trained athlete. Recreationally active people generally don’t sustain the kind of muscle damage HMB is thought to help.
Another promising finding about HMB is its apparent lack of side effects. None were reported by studies that gave participants 3 grams a day of HMB for up to 8 weeks.
In the minus column is the fact that scientists feel more evidence is needed that HMB supplements will improve athletic performance.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition offers dosing recommendations for healthy adults who want to try HMB. The group suggests taking 3 grams daily, in three equal servings of 1 gram, for at least 2 weeks. That is the earliest point they recommend assessing whether the supplement is helping.
HMB comes in two forms: one with calcium and one without. A dose of 3 grams of the type with calcium supplies about 400 milligrams of calcium.
No. 5 Caffeine
Have you ever looked at a Starbucks and seen a supplement store? If you have, you’re not completely crazy.
Caffeine is a stimulant in beverages like coffee, tea, and energy drinks. It is found in some herbs, including guarana and kola nut. Caffeine is an important ingredient in some over-the-counter pain medications and in some dietary supplements.
Coffee drinkers already know what scientists have concluded so far. The scientists say moderate amounts of caffeine might increase your energy levels and reduce fatigue for several hours.
Caffeine might be especially helpful in team sports, since it is known to improve endurance, strength, and power. The supplement is well suited to helping athletes engaged in endurance activities like distance running. It is also believed to help those involved in sports that require intense, intermittent effort, like soccer and tennis.
Caffeine doesn’t seem to help with short, intense exercise like sprinting or weightlifting. Consumers of caffeine have different responses to the supplement. It doesn’t boost performance for everyone. Or it may help performance only slightly.
The recommended dose of caffeine to aid performance is 2 mg to 6 mg for each kilogram of body weight, or about 210 to 420 mg caffeine for a 154-pound person. For the sake of comparison, a cup of coffee has about 85 mg to 100 mg of caffeine. Taking more caffeine probably won’t improve performance further and can increase the risk of side effects.
Caffeine intakes as high as 400 mg to 500 mg a day seem safe in adults. Teenagers should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 100 milligrams a day. Taking 500 milligrams or more a day can reduce physical performance, disturb sleep, and cause anxiety. Taking 10,000 milligrams or more in a single dose, equivalent to one tablespoon of pure caffeine powder, can be fatal. In fact, just avoid caffeine powder.
Sports-medicine experts agree that caffeine can help you exercise for longer periods at the same intensity level and reduce feelings of fatigue. They suggest that a caffeine supplement be taken up to an hour before an activity. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and International Olympic Committee limit the amount of caffeine athletes may take before a competition, demonstrating that it can give you an edge.
No. 6 Creatine
Your muscles store creatine. That’s a good thing, because it supplies them with energy. Your body produces about 1 gram a day of creatine. You can get more by eating animal-based foods, such as beef and salmon. To give you an idea of scale, they provide about 500 milligrams in a 4-ounce serving.
If you want to boost the amount of creatine in your body, scientists say you would need to take much larger amounts than what is available in foods. Only then would the supplement have a chance of improving certain types of performance.
The good news is that the supplements can increase strength, power, and the ability to contract muscles for maximum effort. The less-good news is that the extent of improvements caused by the creatine supplements differs among individuals. In other words, the only way to know is to try it and see.
Use of creatine supplements for several weeks or months can help with training, especially during intense, repeated short-burst, intermittent activity lasting up to about 2 and-a-half minutes at a time, like weight-lifting Creatine seems to have little value for endurance activities, such as distance running, cycling, or swimming.
Creatine is safe for healthy adults to take for several weeks or months, according to researchers. It also seems safe for long-term use over several years. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. Creatine usually causes some weight gain because it increases water retention. It’s rare, but individual reactions to creatine may also include some muscle stiffness, cramps, and gastrointestinal distress.
Sports-medicine experts agree that creatine supplements can improve performance in activities that involve intense effort followed by short recovery periods. It can also be valuable in training for certain athletic competitions.
