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Ah supplements – the hot topic of health and fitness. Most magazines and sellers of supplements will tell you that these pills, capsules and powders are the secret to making as much progress as you want without effort, while a lot of those who’ve been around the industry a while will give the knee-jerk opposite reaction that you don’t need ANY supplements, ever.

Both are wrong (well, the second group aren’t – you don’t NEED them, but that doesn’t make them a universally bad idea). Supplements will not make up for a poor diet or training to give you results you’ve not earned, but they can certainly help you be in optimal health, they can possibly help with exercise performance and recovery, and they might have a few other benefits, too. With that said, there’s a sliding scale of importance, and really supplements should not only be considered based upon your level of fitness and quality of diet, but also ‘training age’. By this we mean that most supplements provide so little in the way of benefit that they shouldn’t be worried about when your first start out and even later on they aren’t going to make a night-and-day difference.

As with anything, build the foundations before starting to lay bricks. In this article we will discuss what we currently consider to be the foundation supplements and then build upon this by telling you about some other well-proven things which you can take to improve athletic performance once your nutrition and programming are in line and you want to add another 5%.

Finally, we present to you our ‘maybe pile’ of supplements. These are things with a little evidence behind them, or with very specific applications. We like them, but don’t make a strong case for you to take them.

Notice that we don’t make or sell everything here and that’s because either:

  • We don’t feel that the current body of literature justifies their inclusion in our line.
  • Their applications are so specific that, ultimately, we don’t feel that including them in our line is warranted.

Note Whey protein isn’t included here because it’s a food more than it is a supplement. Whey protein is a great addition to any diet, and for those who do not or cannot consume dairy, a pea/rice blend is a fantastic alternative

All information below was collected from Examine, a fantastic free online resource for impartial supplement information (1).

The Basics

These are the products which are there to improve your health by simply plugging holes in your existing nutrition. These don’t have any inherent benefits due to supplementation, but supplementation which rectifies a deficiency can have hugely beneficial, preventative effects.

Fish Oil

Fish oil, in one form or another, is probably one of the oldest supplements there is – and for good reason. As you may recall from the carbohydrate and fat week, we need certain fats to survive, known as Omega 3 and 6 fats, which we are unable to make ourselves out of other stuff. Omega 6 takes care of itself, really, so it’s only Omega-3 which we need to worry about.

Omega 3 fatty acids, named EPA and DHA, are found primarily in oily fish products like mackerel or salmon. This is great, but these are expensive. In order to avoid becoming deficient, you don’t actually need all that much Omega-3, and eating oily fish 2-3 times per week is enough to keep you covered. In order to get a full range of benefits though, including but not limited to:

  • Improved glucose management
  • Healthier Joints
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Reduced post exercise soreness

Then you need to be taking on 2-3 grams of EPA and DHA per day, which would be an awful lot of fish. What we therefore recommend is a high quality, strong fish oil supplement. Be careful, however, as not all products are the same.

Check the label and look for EPA and DHA content of your capsules. This will range from 60mg and 80mg, to over 750mg combined, meaning you’d need to take between 3 high quality and 15 low quality capsules per day. You get what you pay for, so be wary of what you are buying.

Multivitamin

Micronutrients are important. Eating a wide range of foods which are bursting with nutrition is a great way to stay on top of your needs and ensure that you get everything required to be as healthy as possible.

With that said, it’s not easy to do. How do you know if you’ve eaten enough selenium today? How much Vitamin K did you eat last week? Will tomorrow’s planned food cover your calcium needs?

It’s because of this that a good quality multivitamin is a great choice. This will not ever make up for a poor diet, so don’t rely on it for you micronutrient intake, but it’s a marvellous ‘catch-all, safety net’.

In a similar vein to Fish Oil, you DO get what you pay for, and in this case opting for branded options over cheaper ones is a good shout. A lot of cheaper multivitamins either do not offer the full spectrum of important nutrients, or provide nutrients which are of poor quality and therefore are not absorbed as readily as they should be.

Vitamin D3

Finally, we have Vitamin D3. This is a steroid-like nutrient which is found in small amounts in full fat dairy and whole milk, but our PRIME source is sunlight. Bacteria on your skin synthesise it on contact with the Sun’s rays, and our body is able to absorb it for use.

