3rd May 2014
One of the most popular questions I get asked at every talk and seminar I give is which supplements to take? Yes, it’s tempting to think that all those expensive shakes, powders and pills will give you the edge when it comes to building muscle or improving performance.
The truth is that the vast majority are more sizzle than substance. However, there is a (very) small handful that are supported by a peer-reviewed body of research and may help you make marginal gains with your training. There’s no guarantee they work but at least they have some science behind them.
- Whey protein
If you have higher-than-average requirements, whey protein may be a convenient way of adding protein to your diet. It also provides leucine, which is both a key signal molecule for initiation and an important substrate for new protein synthesis. Compared with casein or soy, whey supplements may be a better option in the immediate post-exercise period as whey is absorbed quicker, but there is no evidence that it results in greater muscle growth over 24 hours. You may prefer to drink milk (which contains whey naturally) as studies have shown that it is just as effective in promoting muscle synthesis after resistance training as supplements
Creatine monohydrate supplements have been well researched over the years and, on balance, have proven an effective aid for increasing strength and muscle mass as well as enhancing performance in high-intensity activities. However, creatine doesn’t work for everyone – it is estimated that 20 – 30% of people will not respond to creatine supplementation.
3. Beetroot juice
Since 2009, a number of studies have shown that nitrate in the form of beetroot juice may help sustain higher levels of power for longer before fatigue sets in. It appears to reduce VO2 and improve exercise economy so you need less energy to do the same amount of work. This may give you the edge in events lasting 4 – 30minutes or during intense intermittent exercise and team sports. However, the majority of studies showing a positive effect involved untrained or recreational athletes, not elite athletes. Whether beetroot juice also benefits performance in elite athletes is unclear.
Beta-alanine supplementation works by increasing carnosine concentration in the muscle, which increases buffering capacity and helps offset the build-up of lactic acid during high-intensity exercise, which in turn may enhance sprint and short-distance performance. Thus, it may benefit activities of 1 – 4 min duration or those involving repeated sprints or surges of power. However, the research to date has involved relatively small numbers of athletes, so opinions may change as further research is carried out.
There’s good evidence that caffeine enhances performance for most types of endurance, power and strength activities. It works by reducing perceptions of effort and improving fibre recruitment. Thus it may delay fatigue and improve mental sharpness. However, individual responses vary; some people experience side effects such as trembling, increased heart rate and headaches.
If you enjoyed this article and want to find out more about sports supplements, then read the new edition of my book
Fully updated to reflect the latest research, Sports Supplements is packed with clear, reliable and unbiased advice that will help you maximise your athletic potential. Renowned sports nutritionist Anita Bean takes you through each supplement and explains what they are, how to use them and if they really work – as well as suggesting other alternatives.
Covering the most popular supplements on the market – from beetroot juice to creatine, caffeine to whey protein, this is the essential guide for anyone considering taking supplements.