Training and athletics can transform your life. Either you’ve had it happen to you or you’ve seen it happen to someone close to you, and you want the benefits too:
• Physical strength that gives you a reassuring sense of place in the world.
• Self-confidence about a body you enjoy moving and showing off.
• Awareness of the depth of your drive and ability to persevere when the going gets tough.
• Great health, enhanced cognition and less inflammation in your body that will pay off in later years.
• The knowledge of what it means to compete to win, with that sweet feeling of triumph over an opponent or a new personal best.
That’s what an athletic life is truly about. It’s not about supplements, nutrient timing or obsessive feeding. You don’t want your “fuel” to get in the way of “function,” let alone become more important.
However, there are a few excellent supplements that can protect the body from the stress of going all out in training, while enhancing athletic performance. They don’t “create” or enable your performance; they just make you better. This list provides detailed research on five superior nutrients that can help you take your athleticism to a new level. There are also “red flags” – things you need to be cautious about.
#1: Fish Oil
The omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA that come in fish oil, can make you stronger and leaner for optimal endurance and strength performances. Fish oil reduces inflammation, accelerates recovery, enhances cognition and mood, and may convey other benefits as well.
A recent review showed that trained athletes may benefit more than untrained individuals from omega-3 supplementation. One study found that when men did unilateral knee extensions for four weeks, with the other leg acting as a control, muscle cellular health improved to a greater degree in the trained leg than in the untrained leg.
A second study showed that young athletes who supplemented with 3 grams of EPA and DHA daily replaced the pro-inflammatory omega-6 Arachidonic Acid in the cell muscle membrane, resulting in less waste production in response to intense eccentric exercise. The implications are as follows:
• Better energy use and improved fat metabolism
• Improved transport of red blood cells through the muscle capillary bed for enhanced oxygen delivery to the muscle
• Less soreness, muscle pain and DOMS, allowing for accelerated recovery from intense training
• Increased protein synthesis for greater muscle growth and strength
• Enhanced activation of the mTOR pathway involved in muscle building and long-term hypertrophy
Fish oil is recommended for athletes who are under extra physical and environmental stress. For example, studies show that when volleyball athletes were on a calorie-restricted, high-protein diet to improve body composition, a diet high in omega-3s improved antioxidant status and body fat loss. Finally, sports scientists suggest omega-3s can enhance performance at high altitudes, in extreme heat or cold, or when competing without complete recovery.
Red Flag: The optimal fish oil dose hasn't been identified, but up to 3 grams a day is considered safe, allowing athletes to avoid side effects associated with high doses of fish oil. Documented side effects include a suppressed immune system, very low blood pressure, or decreased blood clot formation, leading to hemorrhagic stroke.
Use pharmaceutical-grade fish oils, which have been tested to be free of contaminants, such as heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs.
#2: Green Tea
Best known for its consistent ability to aid in fat loss, green tea is a wonder nutrient that is extremely effective at accelerating recovery and fighting stress. Greater strength and muscle gains, improved oxygen use and less inflammation make green tea particularly useful for strength and endurance athletes alike.
Here’s a snapshot of what the research shows:
• Trained male athletes were given a green tea beverage that provided 572 mg of antioxidants a day for 10 weeks and then participated in an intense endurance trial. Results showed that compared to a placebo group, the group that took the green tea increased the amount of body fat burned during the workout because the antioxidants activated the beta oxidation of fat.
The outcome was noteworthy because it is difficult to shift the body into fat burning mode when eating a high-carb diet, as these athletes did. The implication is that using green tea improves both body composition and enhanced performance, because muscle fuel stores will be preserved as the body burns fat during exercise.
• Untrained women were put on a calorie-restricted diet for four weeks to jump-start weight loss. Then they did a strength training program for eight weeks and took either a placebo or 20 grams of green tea powder a day. Results showed the green tea group lost 6.5 kg more body fat compared to a placebo group. They also gained more lean mass (3.1 kg) and boosted leg press 1RM by 23 kg more than the placebo group.
Scientists think green tea enhances strength performance because it eliminates oxidative stress and helps get rid of waste products from the body. It also may enhance testosterone in the blood because the phenols (antioxidants) in green tea inhibit the enzymes that remove testosterone from the blood. Green tea also may improve the concentration of adrenaline in the blood, allowing for more intense training.
• Multiple animal studies show green tea supplementation can almost completely eradicate the inflammatory response to alcohol, toxins and very intense training.
Red Flag: You may have heard that green tea can lower testosterone levels, which contradicts what was mentioned in the female training study above. This rumor comes from a few long-term rat studies in which the animals were given enormous doses of green tea catechins, sometimes intravenously and in other cases as the sole liquid available for drinking. These studies were done to test green tea as an anti-cancer therapy for the androgen sensitive organs. These studies tended to show decreased testosterone, suggesting green tea as a viable treatment for cancer.
