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Having put supplements on the correct shelf in part 1, here are five items for strength/power athletes that seem to have scientific merit beyond placebo. They're all safe, as far as anyone can tell so far. You should be invested in training and nutrition and be at least, say, 14 to call youself a serious athlete.
Please note what's absent. While Glucosamine/Chondroitin shows a modest benefit for helping mild to moderate osteoarthritis, it's not particularly used for performance. You don't see HMB, DHA, Yohimbe, Ginseng, NO2, Chromium, and an army of other pretty useless pills and powders here for a reason.
Personally, I usually use whey protein after workouts when I think of it. I've cycled creatine on an inconsistent basis. I would probably use these more consistently and add the items below if I mostly had my act together training and nutrition wise.
Although I train regularly and compete in rec sports, it's just not worth it to me. There are too many other variables that I know could be improved. I have no hopes of getting paid to perform athletically. Even if I did, it would be hard to justify the expense when I regularly eat the kids leftovers for dinner, neglect focused effort toward a specific goal, and often read/blog away anything close to 8 hours of rest.
Nonetheless, here are 5 good supplements if I haven't talked you out of the whole idea by now.
According to the the position stand published by the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, creatine monohydrate is the single most effective supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise and lean body mass (2). Although we have few studies examining the long term (20+ years) effects of taking creatine, we're nearly certain that creatine does not cause muscle cramps, cardiac arrythmia, or any side effects other than increased lean body mass. Lightening your wallet is the only advantage of various forms of creatine (creatine ethylester, micronized creatine, effervescent creatine, etc.) over traditional creatine monohydrate (3).
If you have room, financially or otherwise, to try only one supplement, make it creatine monohydrate. Take it with something sugary sweet after your workout or competition.
Although pretty new on the scence, this amino acid (single protein molecule) is showing promise in terms of safety and effectiveness for power athletes. The body combines Beta Alanine with histidine in muscles to make carnosine. Carnosine functions to regulate muscle contraction and buffer pH levels against the build up of lactic acid (4). This, in turn, delays the onset of fatigue during repeated high intensity activity.
Increased power output during interval sprint tests, higher training volumes, and lower ratings of fatigue have been consistantly reported in the literature (5).
It is well established that you need to get some protein and carbs around workouts (1). Muscles are most sensitive for glycogen and protein synthesis immediately after exercise, and research has shown the benefits of having a mix of carbs and protein (specefically at about a 2 to 1 ratio) immediately after and even before exercise (6).
Regular food comes first and all that, but who really wants to sit down to a big pot roast right before pitching 9 innings in the heat or after pushing yourself to new limits in the gym? Who has the time to make an omelet or chicken sandwich? Unless you want seconds on the same burger you finished 30 minutes ago, get yourself a good whey protein powder. Shake or blend it with some chocolate milk, Carnation instant breakfast, or something less calorie dense if you're primarily interested in fat loss.
The isolated amino acid leucine has been shown to be an important part of what gives muscles the chemical "trigger" to repair and build (7). Extra leucine may be even more beneficial for older athletes since "older" muscles begin to show defects in leucine and insulin signaling (8). One scoop of the average whey protein supplies about 2 grams of leucine. Taking extra leucine may be worthwhile because the maximal effect on muscles is thought to require about 3 to 9 grams of leucine (9).
A quick note here on the Holy Grail of fitness:
The minutia on particular amino acids for muscle building falls by the wayside when total calories are insufficient to support growth and repair, in general. Unless you are extremely overweight or completely untrained, it is nearly impossible to pull off simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain.
Fat loss and muscle gain require different total body hormonal situations, which is why a lot of suggestions for ‘gaining muscle while losing fat’ aren’t very effective. In fact, trying to simultaneously gain muscle and lose fat my be one of the best ways to spin your wheels, making no progress towards either goal. Calories are too high for fat loss and too low to support muscle gains.
