Let me first start off by saying that for the vast majority of people, none of these supplements will be a necessity. They may aid you in reaching your goal, but they aren’t the be all and end all. You won’t fail simply by not taking supplements. The word “supplement” already indicates that they are to be used alongside your diet and cannot make changes by themselves. You can’t get away with taking a thermogenic fat burner and expect it work without exercising. With that being said, there are a few supplements which can be beneficial.
Out of curiosity, I have tried my fair share of supplements. I’m going to give an overview of some of the more common supplements below. If you are looking to start taking any supplements, be sure to check the recommended dosages before investing.
If you are a runner who is looking at supplements to improve their recovery time, then I wrote a shorter post a while ago which can be found here.
This is probably the most researched and used supplement on the market (with whey coming a close second). It is also one of the cheapest supplements available.
Creatine increases muscle mass and can help improve strength and exercise performance. It is naturally found in muscle cells and helps produce the energy required during high-intensity exercise. As such, it can be useful for activities such as sprinting or heavy lifting.
Your body already has a store of creatine, however the amount stored depends on your diet (can be found in meat), exercise regime, amount of muscle mass on your body and your hormone levels (testosterone). Increasing this store by using a creatine supplement helps your body produce more ATP. Higher levels of ATP allow you to perform better at high intensity exercise. Typically, ATP levels are depleted after 8-10 seconds, however increasing your ATP stores can increase this duration by a few seconds.
If you are looking to improve your 1-3 rep maxes in weight lifting, or compete in a high intensity sport, such as sprinting, then you may want to invest in creatine. Even if you don’t compete or work on the lower intensity scale, it may still be beneficial for improving muscle mass.
Protein powders, such as whey or pea, can be used to easily increase protein intake. It can be a simple and cost-effective way of adding more protein into your diet. As well as adding the powder to shakes, it can also be added to yogurt, porridge, baking products and other food items for variety.
Most people probably won’t struggle with hitting their recommended level of protein intake; however, some may find it tricky if they require a higher than average amount. People looking to recover from exercise or build lean muscle often require more grams of protein per day than the average person.
Personally, I tend to have a scoop of protein powder each working day. This is either in the form of a vegan protein shake with coconut milk, or with my overnight oats. I struggle with hitting my protein goal unless I really sit down and plan my meals and macros every day. As well as giving me a simple protein boost, I tend to find that I feel fuller for longer and can usually make it through until lunch time before wanting to snack. Compare that with cereal and I’d usually be hungry again by 9:30am!
BCAAs and EAAs:
BCAA stands for Branch Chain Amino Acids. These are found in whey protein; however, they can also be consumed as a separate supplement. EEA stands for Essential Amino Acids; these are made up of nine amino acids, three of which are BCAAs (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine).
BCAAs help to increase muscle growth by aiding protein synthesis. They can also reduce muscle fatigue and decrease muscle soreness after intense workouts.
EAAs do the same as BCAAs but can also help to boost metabolism as they often provide a feeling of “fullness” throughout the day. They can improve mood and sleep, and prevent muscle wasting in people with cancer or the elderly.
So, why would you take BCAAs if EAAs do the same and more? For people who get enough EAAs through their diet naturally, BCAAs have been shown to be more effective straight after a workout than EAAs. For those who struggle to get enough protein and / or EAAs from their food, then an EAA supplement would be the better choice as it offers an all-round solution.
As a vegetarian, I am currently taking EAAs in the morning, and then a BCAA drink after a tough weight session if I feel like I may get DOMS the next day. My morning EAA drink was originally to replace my coffee or Monster Ultra energy drink. At the minute, I’m using Optimum Nutrition Amino Energy and MyProtein Amino Boost.
CLA stands for Conjugated Linoleic Acid. CLA is the most common Omega-6 fatty acid, and is found naturally in meat and dairy (particularly from grass-fed animals). Just like Creatine, CLA is a well-researched supplement. Studies show that CLA can help to reduce body fat by reducing food intake requirements, increasing fat burning, stimulating fat breakdown and inhibiting fat production. Certain studies have shown that CLA can cause significant fat loss, and may also improve body composition. There have been other studies which showed no effect al all.