This is great, but most of us don’t get much sunlight.

Those of us living in the UK are lucky to get a lot of sun during the summer, let alone the rest of the year, and even then we spend most of the day indoors. This has led to a situation where it is estimated that the majority of UK residents have suboptimal levels of Vitamin D, potentially leading to Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD), low mood, poor concentration and – at the extreme – bone density problems like rickets. Granted this last condition is unlikely, but it bears mention.

Vitamin D helps keep you at 100%, but getting enough of it without supplementation is very difficult in the modern world unless you are an outdoors based manual worker and/or use Sunbeds regularly. It’s even hypothesised that going on holiday makes us feel better, partly because we reach Vitamin D sufficiency while away!

Vitamin D is usually dosed pretty poorly in supplements. The current RDA is quite low, and the consensus is split between camps of just how much Vitamin D is needed daily to be in perfect health – from 500iu to 10,000! We tend to go for the middle ground and advise 2000iu-3000iu per day alongside food as it is a fat soluble vitamin to make sure your bones and mind are as strong as they should be!

The fancier stuff

These are all well researched supplements which have a clear effect, but are not something which can be considered essential. This stuff works, but you don’t actually need it to make (optimal) progress.

Leucine

Leucine plays a critical role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis (2) (the process of storing amino acids in muscle tissue). Generally speaking, you don’t need to worry about ever supplementing Leucine as you’ll be consuming Leucine rich foods and beyond that it serves no purpose, but as always there is an exception.

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, or otherwise sometimes eat plant-based proteins, you risk not stimulating MPS as well as you should do, as this amino acid is often lacking in some vegan protein sources.

If this sounds like you, a very simple solution which means you don’t need to dramatically change your eating habits is to include 2-3 grams of supplemental leucine with each plant based meal, unless you know the amino acid profiles of the foods you are eating and know that they combine to give a high enough dose (this information can easily be found online).

This is, in fact, the perfect usage of a supplement. You know a specific shortcoming of your diet and use a specific thing to rectify the issue and bring you up to speed.

Creatine

Of all of the supplements on this list, creatine is probably the one which most people who’ve looked into supplements expected to see, and it’s the one which seems to have the most myth and mystery around it – so we’ll start here.

Creatine is a substance which is found in most meats, but in the largest amount in red meat and some oily fish like salmon. The dosage recommended to improve athletic performance is 3-5g per day, however, which would take well over a pound of flesh per day – every day – to get naturally. This expensive and unreliable, so generally creatine is recommended as a supplement.

The main reason you’d take creatine is because it can help with ATP recycling (which we’ll cover in a second) but it also has some other well-researched and pretty cool benefits. Creatine shows promise for improving muscle cell hydration by drawing in and storing water in your muscle cells. This reduces your risk of pulls and tears, it makes you look ‘fuller’ and it can even increase your body’s cells anabolic signalling (the signal sent to your muscles to make them grow). It shows potential for improving glucose disposal and blood sugar management, too.

Perhaps the most interesting benefit of creatine is that recent studies have shown it to be mildly neuroprotective. This means that it has the potential to reduce your chances of getting Alzheimers.

As we said, though, creatine is taken primarily to aid in the recycling of ATP.

ATP 101

ATP is the body’s “energy currency” – the final thing which food becomes before we can use it do move. It’s made up of one molecule of Adenosine bound to 3 molecules of Phosphate (Hence - Adenosine Tri Phosphate). This is used to fuel muscular contractions, but after one ‘unit’ of ATP has been ‘used’ it will lose a Phosphate bond (becoming ADP or Adenosine Di-Phosphate and creating lactic acid) and this needs to be replaced before it can be used again for energy. When you are out of usable ATP in a muscle, it stops working well, and you have to end your set.

Because creatine is stored within the muscle itself along with phosphate, it can ‘donate this’ to ADP and therefore speed up the process of ATP recycling allowing you to pump out more reps as well as recovering faster set to set. Add to this the fact that creatine has been shown to improve exercise recovery and reduce soreness, and you have a pretty powerful addition to your arsenal!

