10 Key Supplements For Exercise Performance & Recovery


Karolina Zaremba headshot

by Karolina Zaremba

Whether it’s for recreation, fitness, or competition, exercise is considered to be a pillar of health and wellness. Improving exercise performance and recovery relies on factors outside of the gym, including your diet. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine all suggest that sporting activities are enhanced by well-chosen nutrition strategies. (38)

Fitness nutrition involves adequate consumption of the nutrients your body uses to fuel activity, support muscle recovery, maintain bone strength and improve performance. When these needs can’t be met by diet alone, supplements may be recommended. Nutritional supplements for exercise include sports foods, medical supplements (such as multivitamins), and ergogenic or performance supplements. (4)

Supplement use is common in athletes. In a study with 600 athletes from various sport disciplines, nearly half of the athletes reported using supplements. Males were more likely than women to use ergogenic aids to support their physical performance. (10) The specific timing of food, supplements, and fluids around exercise or sport is also important and can impact performance. (38) Read on to learn more about the best nutritional strategies and supplements to support your body around exercise.

woman stretching outside before workout

Dietary supplements commonly used by athletes include l-glutamine, creatine, whey protein, and electrolytes.

Macronutrient needs for exercise performance and recovery

Macronutrients are components of food that supply calories (energy) to fuel your body. The three macronutrients — carbohydrates, fat, and proteins — also play distinct roles in exercise performance and recovery, including muscle building and repair. (27) Understanding how and when these nutrients are utilized in the body can help you time your nutrient intake to optimize performance.

Sports foods

Several factors can impact your nutrient needs before, during, and after your workout. These include the mode, intensity, and duration of exercise, the environment in which you train, carryover effects from past exercise, appetite, and individual body needs. (38) Sports foods, which include protein powders, protein bars, energy drinks, and electrolyte gels, can provide a convenient source of carbohydrates and proteins for fuel.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are used to yield adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that transfers energy to the cell. Carbohydrate is considered a better substrate or material to use for energy production than fat or protein because it yields a greater volume of ATP. (38) The storage form of carbohydrate is called glycogen. Simply put, your body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in your cells, particularly in the muscles, liver, and brain. (25) When a source of energy is needed, the body releases glycogen from these cells and convert it to glucose. (41) Glycogen stores are used up at a higher rate during exercise, and depleted stores can result in an increased perception of effort and reduced work rates, skill, and concentration. (38)(41) Supplying carbohydrates through the diet will allow you to replace glycogen stores.

In addition to being used for energy production, carbohydrates during prolonged exercise are also shown to maintain immune function. (16)

Recommendations for carbohydrate intake depend on the type and duration of exercise. For competition or key training sessions, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine suggest the following: (38)

Recommended amounts and timing of carbohydrate intake is dependant on the type, duration, and intensity of an activity.

Whole foods high in carbohydrates include bananas, dates, oats, rice, and potatoes. (39) Often used by athletes, sports food supplements such as energy drinks, bars, and sports gels can provide carbohydrates in a quick and easily digestible form when consuming food may not be convenient.

Protein

In the fitness world, protein is often considered synonymous with muscle building. A review of controlled trials found that during prolonged resistance exercise training, dietary protein supplementation can improve:

  • Fat-free mass (FFM)
  • One-repetition maximum strength (increased by 2.49 kg or 9%)
  • Muscle mass (specifically muscle fiber cross-sectional area and mid-femur cross-sectional area) (24)

The benefits to muscle mass and strength are seen to be more pronounced in resistance-trained than untrained individuals. (24)(27)

Individual protein requirements can change depending on an individual’s age (24), level of fitness or experience, carbohydrate availability, and energy availability. Higher frequency and intensity exercise or training with a new stimulus will all require higher protein intake. (38)

When trying to increase muscle mass, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends from 1.2-1.7 g of protein/kg of body weight. (3) In a 75 kg (165 lb) individual, this translates to 128 grams of protein per day. Protein intake above this may not be beneficial, as research shows that over 1.62 g/kg/day didn’t result in additional increase in FFM. (24) Learn more about protein supplements for muscle building here.

foods on table

The basics of exercise nutrition involve adequate macronutrient intake and hydration.

Fat

Fat is less commonly discussed as it relates to sports nutrition. However, some research supports low carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diets for weight loss. With a ketogenic diet, your daily caloric intake by macronutrient is 75–80% fat, 15–20% protein, and less than 50g of carbs. Participants in a study followed the ketogenic diet or a high-carbohydrate diet with intensified training and a mild energy deficit (calorie restriction) over three weeks. The ketogenic diet group had greater body mass loss than the high-carbohydrate group. (6) Interestingly, while the ketogenic group showed improvement in peak aerobic capacity, performance in elite endurance athletes was impaired.

Natural supplements for exercise performance and recovery

L-glutamine

L-glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body, serving as a key building block of protein. L-glutamine can support recovery by increasing muscle glycogen synthesis following exhaustive exercise. (40)(5) It’s also been shown to limit strength loss and muscle soreness in men following exercise-induced muscle damage. (37)

Supplementing with l-glutamine can potentially decrease stress on the digestive system that occurs during exercise. Specifically, research shows that oral l-glutamine supplementation with exercise in heat over 86 °F (30 °C) can prevent markers of intestinal permeability and suppress NF-κB activation, a regulator of inflammatory signaling. (28)(45) This suggests that l-glutamine may play a role in limiting the inflammatory response that follows exercise.

