With all the aggressive visual marketing of huge, muscled individuals from supplement companies, supplements sure sound like a scary thing to a typical sports enthusiast and is more often than not a turn off rather than a turn on
The dictionary definition of ‘supplement’ is simply “Something added to complete a thing, make up for a deficiency, or extend or strengthen the whole”. For health supplements, their main purpose is just that; to make up for nutritional deficiencies in one’s daily diet. However, do note that the amount of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) differ for each individual person and is subject to different proportions as well.
Are supplements absolutely necessary? No! It is entirely possible to live on whole foods, just like what we’ve done since the beginning of our existence. However, supplements can be a cost-saving and effective tool that can make up for certain dietary restriction placed on our lives. In our fast-paced environment, we may not be able to obtain sufficient macronutrients in order to sustain our energy needs and bodily processes due to difficulty in finding whole, nutritious foods. For athletes, this becomes an even more daunting task as their energy needs far exceed the average individual and require a much higher intake of food to achieve that. Hence, supplements are useful tools that can help athletes cope with this higher nutrient demand and achieve better performance and recovery in their sports and training
Here's a breakdown of all the supplements available in the market to sports enthusiasts.
Protein Supplements: The Pinnacle of Sports Nutrition
Protein is the only macronutrient which contains nitrogen, consisting of smaller units known as amino acids. It is a unique biological component which performs many different functions, including the synthesis of living cells and catalyzing of metabolic processes. This is why protein in an individual’s diet is so important; it is basically the building block of your body! Each day, the cells in our bodies are replicated constantly through our daily activities, and require protein that is ingested from food sources. However as athletes participating in intense sports, the metabolic processes that our bodies go through are much higher, hence increasing the demand for protein in order to replace the damaged cells that are sustained through physical activity and yet maintain the necessary bodily functions. Muscle tissue is responsible for physical action and is indeed the common denominator in most sports making it crucial for an athlete’s performance.
One will be able to obtain protein from natural sources such as meat, poultry and dairy products, which may arguably be the best sources since it also contains important vitamins and minerals as well, making them more complete food sources. However, protein from these sources also range in bioavailability, which means that your body may not be able to utilize everything that you ingest! In fact, some whole foods such, as nuts and grains do not contain a complete amino acid profile, meaning they do not provide all the necessary amino acids your body needs for protein synthesis
In addition, after your workout or training, your muscles are naturally depleted and are in catabolic state, meaning that the cells are breaking down. In order to combat these, certain amino acids like branched chain amino acids stimulate protein synthesis in order to combat this breakdown and in optimal amounts surpass this rate and aids in building new muscle cells.
Whey Protein: The Most Efficient Source of Protein
Whey is a by-product of the manufacturing process of cheese and is further processed in order to remove fat and other non-protein materials in order to increase its protein content. The protein purity in whey contributes to its rate of digestion and absorption, and hence how ready it is for utilization by your body. This is the main reason why whey supplements are commonly used after a workout or training session, as they are quickly absorbed and used by the body, minimizing muscle breakdown and improving recovery. Hence, when used at the right time, whey protein can be a useful tool to improve your performance by allowing your body to replenish its cells more quickly. Additionally, due to its higher bioavailability, your body will receive most of its supply for amino acids throughout the day.
However the use of whey protein supplements does not guarantee that your body has sufficient macronutrients in order to ensure recovery and growth. In situations where your body is in an energy deficit, these protein sources will be used for energy instead of synthesizing new cells instead! An analogy to this would be ‘tearing down the walls to warm the house’. Hence, a sufficient intake of carbohydrates and fats must be ingested as well to ensure that such quality protein isn’t going to waste.
There are also different whey purity standards available, depending on the dietary needs of every individual. While whey protein concentrate contains a high yield of whey protein, it does contain some amount of lactose, which is an allergen that causes bloating and indigestion in users who are lactose intolerant. Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) however is a much more processed form of whey protein concentrate and contains only trace amounts of lactose and other impurities. WPI is produced by Cross-Flow Micro Filtration; a natural process which employs a ceramic membrane to remove fat and lactose without the use of heat and chemicals. Further down the line, there is Whey Protein Hydrolysate, which is produced with a relatively new technique in whey protein technology where isolates are further broken down to be more readily available by the body.
Whey protein is also known for its health benefits, such as increasing satiety and hence reducing overall food intake, preventing unwanted weight gain, as well as anti-inflammatory properties (1).
How to use:
Whey protein supplements are most effective when taken right after your workout or training. Aim for 20-40g of protein in your post-exercise shake, depending on your bodyweight. Alternatively it can also be used as a meal replacement protocol, especially in after a prolonged fast such as during sleeping hours.
Mass Gainers: Pack On That Size!