Beta Alanine

Beta Alanine is best known for being the thing in pre workout formulas which gives you ‘the tingles’, but it serves a lot more purposes than that.

Beta Alanine is another substance which we can get in small amounts from food: Chicken and turkey being examples, but when we supplement it we are able to ingest huge amounts more than we ordinarily would.

Beta alanine is a precursor to carnosine which is stored in the muscles. It’s stored there because it is vital for preserving muscle PH levels.

As mentioned in the section on creatine, activity such as running, sprinting or lifting uses stores of ATP and this results in ADP and one other thing – lactic acid. Lactic acid was once thought to be a bad thing which causes muscle fatigue, but this is not actually true. Whilst it is true that lactic acid production increases along with training intensity and duration, the same can be said about heart rate – but it is correlation and nothing more.

Lactic acid quickly dissociates into lactate and hydrogen ions which carry a positive electrical charge. Lactate itself is actually a fuel source which your body can use to perform exercise. The H+ ions, however, remain in the muscle and lower the pH to create an acidic environment and cause ‘the burn’. Carnosine effectively buffers this acid buildup, converting it to C02 and allowing it to be exhaled.

This effect isn’t just acute or ‘per set’, either. During a workout H+ ions build up slowly (especially true for high volume training, interval training or anything else which is ‘stop-start’ for a long time like team sports) and beta alanine can help mediate this. This means that you might get a few extra reps per set, but you might also get a few extra sets per workout!

BA is typically dosed in the 3-6g rep range, with a gradual buildup of bodily stores occurring over 5-10 weeks before you experience the full benefit. Because of this long ‘loading phase’ I generally recommend you use beta alanine year round rather than in ‘cycles’.

As a final note, acute bolus dosing of Beta Alanine can result in the mildly unpleasant tingling feeling called paraesthesia which we mentioned at the beginning. This can be mediated by splitting your dose up over 2-3 servings during the day with food for the best absorption rates.

Caffeine

Caffeine is the world’s most used drug, and can be massively beneficial to both performance and fat loss. Research suggests that caffeine can improve power output, reduce perceived effort with a given workload and increase alertness, drive and focus. This means you are in the zone, able to train harder, and you’ll even feel like it’s easier. Couple this with the fact that habitual coffee drinkers show an increased calorie burn throughout the day and I can imagine you are sold!

A dose of around 3-9 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight is shown to be highly effective at aiding sports performance, so this is a good place to start.

BUT THERE IS A DRAWBACK

Caffeine isn’t all roses. Caffeine increases your stress hormone levels, can interfere with blood pressure and heart rate and can interrupt the sleep which is vital for both health and brainpower as well as fat loss and muscle gains.

It also has a long half life of over 6 hours (Meaning that if you took 200mg at 12pm, come 6pm there would still be 100mg in your system, then come 12am there would be 50, and so on) so it’s deleterious effects hang around for a long time.

Our suggestions with caffeine are to use it but use the minimal effective dose as infrequently as you can. If you can use 3mg per kilo, use 3mg per kilo as using 6 won’t give twice the results but will likely give twice the negatives.

Tyrosine

If you are wanting to improve cognitive function and alertness without resorting to stimulants, one highly effective ingredient to consider is l-Tyrosine.

l-Tyrosine, when taken in the 100-150mg per pound of bodyweight range (sorry, research was done in America) seems to effectively increase cognition and reduce stress markers when you are placed under acute stress – such as during a workout. This means that you will feel more focused and alert to the task, and may be able to withstand extreme effort for a longer period of time.

It does this because it is a precursor to a number of different chemicals in your brain which are responsible for cognition and stress. Though the effects aren’t huge, they are dependable, and l-Tyrosine is an excellent pre-workout alternative to caffeine for those who train during the evening.

L-Carnitine L-Tartrate

During exercise we cause micro-trauma to muscle tissues which can, of course, cause some degree of discomfort. This is accompanied by an increased amount of various waste materials in the blood (most notably hypoxanthine, xanthine oxidase, and serum uric acid as well as myoglobin, fatty acid-binding protein, and creatine kinase) and a significant degree of inflammation and soreness.