Creatine

Creatine is an amino acid found in skeletal muscle as free creatine and phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine is used to produce energy via the body’s adenosine triphosphate-creatine phosphate (ATP-CP) energy system. The ATP-CP system produces rapid energy used in activities that requires speed and power such as jumping, sprinting or weight lifting. (23)(30) Creatine is present in high levels in the central nervous system and may help to protect against trauma such as traumatic brain injury (TBI). This shows potential for creatine in treatment following concussions. (1)(30)

As a supplement, creatine may improve recovery following intense exercise and enhance recovery from injury. (29) Creatine has been shown to increase bench press lifting volume and average power compared to a placebo. (11)

The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 5g of creatine monohydrate four times daily for 5-7 days to increase stores, followed by a maintenance dose of 3-5g/day or slightly more for larger athletes. (21)

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs include the essential amino acids valine, leucine, and isoleucine. These amino acids are used as substrates for protein synthesis and energy production. (17) A review found that BCAA supplementation before and after exercising helped to reduce muscle breakdown and promote muscle building. (34)

Whey protein

Whey protein powder is an efficiently absorbed source of protein derived from dairy. When combined with resistance exercise, whey protein supplementation activates mTOR, a signaling protein linked to muscle synthesis. (19) Several studies in men have found that whey protein improves muscle hypertrophy, or growth in the size of muscle cells when combined with resistance exercise. (18)(9)

The body has an increased sensitivity to dietary protein in the 24-hour period following exercise. (22) Current recommendations say that 20-25g of whey protein is ideal following resistance exercise. However, research shows that up to 40g may be more beneficial to muscle protein synthesis (MPS) in young, resistance-trained men. (22)

man putting protein powder into a water bottle

When combined with resistance training, dietary protein intake can improve body composition and increase muscle mass.

Collagen

Collagen is an abundant structural component of your skin, bones, and connective tissues. As a supplement, collagen powder is commonly derived from fish, chicken, or bovine sources. A 24-week clinical trial found collagen hydrolysate reduced joint pain in athletes. (8) It’s also been demonstrated to benefit body composition and muscle strength with resistance training in older men suffering from sarcopenia, a degenerative condition that causes loss of muscle mass. (43) These findings suggest that collagen supplementation may help protect from deterioration of joint and muscle tissue.

Electrolytes

Electrolytes are a group of minerals, including sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, and calcium. These minerals are responsible for helping to maintain blood pressure, fluid balance, and the healthy firing of muscles. (36) Electrolyte loss occurs through sweat and is heightened with exercise. Consuming electrolytes through drinks or food is important for rehydrating the body following exercise. One study in men following intermittent cycling exercise found that sodium content in the recovery drink was important to rehydration. With low sodium in the drink, fluid intake resulted in increased urinary output rather than optimal rehydration. (35)

Electrolyte supplements, often in combination with carbohydrates, can be found as powders, capsules, or drinks. There is no specific recommended dosing for electrolytes, but consuming a product that combines the various types listed above is typically ideal. (7)

Magnesium

In addition to being an electrolyte mineral, magnesium is used in over 300 reactions in your body. (2)(14) Evidence shows that magnesium requirements go up as physical activity is increased. (44) This mineral is used in energy metabolism and regulating muscle contraction and blood pressure. (14) A study of elite male basketball, handball, and volleyball players demonstrated that dietary magnesium intake was associated with increased muscle strength in various performance tests. (31) When 350 mg magnesium was supplemented daily in professional male athletes, lactate production decreased and physical performance (measured by distance jumped) increased. (33)

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that can be synthesized in the liver or obtained from the diet. As a supplement, beta-alanine has been shown to increase exercise capacity and performance. (32) Specifically, perceived exertion and biochemical markers related to fatigue were improved. (42) Beta-alanine may also be more effective when combined with the electrolyte sodium bicarbonate. (32)

Curcumin

Curcumin is a polyphenol derived from turmeric, best known for its effects on pain and inflammation. Research has examined these benefits specifically post-exercise. During recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD), 400 mg of Longvida®, a bioactive form of curcumin, helped to reduce biological inflammation when administered two days before to four days following EIMD. Similarly, curcumin was also found to reduce pain from various exercises in men at 24 and 48 hours post-exercise. (26)

Omega-3 fatty acids

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), omega-3 fatty acids found primarily in fish oil, have potent anti-inflammatory effects. (12) Omega-3 supplementation may be beneficial for exercise recovery by reducing inflammation, supporting muscle synthesis, and supporting immune system function. Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to prevent the loss of skeletal muscle mass and help with muscle protein synthesis. (20) In young male endurance athletes, fish oil supplementation was found to increase natural killer (NK) cell activity post-exercise. (13) NK cells are a white blood cell and a part of the innate immune system. (15)

protein bars with protein powder in the background

Supplements such as protein powder, bars, and energy gels can be more convenient around exercise than whole foods.

The bottom line

Dietary supplements have a myriad of benefits when it comes to exercise performance and recovery. Nutrient and supplement needs depend on individual goals, age, and health conditions, as well as the type, duration, and intensity of physical activity. It’s best to work with your integrative healthcare provider to determine the best fit for your wellness and exercise plan.

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