Supplementation gets a lot of attention in the field of fitness and athletic performance.
Some supplements are geared towards helping increase muscle mass, improve energy, or to positively enhance health. Just like many things in the field, people are on extremes of the supplement spectrum. You have your camp that says, “you don’t need expensive supplements, just eat real food all the time.” You also have the group of people that live off of pre workout, protein shakes, and fiber supplements and argue it’s all the same.
I would like to break up this discussion into different categories on reasons why we would take supplements to discuss my thoughts on the role and effectiveness of their use.
Reason #1: Improve Body Composition
Which supplements have a positive contribution to looking leaner, shredding fat, and getting jacked? Lets start with the most popular, which would be protein powders.
What: I recommend supplementing with protein powders to every client looking to improve body composition.
Why: Protein is important and most people simply don’t get enough through real food. Protein is made up of amino acids, which is needed to build muscle. Muscle is metabolically expensive in the sense that it requires a lot of energy to keep. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn just from having that muscle. Protein also has the greatest thermic effect, meaning that more calories are burned from digesting protein vs. carbohydrates and fats.
When: The amount of protein we consume in a given day is more important than when we get it. However, to maximize muscle protein synthesis (the process our body goes through to build and maintain muscle mass) we would need to consume about between 20-40 grams of protein every 3-4 hours.
Reason #2: Increase Athletic Performance
What: We can take creatine, carbohydrates, and stimulants to potentially increase performance on the field or in training.
Why: Creatine can make you more explosive. ATP-CP is the fuel source our body primarily uses during short duration explosive exercises, like throwing a baseball or sprinting. The C in ATP-CP is for creatine. I’ve heard countless positive and negative reasons for why or why not to take creatine.
However, none of them include the fact that it is vital for explosive athletes to be at their best. In fact, creatine is probably the most studied supplement out there. Creatine does not turn you into an elite athlete nor does it have negative impacts on your health. Creatine can however get you that last 5% increase in performance if you are covering all of your other bases like training, nutrition, and recovery.
Just as creatine is vital for explosive athletes, carbohydrates are vital for all, especially for endurance-dominant athletes. To achieve peak athletic performance you must not neglect them. Carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source. Carbs can help explosive athletes maximize their performance by having enough fuel sources to repeat explosive bouts over the course of a training session or game.
For endurance athletes like cross country runners and triathletes, carbohydrates can greatly improve how long one can go before reaching exhaustion. Even though these athletes compete for hours at a time, they still are competing to be the fastest to finish which means they must have the energy for more explosive bursts like cycling hills in the Tour de France or an all out sprint for a marathoner when the finish line is in site.
Another supplement that you’ll see people on extremes of the spectrum include stimulants like pre workouts. Stimulants are the umbrella category for anything that contains ingredients such as caffeine, beta alanine, or nitrous oxides. Again, most people either live off of these products or shame them to death. Positives of stimulants include increase alertness and energy, which can provide a positive impact on athletic performance. However, the increased alertness and energy can result in restlessness and poor sleep quality when these products are over consumed.
When: Creatine is not something that creates super human levels of strength. Sure, the placebo effect is real, but the small benefits of creatine probably won’t be seen until it is used consistently for multiple months at a time.
Carbohydrate supplementation such as Gatorade and Powerade are great intra or during training or competition for most athletes. These products are higher on the glycemic index; they are absorbed and can be used very quickly as an effective energy source.
Stimulants should be used strategically to get maximum benefits. A stimulant prior to competition or training is ideal. Negative effects of stimulants can be decreased sleep quality as well as suppression of ones appetite which, if affected, will be more negative for the athlete in the long run. Time your use accordingly.
Reason #3: Increase Overall Health
I will speak on this category the least for the simple reason that every individual is different. This is a conversation for you and your doctor or dietitian.
Overall health is a balancing act. Most people think that certain vitamins and minerals are either good or bad. This is simply not true. For example, vitamin D provides many positives for ones health such as strong bones and increased resistance against certain diseases. Most of the population is deficient and should consume or supplement it, but over consumption can lead to a host of negative affects such nausea, vomiting, and poor appetite. Vitamin D can be consumed through natural means from dairy products and exposure to the sun. Certain regions of the world don’t provide access to as much exposure to sunlight or dairy, therefore supplementing would be a wise choice.
In conclusion, we must understand that at the end of the day supplementation is not necessary. The definition of supplementation is “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.”
Protein, creatine, carbohydrates, and vitamin D can all be sufficiently consumed through a well-balanced diet. Improved energy and alertness from stimulants will never be as effective as getting adequate amounts of sleep, nutrition, and hydration in your daily life. Therefore, understand that supplementation has its place for the athlete and every day person. Take care of the big pieces of the puzzle when it comes to athletic performance and health and use supplementation accordingly when needed.