Reducing the soreness using NSAIDs has historically been utilised by athletes, but this can in fact reduce your body’s ability to adapt to a given training stimulus. You recover faster, but you don’t actually super-compensate so well.

Some research has indicated that supplementing LCLT can reduce all of the above biomarkers for anaerobic training and reduce levels of post exercise soreness, but it does NOT affect long-term muscle gain. So less soreness and fatigue with the same progress. Not bad!

The ‘Maybe Pile’

These are things which probably work, and/or which work in very specific circumstances. These are things we would use ourselves, and which we would advocate you try, but if your budget is low or you simply don’t fit into the specific circumstances mentioned, save your money and buy more vegetables.

Pre/Pro Biotics

Pre and Pro biotics are two things which you could take in the event of suspected gut health issues. The human body is host to billions of bacteria, most of which are beneficial, and the vast majority of which reside in the gut. Without this symbiotic relationship we would be in a very bad way, with this bacteria helping perform a huge number of tasks. Most notably then help digest food and absorb nutrients, but they can also effect immune function, natural detoxification, mood, energy levels and just about everything else.

If your gut flora is disturbed significantly, you have no chance of being in optimal health.

ProBiotics are “Good Bacteria” which you take to supplement the bacteria already in your gut – Often taken in products like ‘Yakult’ though these are also found in foods like yoghurt and cheese. PreBiotics are things which ‘feed’ and otherwise help to support the naturally occurring bacteria already present – bananas, whole grains, vegetables and other typically ‘healthy’ foods are generally considered to be pre-biotics.

After periods of severe stomach upset, or after taking antibiotics, taking a probiotic may be a good thing. Likewise if you feel that you are suffering with general gastric upset a prebiotic product MIGHT help.

Generally speaking, though, we recommend you simply support your own natural gut flora by eating a generally healthy diet and keeping to a healthy weight. Maybe consider taking a probiotic after taking antibiotics or experiencing Sickness/Diarrhoea if you like, but these products aren’t something we support for day to day use.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens, as the name suggests, help our body to adapt to stressors by mediating the physical and chemical effects thereof. Stressors include training, dieting, daily work and family stress and anything else which causes increases in stress hormones or puts your body in a ‘fight or flight’ mode. They also show potential for improving mood and concentration as well as increasing the beneficial effects of stimulants without increasing the dose you use, and therefore incurring further side effects.

Common adaptogens are Rhodiola Rosea or Ashwagandha but there are a large number of them available today; largely herbs and extracts common in Ayurveda medicine. Interestingly, although they all share the same purported benefits, when studied their potential mechanisms for action do not necessarily all line up.

Most research done on adaptogens is located in old Soviet journals which are very difficult to acquire or translate well enough to analyse the methods and results thoroughly, and there isn’t a lot of modern human trial data to go on, and therefore we cannot say with certainty that they work.

That said, there is a reasonable amount of data to suggest that Rhodiola potentially improves mood and that it alongside Holy Basil, Schisandra chinensis and Tribulus terrestris can reduce the effects of chronic stress and even boost libido. Because of this, if you can easily afford them we suggest that they are an option for use during heavy training cycles, periods of high stress or during periods where sleep is necessarily reduced to allow for study/work which is unavoidable in the short term.

Carb Powders

With the dawn of the low-carb era, carb powders and gels have fallen out of favour. Similarly because sugar is now being vilified, people tend to opt for more expensive starch-based carbs over the cheaper sugar forms in the hopes that it will be more beneficial for health.

Firstly as we mentioned on a few other occasions, carbs in general are the primary fuel for any anaerobic activity, and also a useful fuel for long-duration aerobic activity. When an athlete ‘hits a wall’ or ‘bonks’ they have depleted their glycogen stores severely (you can only store 400 grams or so, a little more if you glycogen deplete then overcompensate pre-run) and will struggle to maintain any kind of performance.

In fact, because the brain requires carbohydrates, specifically glucose, to function optimally when an athlete isn’t in ketosis (Which I’m not going to talk about here. Suffice it to say I don’t typically recommend ketosis to athletes looking to maximise performance) it can even cause hallucinations or blackouts.