In studies, people often took a loading dose of about 20 grams a day of creatine, in four equal portions, for 5 to 7 days. After the initial dosage, it is reduced to 3 grams to 5 grams a day. If you go shopping for a creatine supplement, bear in mind that the most widely used and studied form is creatine monohydrate.
No. 7 Iron
You either have enough iron in your blood or you don’t. An iron supplement is recommended only if you are diagnosed with iron anemia. Otherwise, the only additional iron to consider is whatever might be in another supplement you are taking, like multi-vitamin. Scientists have found no benefit to boosting iron levels beyond what is recommended.
Iron plays a central role in your health, delivering oxygen to muscles and tissues throughout the body. Cells need iron because it helps turn food into energy. If you are diagnosed with an iron deficiency, it is important to get it under control.
“Having low iron stores in your body doesn’t necessarily mean you’re anemic. But low iron can lead to anemia if the problem isn’t addressed,” Richa Sood, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, told the clinic’s News Network. With anemia, the blood has too little oxygen.
Without the sufficient iron, your body can’t produce enough of a substance in red blood cells that lets them carry oxygen. As a result, iron deficiency anemia may leave you tired and short of breath.
The recommended amount of iron each day from food and other sources is 11 milligrams for teenage boys, 15 milligrams for teenage girls, 8 milligrams for men up to age 50, 18 milligrams for women to age 50, and 8 milligrams for older adults of both sexes.
Recommended amounts are even higher for athletes, vegetarians, and vegans. Teenage girls and premenopausal women have the greatest risk of not getting enough iron from their diets.
For people with iron deficiency anemia, taking an iron supplement will probably improve performance in both strength and endurance activities. But if you get enough iron from your diet, taking extra iron won’t help. It’s not clear whether milder iron deficiency without anemia reduces exercise and athletic performance.
Taking less than 45 milligrams of iron in a supplement is safe for teenagers and adults. Higher doses can cause upset stomach, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and fainting. However, doctors sometimes prescribe large amounts of iron for a short time to treat iron-deficiency anemia.
Taking enough iron in supplements to treat iron-deficiency anemia improves exercise capacity. But a healthcare provider should diagnose this condition before you start taking iron supplements.
If you want to improve your athletic performance, eat a healthy diet containing foods rich in iron, such as lean meats, seafood, poultry, beans, nuts, and raisins. If needed, an iron-containing dietary supplement can help you get the recommended amount of iron.
No. 8 Protein
Your body needs to take in a certain amount of protein to build, maintain and repair your muscles. Protein improves your body’s response to athletic training and helps shorten the time you need to recover from exercise. Sounds pretty important to me.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Your body makes some of them. Other amino acids, known as EAAs or essential amino acids, must be obtained from foods. Animal products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy contain all of the EAAs your body needs to create protein.
Vegetarians may take in EAAs by eating plant foods like grains and legumes. The foods contain different EAAs, so eating a diet that includes different types of plant-based foods is one way to get all EAAs. If you read the ingredient lists on protein powders and drinks, you’ve probably noticed that most contain whey, a protein in milk that conveniently provides all of the missing amino acids.
To generate enough protein for staying healthy and building muscles, athletes need about 0.5 grams to 0.9 grams of protein a day for each pound of body weight. That’s around 75 to 135 grams for a 150-pound person.
You might need even more for a short time in certain situations. Athletes who are training intensely or reducing their food intake to optimize their physique or to achieve a competition weight should boost their intake of protein.
An overly high intake of protein seems to be safe, although taking in more than the recommended amount provides no known benefits,
If you are an athlete, you can probably eat enough foods containing protein to meet your daily needs. If you find that’s not the case, then protein supplements and protein-fortified foods and drinks can help fill the gap.
Experts in sports science suggest athletes consume more protein than non-athletes and that they eat frequently. The recommended amount is 0.14 grams of protein per pound of body weight, every three to five hours. That’s a lot of food.
The frequency should include eating before going to bed and within 2 hours of working out. That comes to about 20 grams of high-quality protein for a person weighing 150 pounds. High-quality protein is the stuff that comes not from supplements but from animal products or a mix of several compatible plant foods.