However, the authors of a study in 2000 wrote that the dosing and administration of green tea catechins in animal studies is entirely different from practical human use. For instance, it’s not a good idea to take green tea catechins intravenously if you want to optimize testosterone levels – but there’s no evidence that drinking 5 to 6 cups a day or regularly supplementing with green tea extract will be anything but beneficial.
#3: Magnesium and Zinc
Magnesium and zinc are two minerals that are well known among hardcore trainees for being critical to recovery from muscle-damaging workouts. The body uses magnesium and zinc to sustain muscle contractions and deliver oxygen to working muscles, meaning that athletes are chronically deficient in both if they don’t attend to the levels of these minerals.
Magnesium is best known for its calming effects on the body – it is beneficial for sleep and reducing cortisol – but it also enables energy production during exercise. Research on elite handball players suggests that magnesium enhances red blood cell activity and the strength of muscle contractions.
It also is taken up by fat cells when the body starts burning fat for fuel. If you don’t have adequate magnesium, your body will be less “fat adapted” and will favor using carbohydrates.
Magnesium enables zinc to do its magic – supporting testosterone, regulating fat hormones and removing oxidative stress. When you begin exercising, blood levels of magnesium, calcium and zinc are altered. To sustain optimal performance, you need adequate stores of all three of these minerals.
Red Flag: No need to worry when supplementing with magnesium; just use a high-quality source. Scientists recommend 500 mg a day of magnesium as a reasonable dose for athletes to replenish stores and reduce the cortisol elevations they experience from intense training.
For zinc, you MUST be careful because studies show you can raise zinc levels from deficient to normal by taking 20 mg/day for five days. Be aware that a small deficiency in zinc is considered a “disaster” for human health by scientists, but so is too much zinc. To test levels, get a red blood cell zinc test and continually monitor zinc levels when supplementing.
#4: Blueberries & Tart Cherries
Blueberries, tart cherries and similar antioxidant-rich foods can speed recovery after you thrash your muscles, whether from lifting massive loads or doing endurance exercise. The research is compelling:
• A study of participants who drank blueberry juice both before and after doing 300 eccentric leg extensions to induce muscle damage showed that the antioxidants in blueberries accelerated recovery as measured by maximal strength tests performed during the recovery period. In addition, oxidative stress markers were considerably lower at 36 and 60 hours post-workout in the group that drank the blueberry juice compared to a placebo group.
• Drinking tart cherry juice twice a day had similar benefits after an eccentric biceps curl workout as the blueberry juice. Strength loss was about 75 percent less in groups that drank cherry juice compared to a placebo group. Muscle pain was also much lower.
• Tart cherry juice has also been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation after a marathon. The effect is faster recovery and recuperation of strength.
Scientists believe the antioxidants in blueberries and tart cherries help remove the waste products or “garbage” produced during hard training. Once the waste products are gone, the body is better able to repair tissue.
Red Flag: Avoid eating blueberries and cherries with milk because previous studies have suggested that the proteins in milk inhibit the antioxidant activity in the body. Therefore, if you take whey protein, do so during the “window of opportunity” when the muscles are most sensitive to protein feeding, and take your antioxidants later once the whey has digested. Or, opt for alternative protein sources such as pea or just straight amino acids.
Sport scientist Colin Wilborn recently called creatine the “safest, most effective supplement that ever existed.” Research is abundant on the benefits of creatine for enhancing performance:
• A study found that taking 20 grams of creatine for five days increased sprint running capacity. Participants improved their time to exhaustion by 23 percent, highlighting the value of creatine loading prior to a sport competition with a high-intensity component.
• Creatine has been shown to decrease the effects of sleep deprivation on performance. Sleep-deprived rugby players took 100 mg/kg/bw and had better performance on skilled passing tests than when using a placebo or a caffeine supplement. Creatine was judged to be so effective because it replenished the reduced brain stores of phosphocreatine from lack of sleep.
• Creatine supplementation of 12 grams for 15 days was shown to reduce both muscle glycogen use and protein degradation during an intense 60-minute endurance trial. It also has been found to enhance endurance performance.
• A study found that trained athletes taking creatine with protein and carbs post-workout gained more muscle and increased 1RM strength more than taking protein alone or just protein and carbs. Researchers attribute at least 40 percent of the strength improvements to muscle gains during training.
• Creatine is so effective at improving performance because it is the first energy source called on by the body, meaning it plays an essential role in energy metabolism.
Red Flag: The only concern with creatine is that it may not be ideal for endurance athletes who don’t want to gain muscle because this will increase their bodyweight. Typically, this concern is unfounded because the strength and power gains that go with muscle development improve endurance performance.
In addition, increases in bodyweight from muscle tend to be very small because the endurance exercise done by these athletes inhibits significant gains. However, it is true that creatine can lead to muscle and collagen development, increasing bodyweight – a new study showed increased lean mass in endurance athletes from taking 12 grams of creatine for 15 days. So, if you are worried about it, you may want to pass on creatine.