In the case of an activity done for maximising performance we recommend 20-30g carbs per hour after the first hour in order to maintain glycogen stores and avoid ‘the wall’. During an event your digestion is impaired because blood flow is being redirected to working muscles and not the gut, and this means that whatever you consume needs to be as easy as possible for your body to use, keeping it liquid just makes that a whole lot easier.

The other situation where we recommend a carb drink is in the event of an athlete competing or performing twice in quick succession, such as a Crossfit athlete at a throw-down or a decathlete – or of course if you are simply training twice per day to a high intensity and volume for whatever reason. For these athletes/people, rapid glycogen replenishment is essential in order to keep their performance going strong throughout a long day, and in this case the same rule applies to the one above.

Supplements here are a far more effective method than eating a whole-food meal which contains fibre and fats to slow down digestion.

But which carb powder to pick?

On the back of anti-sugar propaganda there are a lot of expensive carb powders being made available for athletes who wish to have ‘the best of the best’. Vitargo and more recently, highly branched cyclic dextrins have been produced which claim to be more healthful and beneficial, owing to them not technically being a sugar…but these claims aren’t based in anything other than marketing.

These powders have fast gastric-emptying (leaving the stomach) rates and therefore by necessity increase insulin levels just like sugar (not that this really matters much in exercisers, but that’s for another article) and have zero nutritional benefit other than providing carbohydrates. They are, therefore, no different to Dextrose and/or Maltodextrin which are far cheaper. The only time we’d say to go for a ‘fancy’ carb powder is if you suffer some kind of gastric upset, in which case the faster digesting carbs may be of some benefit to you.

For anyone not training 2-3 times per day or for over 2 hours, you should be able to consume more than enough carbohydrates through your regular diet.

Citrulline Malate

Citrulline Malate is another compound which is found in very small amounts in the diet but which can be supplemented to far higher than normal levels. When supplemented, its role is to speed up the ammonia recycling process associated with fatigue (Basically, to help process waste metabolites faster when they accumulate during activity) and increase nitric oxide concentrations to improve nutrient delivery to working muscles. Because of this it is thought to reduce fatigue and improve endurance in both aerobic and anaerobic activity alongside boosting recovery rates between sessions.

Users report an increased ‘pump’ which of course increases anabolism to some degree because of cellular swelling and also a reduction in DOMS (it’s also a nice ego boost to get a great pump and look bigger/more toned while training).

Unfortunately there are only two studies to date which back up the ergogenic properties of 'CitMal' which really isn’t enough data to be sure about something and therefore we cannot conclusively say that it works.

There’s an awful lot of anecdotal data to say that it’s a useful addition, though. If you want to try it, dosing is 6-8 grams (for endurance and strength training respectively) according to the two studies available and due to its acute effects, it should be taken around an hour pre workout with or without food.

Beet extract/nitrates

Beet roots are a rich dietary source of nitrate. Consumption of a therapeutic dose of nitrate (around 450-600mg) is, however, difficult to do by consuming the beets themselves, with a suggested natural level being around 1,300mg/kilo, meaning you’d need to eat around half a kilo of beets to get the desired effect.

The nitrate in beets is able to increase serum nitrate and nitrite levels significantly, which can have profound effects on endurance performance. One trial found that beetroot extract was able to increase 5k run time and another found similar results in time trial cycling. A further study found that beet juice increases time to exhaustion by 15%. This seems to be due to nitric oxide level increases which are associated with reduced oxygen consumption for a given level of exertion, meaning that muscles are working more efficiently.

Beet extract is likely to be all but useless for strength or physique sports, but seems to be potentially beneficial for those engaging in endurance exercise.

Summing Up

The first set of supplements aren’t cool or sexy sounding, and you won’t feel a DRAMATIC difference between taking them or not in the short term, but the difference they could make over the long term is profound.

The second set, proven ergogenic aids, should improve results to a small degree with a reasonable amount of reliability. They aren’t going to turn you into He-Man or strip fat off you in a week, but they should give you a 5% boost in performance, and might even give you a little more owing to the psychological benefits some people get when taking supplements. Similar to a placebo effect.

The final set? They may or may not help, give them a try if you really want to – we list them because they are things we DO believe in ourselves, but we can’t say conclusively that they work because evidence simply doesn’t exist.