No. 9 Tart Cherry
Have you ever tried unsweetened tart or sour cherry juice? I bought it by accident once, so I thought I would taste it. “Tart” is an understatement. The Montmorency variety of tart or sour cherries contains compounds that may help you recover from strenuous exercise.
More specifically, studies show that these cherries might help your body reduce pain, muscle damage from strength-related activities, and lung trauma from endurance activities that require deep, heavy breathing.
The studies that have been done suggest that it helps bodybuilders, in particular, recover their strength faster and feel less muscle soreness after a workout.
The supplements could also help runners go faster and be less likely to succumb to a cold or respiratory problem after a marathon. That’s when a runner’s body must gain back its strength after the punishment of running 26.2 miles.
The suggested amount is about 2 cups or 500 milligrams of tart-cherry-skin powder each day for a week before the event and for 2 days afterward.
Studies of athletes using tart-cherry products have not come across any side effects. The safety of tart-cherry supplements, however, has not been well studied.
As you consider trying tart-cherry products, bear in mind that, while there is scientific evidence to support their use for improving exercise and athletic performance, it is limited at this point.
No. 10 Vitamin D
It’s tough to miss all the talk about vitamin D these days. Athletes have been listening. Many of them take supplements to bolster levels of vitamin D. A typical reason is to regulate calcium levels, which determine bone health. Another is for its reported ability to bolster the immune system and speed recovery from intense exercise and risk of infection.
What is a vitamin? It’s a substance your body needs to grow and develop optimally. In the case of Vitamin D, it helps your body absorb calcium. That’s important, because calcium is one of the main building blocks of bone. Vitamin D also has a role in making sure your nerve, muscle, and immune systems function normally..
You can get vitamin D in three ways: through your skin, from your diet, and from supplements. Your body forms vitamin D naturally after your skin is exposed to sunlight. Then again, we all know how too much sun can have an aging effect on your skin, and even lead to skin cancer. As a result, many people try to get their vitamin D from other sources.
Vitamin D-rich foods include egg yolks, saltwater fish, and liver. Some other foods, like milk and cereal, often have added vitamin D.
Vitamin D was first identified and linked with bone health in the early 20th century, when rickets was at epidemic levels. Later studies showed that the main source of vitamin D was ultraviolet B, or UVB, though changes in diet could create small increases.
Vitamin D was known for decades for its ability to promote bone growth. Recent research shows that it can have a positive effect on a number of other aspects of athletic performance. Key benefits include improving muscle function and minimizing the risk of infection.
But research also shows that anyone taking vitamin D should pay more attention to which form they are taking and to the fact that it affects different people different ways.
Scientists disagree on how to diagnose vitamin D deficiency. They even disagree on what can be gained by supplementing it. The uncertainties lead to questions about whether it makes sense to encourage all elite athletes to supplement vitamin D.
When athletes are tested for vitamin D levels, it is not uncommon to find a wide difference from one to another. Among the factors that cause differences are diet, level of exposure to sunlight, clothing and lifestyle.
Levels of vitamin D that are too high may be toxic, according to case reports in the journal Sports Medicine issue published in January 2018. As they say, further study is needed. Until that happens, be Leary of taking too much vitamin D supplement.
Many questions about vitamin D have yet to be studied thoroughly. Information gathered so far indicates that vitamin D deficiency is widespread, possibly due to populations spending more and more time indoors and not getting enough food sources of it.
Athletes who don’t have enough vitamin D take the risk of performing below their potential. They are especially at risk during winter, when exposure to the sun is lowest. It is also the winter months when the current recommended daily intake of 600 international units is likely to be too low.
Supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. That’s one reason the U.S. Olympic recommends getting a healthy diet from food sources as much as possible.
If you decide to purchase supplement products, keep in mind the possibility of counterfeiting. Consumer Reports recommends choosing only supplements certified by a recognized, independent lab that tests whether the product contains what the packaging says it contains.