Mass gainers are powder formulations which are designed for that purpose; to help you pack on as much muscle mass as possible. A person with a normal metabolism may not have much use for mass gainers as a proper diet and training regime may be sufficient to pack on mass at a steady rate. However for people with exceptionally high metabolic rates, they’ll find it extremely hard to put on any weight at all. For that reason, they will require a much higher caloric intake than usual, which can come in the form of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Mass gainers usually contain a high amount of carbohydrates, which are considered the most efficient source of energy and will hence be able to fuel the body and prevent it from breaking down precious muscle tissue to obtain energy for other processes. Together with relatively high amounts of protein, mass gainers will be able to stimulate muscle protein synthesis as well as prevent muscle tissue breakdown at the same time, making them very effective for building muscle.
However, too much calories will still be detrimental to an athlete who needs to maintain a certain weight in order to stay in a particular weight category. An excessive amount of carbohydrates in one’s diet will may also result in unwanted increases in fat mass instead of quality muscle tissue, especially for people with moderately high metabolisms, but not high enough to ensure that fat mass will be kept at a minimum. For this purpose, mass gainers range from low carbohydrate or ‘clean’ gainers to high carbohydrate gainers.
‘Clean’ gainers typically contain an approximately equal amount of carbohydrates and protein, with relatively lower amounts of fat. These mass gainers are more suitable for people seeking moderate weight gain due to the lower carbohydrate content.
High carbohydrate gainers have large carbohydrate to protein ratios and can go up to as high as 10:1. Such mass gainers are extremely filling and are used by people who find it exceptionally to put on weight, even if it’s just fat mass.
How to Use: Mass gainers can be taken any time of the day, be it as a meal replacement or a post-workout recovery shake or a night-time recovery protocol. Depending on your needs and caloric intake, you should ideally take them immediately after your workout or training session for optimal recovery. Other optimal timings include upon waking up in the morning and just before bedtime.
Alternatively, mass gainers can also be used as recovery protocols for people engaging in high intensity activities which require a large energy expenditure. The carbohydrate content of these mass gainers make it ideal for replenishment of muscle glycogen and assists in recovery and muscle protein synthesis as well.
Free-Form Amino Acids: Pure and Mobile
Other than protein powder, another popular supplement is free-form amino acids, which are basically pure amino acids, which arebound together either in liquid or solid tablet form. The difference between free-form amino acids and protein powder, which is basically amino acids in a more compounded form, is that the former is much more easily absorbed, due to its purity and form. Hence it is ideal for users who prefer a much more mobile way to get their protein intake in as these forms can be taken orally with or without water. In addition, it is also ideal for users who are highly sensitive to allergens in whey protein, as it does not contain traces of dairy allergens.
How to use: As with whey protein powders, the best time to be taking free-form amino acids are immediately before and after workout to maximize protein synthesis. Use necessary when travelling as well.
Branched Chain Amino Acids:
Branched Chain Amino Acids are unique essential amino acids, which consist of Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. These three amino acids account for approximately 35% of essential amino acids in muscle proteins and play a critical role in muscle development, and athletic performance because they are metabolized in the skeletal muscle rather than the liver. Leucine is also the only amino acid capable of stimulating protein synthesis by itself and is a crucial factor in maintaining muscle mass (2) . For athletes looking to improving intra-training and workout performance, BCAAs can be ingested in order to prevent muscle breakdown and also to grant a boost to muscular energy levels.
How to use: Like whey protein powders and free-form amino acids, the best time to be taking BCAAS are before and after workout to maximize protein synthesis. You can also use them during workouts and trainings to increase energy stores in your muscles as well.
Meal Replacement Protocols
Meal replacement powders and formulas are just that; supplements that are designed to be taken in place of daily meals. They often contain a mixture of carbohydrates, protein and fats that mimic the macronutrient profile of a normal meal and are mostly delicious too! The main component of such protocols is also protein, which makes it an ideal supplement for athletes to use for recovery too. Meal replacement protocols will be ideal for users who are always on the go and hardly have time for a whole meal and need to get their daily nutrient intake in. However such protocols are meant for more challenging dietary situations and should not replace one’s entire diet, as whole foods are still an optimal source of nutrition.
How to Use: Meal replacements can be taken in place of normal meals as and when possible and needed. The amount required depends on the individual’s overall caloric expenditure and dietary needs.
Pre-Workouts: Giving That Extra Boost
Pre-workout supplements are formulations that are designed to provide additional energy, reduce fatigue and increase physical/mental performance for athletes. There are a wide variety of pre-workout formulations that contain different combinations of such ingredients and serve different purposes. These supplements commonly contain stimulants such as caffeine, which increase mental alacrity and heart rate, allowing the body to work harder and faster and thereby increasing performance. In addition, some formulations also include compounds such as creatine which supplies the muscle cells with more energy. Nitric oxide modulators are also common with the additional of compounds such as L-Citrulline and L-Arginine, which causes vasodilation and increases blood flow to the muscles.
