Updated: Mar 2, 2021
As a naturopathic doctor, I work with many athletes. I look at optimizing their nutrition and bringing the body back into balance to enhance their athletic performance. Dietary changes can help with energy, digestion and inflammation; acupuncture can improve healing time for injuries.
For many athletes, it’s hard to resist the idea that there might be a “magic pill” that offers an extra edge over their competition. Many turn to natural supplements and herbs to enhance their achievements. Magazines and websites are full of ads with guaranteed results and compelling testimonials. But which sources do you trust? This article reviews five supplements currently promoted to athletes that actually have research to back up their health claims. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a professional athlete, these supplements can offer that extra support to help you reach your performance goals, naturally.
While everyone knows exercise is good for your health, what many people don’t know is that it can also produce free radicals, acids and cellular damage. As well, intense and prolonged physical activity can suppress immune function and make athletes more susceptible to contracting colds or flues. This can inhibit training gains as time is required to recover from infections. Supplementing with antioxidants like Vitamin C can provide the protection that many athletes need. One study 1 of 92 ultramarathon runners found that supplementing with 600 mg of Vitamin C, for three weeks before a race cut the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections in half compared to the control group.
Another antioxidant, quercetin, is a bioflavinoid found in foods such as onions and apples. In a mice study2, quercetin supplementation was able to offset the susceptibility to infection associated with stressful exercise.
Creatine is a popular supplement promoted to helping athletes who want to increase strength and lean body mass. In my opinion, the research supports the claims. Creatine helps in the production of ATP, a major energy source for muscles. Supplementation has been shown to increase the muscle’s work capacity and improve performance in high intensity exercise such as weightlifting. Also, by maximizing creatine in your body, more water is drawn into the muscle cells, causing an increase in water content and muscle mass. When a cell is well hydrated, it might accelerate its synthesis of new proteins and might also minimize protein degradation.3 .
There are several forms of creatine out there, but the only research-supported form is creatine monohydrate, and that’s what I recommend. The only substantiated possible side effect is mild digestive upset (which subsides). Reports suggest that 20% of individuals who take creatine do not respond with increased muscle mass or strength. It’s not known exactly why, but is hypothesized that these non-responders may already have high dietary intakes of creatine from whole foods (beef, fish). Vegetarians are likely to see the best gains, because of they have a very low dietary creatine intake.
There are several adaptogenic – or stress-relieving — herbs that have been used for decades by professional athletes, including the Russian Olympic Team, to improve athletic performance and endurance. Siberian Ginseng, Maca Root, Panax Ginseng and Rholdiola Rosea are a few of the best. Rhodiola Rosea is an ayurvedic herb with a long history of medicinal use and some burgeoning research behind its ability to assist exercise recovery. In a Roman study4, they found a reduction of lactic acid levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after rigorous exercise session. In a Belgian Study5, there was a significant improvement in VO2 max (or maximal oxygen uptake) after consuming 200 mg of Rhodiola one hour prior to exercise.
There are many commercially available Gatorade-type recovery drinks that provide fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes for consumption during and following exercise. Those hold up well in the research. Most studies conclude that the use of these drinks for exercise longer than 30 minutes, improves exercise performance. During that exercise window, fast acting carbohydrate sources are best– and studies show dextrin and maltodextrin are superior sources.
What’s newer on the market and in the research is adding protein to that mix. A fast acting protein like hydrolyzed whey protein taken during or after exercise reduces muscle soreness and fatigue, stimulates muscle protein synthesis6, and increases recovery time from endurance, strength and interval training7.
A 2 to 1 ratio of carbs to proteins appears to be the right ratio for most. Amounts vary depending on performance goals.
Zinc can help you maintain energy level during exercise, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In a 2 year study8, participants either consumed 3.5 mg of zinc through their daily diets or took a 15 mg zinc supplement. When tested on a stationary bike, those with the extra zinc had better endurance and had lower heart rates and greater max VO2. Why? The theory is that zinc fuels enzymes in your red blood cells that clear out excess carbon dioxide during exercise. In men, zinc is also important to maintain healthy testosterone levels, and having enough available testosterone is important for athletic performance. In one study, zinc supplementation of marginally zinc-deficient normal elderly men resulted in an increase in serum testosterone.
1Vitamin C supplementation reduces the incidence of postrace symptoms of upper-respiratory-tract infection in ultramarathon runners EM Peters, JM Goetzsche, B Grobbelaar and TD Noakes. Division of Physical Education, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
2Quercetin reduces susceptibility to influenza infection following stressful exercise. J. M. Davis,E. A. Murphy,J. L. McClellan, M. D. Carmichael, and J. D. Gangemi. Division of Applied Physiology, Department of Exercise Science, Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia; and Department of Microbiology and Molecular Medicine, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina. Submitted 27 March 2008 ; accepted in final form 14 June 2008
3Haussinger D, Roth E, Lang F, Gerok W. Cellular hydration state: an important determinant of protein catabolism in health and disease. Lancet 1993; 341: 3130-1332
4International Journal of Sports Nutrirtion and Exercise Metabolism. 2004 Jun;14(3):298-307.
5Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance. De Bock K, Eijnde BO, Ramaekers M, Hespel P.
6Coingestion of protein with carbohydrate during recovery from endurance exercise stimulates skeletal muscel protein synthesis in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2009 Apr; 106(4):1394-402. Epub 2008 Nov 26.
7Etheridge, T, Philp, A and Watt, P.W. (2008) Single protein meal increases recovery of muscle function following an acute eccentric exercise bout. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 33 (3). pp. 483-488. ISSN 1715-5320.
8Prasad AS, Mantzoros CS, Beck FWJ et al. Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition 1996; 12: 344-348.