Muscle gain is definitely harder to come by than fat loss. So in losing fat, the best you're probably going to do is hold on to what muscle you have. Lose weight slowly. You "tell" your body to maintain it's muscle by hitting the weights and getting plenty of protein as you cut calories.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Likewise, who wants to follow up a bike sprint with a nice big plate of fatty salmon? Although there are many health benefits attributed to omega 3 consumption, few studies have examined the effects on the typical inflammation and soreness induced by intense exercise. "Good fats" are thought to inhibit inflammation and aid healing in various tissues of the body, but do they effect this process in muscles enough to actually make a difference performance-wise?
Omega 3's fall more into the category of "stuff you should probably be taking just for health reasons." But there is preliminary support that their role in recovery from exercise may indirectly benefit performance (8).
If you don't think of caffeine as a sports performance supplement, you definitely should. If you like drastic immediate results, use caffeine as the drug that it is and save it for when it counts.
Caffeine plays several roles in sports performance, including improved logical reasoning, improved reaction time, improved recall and memory, increased time to exhaustion, decreased ratings of percieved exertion, and (surprise) improved physical performance during periods of sleep deprivation (9).
Caffeine has been shown to aid in weight loss by way of increased energy expenditure and increased efficiency in burning fat for feul. There is mounting evidence that caffeine reduces pain and inflammation following intense exercise (10). Yeah, we can add recovery to the Justify Our Habits list.
Some studies have shown that caffiene and energy drinks do not directly effect peak power tests like vertical jump and 1-rep max bench press (11). That's no surprise, given the fact that energy drinks are primarily used for alertness and that extra mental "push" for taking on challenges on the field or in the gym.
Peak power tests in a sports lab are probably not the right measuring stick for the effects of caffeine. Max bench or leg press tests are not exactly grueling events; you just give all you got for 1 rep. I imagine Red Bull does help athletes to concentrate and muster the courage to "go big" far more than it helps them to actually jump higher or further.
Caffeine is the primary active ingredient in energy drinks, but the combination of various other chemicals makes it difficult to draw conclusions. Beta-phenylethylamne HCL, evodiamine, B-vitamins, and taurine are ingredients commonly added to caffeine in energy drinks, but I'd need a case of energy drinks right now if I wanted to discuss the merit of these ingredients.
By far, the performance enhancers that I rely upon most are coffee and diet coke. Use common sense with caffeine and energy drinks. I don't call anxiety, nervousness, irritability, restlessness, headaches, and diarrhea "minor" side effects.
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1 Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, and Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition position statment: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 4:8, 2007.
2 Buford TW, Kreider RB, Stout JR, Greenwood M, Campbell B, Spano M, Ziegenfuss T, Lopez H, Landis J, and Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 4:6, 2007.
3 Greenwood M, Kreider R, Earnest C, Rassmussen C, and Almada A. Differences in creatine retention among three nutritiional formulations of oral creatine supplements. J Exer Physiol Online 6:37-43, 2003.
4 Harris RC, Hill CA, Kim HJ, Bobbis L, Sale C, Harris DB, and Wise JA. Beta-alanine supplementation for 10-weeks increased muscle carnosine levels. FASEB J 19: A 1125, 2005.
5 Joffman J, Ratamess N, Kang J, Mangine G, Faigenbaum A, and Stout J. Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exer Metab 16:430-446, 2006.
6 Campbell B, Wilborn C, La Bounty P. Supplements for strength-power athletes. Strength Cond Journal. 32(1): 93-100, 2010.
7 Kerksick CM, Rasmussen CJ, Lancaster SL, Mague B, Smith P, Melton C, et. al. The effects of protein and amno acid supplementation on performance adaptations during ten weeks of resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 20: 643-53, 2006.
8 Spano, M. Functional foods, beverages, and ingredients in athletics. Strength Cond Journal. 32(1): 93-100, 2010.
9 Doherty M and Smith P. Effects of caffeine ingestion on exercise testing: a meta-analysis. Int J Sport Nutr. 14:626-46, 2004.
10 Maridakis V, O'Conor P, Dudley GA, and McCully KK. Caffeine attenuates delayed onset muscle pain and force loss following eccentric exercise. J Pain 8:237-43, 2007.
11 Astorino T, Rohmann RL, and Firth K. The effect of caffeine ingestion on 1-repetition maximum strength. Eur J Appl Physiol 102:127-32, 2007.
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