Pre-workout supplements can give athletes an extra edge in terms on alertness and larger energy stores, and better endurance from increased blood flow. It is recommended for sports which require high intensity or sustained movements over a period time and require large amounts of aerobic and anaerobic activity.
How to Use: As their name suggests, pre-workout are meant to be taken about 15-30mins before your training session. The recommended dose should be adhered to and most of these formulations contain caffeine and other stimulants, which can be toxic to the body in high doses.
Creatine: The Energy Bank
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound in the body which helps to supply energy to cells in the body through the phosphocreatine system. The body derives energy, or in physical form adenosine tri-phosphate from the muscle stores of phosphocreatine and creatine kinase. Creatine supplementation then helps to increase the pool of phosphocreatine in the system, allow the body to obtain more ATP and hence energy to fuel the muscle cells.
For athletes participating in high intensity sports which require quick sustained bursts of energy, creatine supplementation will help to increase performance and endurance and it allows the body’s anaerobic system to derive more quick acting sources of energy in order to sustain these movements (3).
A well popularized myth is that creatine will cause water retention and create a “puffy” look in athletes. However most of the water that is retained is actually stored in the muscle cells themselves and is a good thing! Besides that, creatine is also known for other health benefits, such as improving cognitive ability, which makes it an ideal supplement to have.
How to use: Creatine supplements are typically taken before workout as it is absorbed very quickly by the body and can be used readily. However it can also be used during and after workouts, depending on the intensity of your workout as well. An optimal dose is 5g of creatine monohydrate and does not necessarily have to be loaded.
L-Carnitine: Fat Burning Catalyst
L-Carnitine is a naturally occurring amino acid derivative that plays a key role in fat metabolism. It is required for the release of long-chain fatty acids from adipose tissue and to transport them across the mitochondrial membrane within cells to be oxidized for energy (4) . As such, L-Carnitine supplements can aid athletes who wish to drop body fat. Due to the increased rate of fat utilization, L-Carnitine also allows the body to obtain more energy from adipose tissue and hence provides sustainable energy for endurance events.
Through a greater reliance on fat for energy, the body reduces depletion of muscle glycogen. This, combined with the reduction of lactic acid accumulation in muscles, can extend exercise capacity before fatigue sets in. Muscle fatigue increases the demand for L-Carnitine, but our bodies can only produce a fraction of the required quantity. However supplementation with L-Carnitine potently increases muscle carnitine levels and increase fat utilization. (5). For athletes involved in endurance sports, supplementing with L-Carnitine with help to release more energy from adipose tissue and hence allow them to sustain their performance over a longer period of time.
How to Use: Consume 2-4g of L-Carnitine before your workout or training session, depending on your bodyweight. You can also consume additional amounts depending on your intensity levels.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): The Functional Food
Conjugated Linoleic Acids are a group of isomers of linoleic acid and can be found in dairy and meat products. It has been shown to have numerous health benefits and effects on diseases as well (6). Studies have also shown that CLA has an effect on reducing body fat composition through lower fat storage and increase fat utilization (6).With regards to its effects on cancer cells, it has also shown promising results by preventing the proliferation of cancer cells. Although research on CLA is still in its infancy, it has shown promising results in terms of health benefits and is a potentially useful supplement.
How to Use: A daily dose of 2-4g is generally recommended and can be spread out throughout the day.
Glutamine is one of the 20 amino acids needed by the human body and can be synthesized by the body. It is the most abundant free amino acids in the body and performs a variety of functions, including protein synthesis and as being an energy source. In times of physical stress, such as strenuous workouts and illnesses, glutamine becomes a conditionally essential amino acid as the body is unable to supply enough of it on its own and requires supplementation.
In addition, glutamine may stimulate human growth hormone (HGH) secretions when loaded orally (7) and supports the immune system and gastrointestinal tract (8). Glutamine is also known for many potential health benefits, such as wound healing and possibly aiding in cancer recovery periods but these claims are still preliminary and may warrant further research (8).
How to Use: Glutamine can be taken before or after training or workout sessions, allowing to serve as fuel and also an amino acid component. The recommended dose is 5g to 10g depending on your bodyweight and intensity levels.
Alternatively, it can also be taken as a general health supplement for the same dose. Higher doses of up to 20g can be taken in times of illness or injury in order to aid recovery as well.
Well, I hope that help! Comment on our Facebook page if you have anything nutrition or fitness you would like to read about next. TILL NEXT TIME!
Written By Ang Boon Yew
Boon Yew is currently a Business (Administration) undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. He is a strength athlete under Powerlifting (Singapore) and has a passion for strength sports such as powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and bodybuilding. On the side, he also pursues knowledge in these sports by experimenting and encouraging independent thinking, publishing these findings on his blog: theironcomrade.wordpress.com