“If you had to decide which dietary supplement to take for performance, which one would it be?” I am asked this question a lot. Amidst the myriad of information and bro-science, it’s hard to understand which nutritional supplements can give you the best bang for your buck.
CrossFit, the fitness sport, is constantly evolving. Competitors are getting fitter, faster and stronger, and competitive standards are constantly improving. Because of this, we need a better understanding of how to maximize training potential. As the training volume and intensity increases, so too does our need to improve our diet in order to recharge our batteries and recover more effectively from training. Dietary supplements play a crucial role here.
Nutrition for optimal performance
There are no really essential supplements. They are called “supplements” for a reason – they are generally intended to be added to your diet. They are not intended to replace meals or nutrients that you can get from whole foods or healthy sources.
I am having a hard time finding a supplement that I would recommend for performance so I think about diet for optimal performance instead. There are three key areas for this – pre-workout, post-workout and intra-workout.
“[I]If you are serious about your CrossFit performance, I would strongly consider adding these three important nutritional supplements to your eating plan. “
Proper supplementation at these times can have beneficial effects on performance, including:
- Increase in work ability
- Reduce recovery between laps, intervals, or sets
- Improvement in tolerance to exercise volume
- Improve recovery between sessions
I’ve compiled a list of the top three nutritional supplements to take at these important times, and sorted them based on the following criteria:
- How well they work (both from personal experience and academic performance)
- How well researched they are
- How inexpensive they are.
As it turns out, choosing supplements really is as simple as ABC.
A – amino acids
That might as well have been “P” for protein, but then it wouldn’t be as catchy as ABC. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and protein intake plays a huge role in both body composition and recovery from exercise.
Supplementing with protein or branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) can help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise and has been shown to improve recovery. Reduce muscle soreness and improve body composition.1,2
The most commonly supplemented amino acid is leucine (a branched chain amino acid found in whey protein powders). Leucine plays an important role in building muscle tissue. It is found in many food sources, but is generally found in higher concentrations in whey and dairy products, making them ideal for improving muscle growth and repair.
From a performance standpoint, whey protein or amino acid supplementation has been shown to be effective: 3,4,5
- Improve muscle recovery after exercise
- Improve muscle maintenance during weight loss
- Improve muscle building in combination with resistance exercises
- Reduces muscle soreness and improves recovery
There have also been studies linked to using BCAAs before exercise to improve exercise intensity and reduce exercise-induced fatigue.2.6
“In the midst of tons of marketing intelligence and bro science, it’s hard to understand which nutritional supplements can give you the best bang for your buck.”
It is often recommended that whey protein be consumed immediately after a workout to improve recovery from sessions. However, whey protein might also be advisable before a workout. Because it is quickly digested, amino acids can be broken down quickly and released into the bloodstream. Providing the amino acids to the muscles to use when needed during the session.
BCAA supplementation is just as versatile, as BCAAs can be beneficial pre-workout, within-workout, or post-workout depending on your goals. BCAA supplementation can prevent muscle breakdown if taken during exercise and can also prevent catabolism if taken after exercise. This can be especially useful when you have a calorie deficit to lose weight but don’t want to lose muscle mass.
B – beta alanine
Beta-alanine is known as lactic acid buffer and can prevent the build-up of metabolic by-products that occur during high exercise intensity. Beta-alanine supplementation can also help remove these by-products from our muscles and bloodstream when the by-products reach thresholds that limit performance.
Beta-alanine works by increasing intramuscular carnosine levels. Carnosine is released into the bloodstream when our blood levels become acidic and helps prevent the build-up of hydrogen ions (which cause the acid in the blood), which our muscles burn. A higher level of carnosine in the blood prevents or at least delays the onset of this burning and allows us to work harder longer. Beta-alanine has been shown to be particularly effective at improving performance and power delivery during workouts that last between one and four minutes
Beta-alanine is often prescribed as a pre-workout dietary supplement. However, the intake of beta-alanine is not time-dependent, so it can be taken throughout the day. The main reason it is taken before exercise is because it can coincide with creatine supplementation (see below) for additional synergistic effects on exercise performance.
In terms of dosage, beta-alanine is most effective in the range of 2-5 g per day. Higher doses can cause tingling sensations (a harmless side effect). This can be avoided by dividing the dosage into smaller servings.
C – creatine monohydrate
Creatine is one of the best-researched sports supplements and has a reputation for improving performance during high-intensity exercise (especially interval training).9,10 Creatine can improve performance in any case that requires explosive power boosts. These short bursts of energy are powered by our creatine phosphate system, and this energy system is only effective for six to ten seconds of high-intensity activity before our creatine stores are depleted. During our recovery phases, our creatine stores are replenished.