CLA also offers other health benefits, such as a lower risk of various diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cancer. Other studies have also shown a lower risk of heart disease; however, this may have also been linked to an increased intake of vitamin K2.
Too much CLA can cause side effects, such as an increased accumulation of fat in the liver, which can then trigger metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Other side effects include diarrhoea, inflammation and insulin resistance.
The overall benefits of CLA for fat loss may be small (1.3kg / 3 lbs more weight loss than a placebo), so it depends on your situation. If you need a mental boost or are stuck in a plateau then CLA may be worth trying for a few months as it can be purchased relatively inexpensively.
Thermogenic supplements are often marketed as “fat burners”. Each brand will have their own formula, consisting of a variety of ingredients and dosages. The term “thermogenic” means to produce heat, and that is the idea behind these types of supplements. They aim to increase the body temperature to improve the metabolic stimulation within the body. This can cause people to sweat, which also reduces water weight.
Typically, these supplements contain a blend of caffeine, green tea extract, capsaicin, l-carnitine, and other ingredients depending on the blend. The added ingredients and dosages will vary from brand to brand, so it’s important to take a look at what is in each thermogenic supplement.
Do they work? Well, it depends on the dosage and ingredients within the supplement itself. Some will help to reduce appetite and boost metabolism; however, the effects are going to be minimal. They aren’t a wonder drug and still require you to be on point with nutrition and exercise. This isn’t to say that they don’t have their place, as they can be useful to help shift the stubborn last few pounds, or if you need a boost in the morning before a cardio session, but they wouldn’t be high on my priority list. They can also be quite expensive (brand dependent) for what they are. You may be better off looking to purchase caffeine, l-carnitine, CLA and a green tea extract separately instead if price is an issue – plus you’ll probably end up with more servings too!
Beta Alanine is a non-essential amino acid. Unlike most amino acids, it doesn’t aid in protein synthesis. beta alanine is stored in the skeletal muscles and increases the levels of carnosine in the body. Carnosine, in turn, helps to reduce the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles. This reduction of lactic acid can help improve athletic performance by increasing the time to exhaustion; you are able to exercise for longer periods at a time. Other studies have shown that it can also aid resistance training by boosting training volume and reducing fatigue.
It’s important to note that the most common side effect of beta alanine is a tingling sensation. This is something that I’ve experienced first hand and it can be a little strange at first! It’s perfectly normal at higher dosages, it just feels a bit strange, especially in the face. The tingling can be avoided or minimized if you split the supplement into smaller dosages and take throughout the day rather than in one sitting.
Beta alanine can be quite expensive; however, it can also be found in a lot of pre-workout products.
L-Citrulline is one of three dietary amino acids. It is a non-essential amino acid as it can be produced naturally by your body. Although it isn’t used for protein synthesis, it is a necessary part of the urea cycle. This cycle removes harmful compounds, specifically ammonia, from the body. Urea is then produced, which the body removes via urine.
Citrulline increases vasodilation; it widens the arteries and veins in the body. This increase is associated with lower blood pressure and increased blood flow. The body converts a percentage of the consumed citrulline into arginine, another amino acid. Arginine is in turn converted into nitric oxide, which causes vasodilation of the blood vessels by relaxing the smooth muscle cells.
To see an impact on endurance-based exercises, citrulline would have to be taken for a number of weeks. It can increase the oxygen content in muscle tissue, which means that it can provide more oxygen to an exercising muscle and ultimately improve performance. A study was conducted that showed a 12% improvement in the time to exhaustion in cyclists when compared to those taking a placebo. For weight training, a study showed that participants were able to perform 53% more repetitions compared to the group on the placebo. The group also noted less muscle soreness than the placebo group.
