I’m a big believer in using workout supplements to support your efforts. While there are a lot of garbage products on the market, there are also many excellent, properly-researched supplements that will help you through your workouts and improve your results. I think one of the biggest problems with supplements (both as false promises from manufacturers and false hopes from consumers) is that supplements are seen as a magic pill that will get great results without the need to eat properly and exercise. Supplements are not magic and never will be. They are meant to supplement your effort, they are not meant to replace effort.
Getting results requires effort, and whether you’re training for an event or working to lose weight, your energy levels can start to dip as you get deeper into a program. This can negatively impact your workouts and delay your results, not to mention it makes the entire experience feel more miserable. I wanted to go over some excellent supplements (and/or foods) that you can use to improve your energy levels or fight off fatigue (two different sides of the same coin) which will ultimately help you achieve the results your looking for faster.
Quite frankly, when it comes to boosting energy, this is the one that everyone takes, because there is no doubt that it works. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine works to calm the brain, so blocking it makes you feel more alert. Caffeine also seems to blunt the feelings of pain and exertion during exercise, and it improves fat burning which is why it’s part of almost every exercise supplement. It has been shown to achieve the highest concentration in your blood after about an hour, so try to take it about 30 minutes before your workout so it can help carry you through as you start to wear down. Although many people have warned that caffeine is a diuretic and could possible lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, this has been shown not to be true. The same study also demonstrated that caffeine does not reduce your exercise-induced heat tolerance, so it doesn’t increase your chance of heat stroke either.
I’ve found most people associate this supplement with bodybuilders, but it has applications for endurance athletes as well. Creatine is naturally created by the body and we consume it in meat. It is stored in the muscles and used by the body to quickly manufacture ATP, the preferred fuel source for short and intense activities like weight lifting, sprinting, jumping, throwing a ball, etc. Bodybuilders and athletes like creatine because it helps them perform at maximum intensity for longer periods of time, plus it helps build muscle tissue. Don’t worry, it won’t turn you into a muscle-bound monster (that’s steroids), it will just help you increase your lean body mass and make those tough workout days a little easier to get through.
If you’re looking to build muscle and maintain your effort during strenuous activities, first you’ll need to go through a “loading phase for about two weeks to build up the creatine supply in your muscles. This is typically about 12 to 24 grams per day. After this phase, you only need about 3 to 5 grams a day to maintain your creatine stores.
For endurance athletes looking to improve their anaerobic performance during sprints and hill training days or to decrease your recovery time between high intensity intervals, skip the loading phase and concentrate on taking the same 3 to 5 grams about 1 to 2 hours before your workout. This is when creatine levels in your system will peak. It’s typically cleared out of your system after about 3 hours, so don’t take it too early.
A recent study showed how supplementing with beet juice for 15 days can dilate your blood vessels which lowers blood pressure and reduces the amount of work the heart needs to perform during exercise. This ultimately reduces the oxygen cost of exercise which will enable you to increase the amount of endurance work you can perform before fatigue sets in, and improve your tolerance for high intensity exercise. This study once again confirms the benefits found in earlier research, but it also serves as a reminder that I throw out to people that ask me about nitrates, nitrites, and nitric oxide.
While there are supplements out there containing nitrate or nitrite salts, it is recommend you avoid these supplements and stick with getting your nitrates from natural food sources. You only need about 300 to 500 mg of nitrates (about what you’ll find in half a cup of spinach) to achieve the results found in these studies, and going over this amount does not seem to provide additional benefits. Your body takes a little bit of the nitrates you consume (from beet juice, arugula, spinach, celery, bok choy, lettuce, or radishes) and converts it into nitrites and eventually into nitric oxide. The nitric oxide is what actually helps to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and extends the amount of time you can work at high intensities.
Why should you avoid the supplements and focus on whole foods? It’s because while nitrates found in fruits and vegetables are harmless, nitrites are actually toxic in relatively small doses, and many people have gotten into trouble by accidentally taking the wrong substances. Just stick to the vegetables listed above and be careful about storing your nitrate containing vegetable drinks. If they get contaminated with bacteria that can convert nitrates to nitrites (like the kind found in your mouth, so don’t drink straight from the bottle) then it can develop harmful levels of nitrites.
There are more out there that work
I didn’t want to go too crazy with supplement options, but I wanted to give everyone a starting point with some really effective supplements that don’t have many side effects when taken correctly. If you’ve always wondered about certain supplements and want to know what the research says or would like to hear about additional ones in general, let me know in the comments and we can keep this discussion going.