Supplementing with creatine can help in this process in two ways. It can replenish our creatine stores, which means it takes longer to deplete our creatine levels and replaces the creatine depleted during activity more quickly.
“There are no really essential supplements. They are called “supplements” for a reason – they are generally intended to be added to your diet. “
From a performance point of view, supplementing with creatine monohydrate means:11
- Enhanced strength and power
- Improved recovery between laps and sessions
- Faster sprint times
- Improved hydration
- Less fatigue during training
Most creatine supplement protocols encourage a loading phase which is used for faster saturation of cells. After this saturation period, it is customary to use a dosage of 5 g per day. This saturation can be more easily achieved by consistently taking a dose of 2-5 g both before and after exercise. Using this latter strategy enables the synergistic benefits of supplementing with beta-alanine (pre) and whey protein (post) to further improve performance and recovery.
Benefits for every CrossFitter
This is by no means an exhaustive list or what I would recommend to anyone. However, if you are serious about your CrossFit performance, I would highly consider adding these three important nutritional supplements to your eating plan.
Check out these related articles:
1. Bigard AX, Lavier P, Ullmann L, Legrand H, Douce P, Guezennec CY. – Dietary supplementation with branched-chain amino acids for repeated longer ski exercises at altitude. Int J Sport Nutr. 1996 Sep; 6 (3): 295-306.
2. Shimizu M, Miyagawa K, Iwashita S, Noda T, Hamada K, Genno H, Nose H. – Energy expenditure during 2-day hiking tours in the mountains (2,857 m) and the effects of amino acid supplementation in older men and women. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 March; 112 (3): 1077-86. doi: 10.1007 / s00421-011-2057-2. Epub 2011 July 9th
3. Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Tranchina CP, Rashti SL, Kang J, Faigenbaum AD. – Influence of protein supplement timing on strength, strength, and body composition changes in resistance trained men. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2009 Apr; 19 (2): 172-85.
4. Kerksick CM, Rasmussen CJ, Lancaster SL, Magu B, Smith P, Melton C, Greenwood M, Almada AL, Earnest CP, Kreider RB. – The effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on performance and exercise adjustment during ten weeks of strength training. J Strength Cond Res. Aug 2006; 20 (3): 643-53.
5. Andersen LL, Tufekovic G, Zebis MK, Crameri RM, Verlaan G, Kjaer M, Suetta C, Magnusson P, Aagaard P. – The effect of strength training in combination with timed protein intake on muscle fiber size and strength. Metabolism. February 2005; 54 (2): 151-6.
6. Blomstrand E, Hassmen P, Ek S, Ekblom B, Newsholme EA. – Influence of taking a branched-chain amino acid solution on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiol Scand. 1997 Jan; 159 (1): 41-9.
7. Zoeller RF, Stout JR, O’kroy JA, Torok DJ, Mielke M. – Effects of a 28-day intake of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate on aerobic performance, breathing and lactate thresholds and the time to exhaustion . Amino acids. 2007 Sep; 33 (3): 505-10. Epub 2006 Sept. 5.
8. Stout JR, Cramer JT, Zoeller RF, Torok D, Costa P, Hoffman JR, Harris RC, O’Kroy J. – Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the incidence of neuromuscular fatigue and respiratory threshold in women. Amino acids. 2007; 32 (3): 381-6. EPUB 2006 11/30
9. Graef JL, Smith AE, Kendall KL, Fukuda DH, Moon JR, Beck TW, Cramer JT, Stout JR. – The effects of four weeks of creatine supplementation and high-intensity interval training on cardiorespiratory fitness: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Nov 12; 6:18. doi: 10.1186 / 1550-2783-6-18.
10. Juhász I, Györe I, Csende Z, Rácz L, Tihanyi J. – Creatine supplementation improves the anaerobic performance of elite junior fin swimmers. Acta Physiol Hung. 2009 Sept. 96 (3): 325-36. doi: 10.1556 / APhysiol.96.2009.3.6.
11. Kendall KL, Smith AE, Graef JL, Fukuda DH, Moon JR, Beck TW, Cramer JT, Stout JR. – Effects of four weeks of high-intensity interval training and creatine supplementation on critical strength and anaerobic work capacity in college-aged men. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep; 23 (6): 1663-9. doi: 10.1519 / JSC.0b013e3181b1fd1f.
Photos 1 and 3 courtesy of CrossFit Los Angeles.
Photo 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.