Bottles of pills, powders and supplement formulas occupy prime real estate pharmacies, health food stores and even supermarkets. Millions of people (perhaps even you?) have turned to supplements now or in the past, in order to ‘boost’ fitness and vitality. All of these products, without fail, are making sensational health claims. But the question is – which products are truly worth their salt, and which ones aren’t?
There are too many supplements to list in one article. We have chosen to review five of the most popular and noteworthy options used for exercise performance and recovery.
It is widely known that caffeine can boost athletic performance. How? It acts on the central nervous system to cause a reduced perception of effort and fatigue. Caffeine also triggers a surge of adrenaline. So theoretically, under the influence of caffeine, you’ll be able to run, lift and jump harder and faster, and longer. Woohoo!
Many pro-athletes, including our beloved AFL players, have been using caffeine supplements for decades to obtain a competing ‘edge’ (it’s legal!). Most supplements contain 200mg of caffeine per capsule, which is roughly equivalent to two espresso shots or three cups of instant coffee. Well-seasoned athletes may take up to 600mg of caffeine before an event (i.e. three capsules), however, experts advise against such a high intake for novices and recreational athletes.
How much should you take? Studies suggest 1-3mg of caffeine per body weight (kg). For 70kg person, this means 70 to 200mg of caffeine (i.e. maximum one capsule, or 1-2 espresso shots). When to take it? Since caffeine is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, peaking at 60-90 minutes, have your supplement or coffee an hour or so before hitting the gym.
Omega-3 fatty acids definitely deserve their ‘superfood’ status, as they protect and promote health via multiple pathways. As a quick guide, studies have linked omega-3 fats with reduced risk of inflammatory diseases (i.e. heart disease, arthritis, diabetes) and depression. Furthermore, omega-3’s reduce inflammation in muscle tissue post exercise, and delay/prevent muscle soreness and injury.There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: α-linoleic (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in some plant foods including chia seeds, flaxseeds/linseeds, walnuts and soybeans. EPA and DHA are found in marine foods, particularly oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and tuna. DHA is also found in algae. EPA and DHA are responsible for most of these health benefits, which is why ‘fish oils’ are so strongly recommended. Our bodies can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but only in very small amounts – insufficient to meet requirements.For general health and muscle recovery, the Australian Heart Foundation recommends 3,000 – 4,000mg/week of EPA and DHA, and 1,000mg/day of ALA omega-3 fatty acids. This equates to 3 servings of oily fish per week, and either 30g walnuts or 1tbs flax/chia seeds daily.What if you don’t eat oily fish? Omega-3 supplements are your answer – with many studies supporting their role in the above health benefits. We recommend either fish, krill or algae for vegans. If you are thinking of taking an omega-3 supplement, and you are currently taking blood thinning medication, make sure you speak to your doctor first.
Creatine is a popular pre-workout supplement. It can improve strength and power output by storing phosphocreatine in muscle tissues. Phosphocreatine releases energy to aid cellular function during stress. There is a large body of evidence to support creatine for novice and elite athletes. A review of multiple studies concluded that resistance training with creatine supplementation increased strength and power by 20% and 26% respectively, whereby resistance training alone increased strength and power by 12% only. Creatine has also been shown to reduce exercise-related fatigue. Increases in lean muscle mass with creatine are difficult to determine, as measurements can be confounded by water retention.Creatine is safe to use daily, with the most popular form being creatine monohydrate. The recommended dose for adult gym-goers, particularly in the case of power and interval training, is 0.3g/kg body weight for the first week, then 0.03g/kg body weight thereafter – mixed with water. However, in practice, many people will opt for servings of 5g – 10g prior to a workout. Note – it can cause water retention, so note any sudden changes you see on the scales! Excess consumption without sufficient water may cause stomach cramps, diarrhea and nausea.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) include three essential amino acids – leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAA’s are unique in that they can be metabolised in skeletal muscle, whereas other essential amino acids are metabolised via the liver (8). Leucine and isoleucine are the most widely studied BCAA’s. Leucine plays an important role in muscle protein synthesis, while isoleucine induces glucose uptake into cells.Do you need to take a supplement? Not really – as no clear benefit of BCAA supplements has been demonstrated if you’re including a decent serve of meat, fish, chicken, eggs or dairy in your daily diet. For vegans – soybeans, pumpkin seeds and peanuts are your best sources (8,9).However, there are a few instances where BCAA supplements may be useful. For example, in the case of untrained or lightly trained gym-goers, a supplement taken during exercise may help to prevent muscle fatigue and increase time-to-exhaustion. So those new to Bodyfit, and exercise in general, may extract the most benefit. Secondly, if you are on a calorie restricted diet, or if you are a vegetarian/vegan – you may opt for a BCAA supplement over a protein shake to meet your requirements for muscle repair and synthesis.
Glutamine is one of 20 naturally occurring amino acids, and is found in particularly high concentrations in whey and casein protein (i.e. cow’s milk), meats and egg. It is ‘conditionally essential’, meaning that requirements are elevated only in certain circumstances (mostly in severe catabolic states like burns, AIDS).Although it’s use has become more popular in fitness circles over time, there remains a lack of evidence regarding its effectiveness. In particular, studies involving healthy individuals supplementing glutamine found no improvement in strength, power or lean muscle mass compared with placebo (10). Using glutamine in conjunction with creatine or other post-workout supplements also failed to show any additional/synergistic benefit. This was true for most forms of recreational exercise, including high intensity sports and weight lifting. Using glutamine for managing muscle soreness or injury also remains unproven at this time (10).The only circumstances under which glutamine has been shown to improve outcomes include endurance sports exceeding 2 hours. Serum glutamine levels decrease with prolonged exercise, and supplementation with glutamine/glutamine rich foods can prevent associated immune cell damage (10). Early studies suggest that glutamine supplementation may assist with replenish glycogen stores, but more research is needed.In any case – including protein rich foods, many of which are good sources of glutamine, is recommended in a general sense.
What about magnesium?
Magnesium is an essential nutrient end electrolyte, involved in many metabolic processes. Magnesium deficiencies are common for people following a Western diet, which is typically high in refined grains and meat (i.e. poor sources of magnesium), and low in legumes, nuts and seeds, and vegetables (i.e. rich sources of magnesium). A deficiency increases blood pressure, reduces glucose tolerance and causes neural excitation.
But do magnesium supplements assist with muscle recovery? Despite being widely used in athletes and gym-goers, clinical studies have failed to prove any link between magnesium supplementation and a reduced risk of cramps, cramp duration, or better performance overall (unless you have a proper magnesium deficiency).
However, many people swear by it for these reasons. If you wish to try it, keep your eye out for side effects. Excessive doses may cause gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea, particular with magnesium oxide or magnesium chloride supplements. Magnesium citrate is a good choice, as it causes fewer digestive symptoms.