Citrulline can be found naturally in watermelon, pumpkins, cucumber, and bitter melon. However, including a supplement may be beneficial if you are looking to increase your performance. This is especially for those who need every little percentage increase in their performance. Just like beta alanine, citrulline can be quite expensive. It can also be found in a fair few pre-workout products, so it may be worth shopping around if you are looking to give it a try.
Pre-workout does what it says on the tin… you mix it with water and drink before a workout for a boost of energy and focus. There are many brands of pre-workout powder, and each will have their own formula so it’s impossible to put a label on what is in a pre-workout drink. Essentially though, they will typically contain a form of caffeine for an energy boost and then ingredients such as creatine, citrulline malate, beta alanine and BCAAs. Some will add other fat burning ingredients or vitamins, others may be stimulant free. It’s important to consider what you want from your pre-workout and then check the ingredient list to make sure it has what you expect.
There are certain companies who have their own blend and don’t publish the exact quantities of each ingredient that are included. Personally, I tend to avoid these as you can’t be sure what you are taking. Sure, they may list all of the ingredients that you expect, but if the dosages are tiny then you won’t notice them anyway!
If you want to get the effects of a pre-workout, but cost is an issue, then you may be better off looking to purchase beta alanine, citrulline malate, caffeine and creatine separately and making your own mix. There are cheaper pre-made pre-workouts out there, but as mentioned above, you need to check the dosages of the ingredients.
During endurance events our bodies can lose a lot of electrolytes as we sweat. In order to stay properly hydrated and avoid muscle cramping it is important to try and replace the electrolytes that are lost. The need for electrolytes also increases during the summer as we are prone to sweat more profusely.
There are different ways to take in electrolytes; the most common, and usually the cheapest per serving, is in powder form. The powder dissolves into water, making it simple and mess free. Powder form is also, for most people, typically easier for the body to digest.
Along with the powder, there are a few companies who offer “tablets” which can be dropped into a water bottle and then shaken to dissolve. These work almost identical to the powder, but without the fuss of having to weight out each serving. They can be conveniently put into a bag and also taken in a pouch on the day of the run, just in case you need more than one serving.
Energy gels are another option to boost electrolyte intake. Certain energy gels will contain added electrolytes. Some people find gels harder to digest or can’t get on with the texture.
I have used the Science in Sport (SiS) electrolyte powder and also the High5 powder. Both have helped me through long runs, however when it comes to racing, I prefer using the High5 energy gels. They also do Isotonic gels which have a thinner consistency than regular gels and can be easier on the stomach.
Whichever you choose, be sure to try it out on a few test runs before committing to use it on race day!
So, in an ideal world we would all get our recommended daily allowance for vitamins and minerals from our diet, however this isn’t the case for everyone. Multivitamins are usually cheap and are taken as a one-a-day capsule. If you struggle with hitting certain intake levels, especially for Iron, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12, then you may notice yourself becoming more fatigued. In these cases, you may benefit from taking a multivitamin. For any serious concerns it’s important to consult with a GP or medical professional.
Being vegetarian (also don’t eat fish, or egg unless it’s in something), I can struggle with my iron levels. As such, I started taking a one-a-day multivitamin tablet for around six months and found that I felt less tired. Whether this was a placebo effect or not, for the minimal cost of the capsules I wasn’t too fussed! I do need to pick up some more to add to my daily stack for 2020 as I am going to be increasing my training volume and will take all of the help that I can get, placebo or not!
So, there we go, an overview of the most common supplements on the market. Of course, there are hundreds more supplements that didn’t make the list! These are some of the most popular ones that I have used and feel can be beneficial. With anything in life it’s important to assess your needs, budget and priorities to ensure that you aren’t wasting money on products that you don’t really need. Granted, I don’t really NEED my stack of pre-workout supplements, but I can afford to buy them without any sacrifices and they give me a mental and physical boost to get through my workout. Supplements also act as a motivator for me because I don’t want to see my money wasted on something that I’m not using! Just please don’t fall into the trap of buying every type of supplement going just because they are being endorsed by your favourite celebrity, athlete or influencer.