Fuel your body like an athlete with the best supplements for those who train hard.
Athletes should eat a healthy diet – and consider supplements.
Whether you work out in the gym to drop a few pounds, get stronger or train for a sport, you should use a “whole foods” approach to fuel your performance, recovery from workouts and for your overall health. That means emphasizing whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein. However, supplements can be helpful for some individuals.
“In certain instances, sports supplements can assist achieving optimal fueling when whole foods are not available or sufficient,” says Kaylee Jacks, a registered dietitian with Texas Health Sports Medicine in Dallas.
When considering a supplement, be sure to carefully look at research that focuses on an athletic population rather than a sedentary one, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia.
“These studies should aim to mimic real-life situations and events that are applicable to athletes, and the evidence should be analyzed with a critical eye,” Jones says, emphasizing that people should pay particular attention to randomized controlled trials with a large sample size to thoroughly test the safety and efficacy of supplements.
If you have any questions about taking a supplement, check with a registered dietitian or health care professional first.
Here are supplements that can be helpful for athletes:
1. Beetroot juice
The juice from beets increases plasma nitrate concentration, which can improve stamina, and contains potassium, which can help ward off fatigue.
Increased nitric oxide levels can produce these benefits:
- Helps control inflammation.
- Increased blood flow.
- Improved lung function.
- Stronger muscle contractions.
Research suggests that endurance athletes who drank beetroot juice were able to improve their speed and aerobic capacity. A meta-analysis published by Bridgewater State University in 2019 found that beetroot has a high concentration of nitrates, which have been scientifically proven to improve cardiovascular health and improved circulation.
Research suggests that consuming beta-alanine, a non-essential amino acid that is naturally produced in the liver and found in foods like meat and poultry, can boost athletic performance.
Researchers found that beta-alanine supplementation showed its greatest effectiveness when it came to high-intensity exercises that require unusually high oxygen consumption lasting between 60 and 240 seconds. A meta-analysis published in 2019 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that consuming beta-alanine supplements can help the physical performance for athletes, specifically looking at cyclists, rowers and swimmers.
3. Branched-chain amino acids
Also referred to as BCAAs, branched-chain amino acids can help athletes obtain all the essential amino acids they need if they are on a special diet or aren’t obtaining enough from whole foods. BCAAs can be used as energy, which may help athletes spare muscle tissue and increase muscular endurance, Jacks says.
A 2022 study published in the journal Nutrients found that consuming BCAAs mitigated muscle soreness for athletes after they engaged in resistance training. Another study, published in January 2020 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that taking commercially available BCAA supplements can allow athletes to sustain higher workloads over time.
Some people rely on the caffeine in their first cup of coffee to get going in the morning, but caffeine may also help some endurance athletes.
“It serves as an ergogenic aid by stimulating the central nervous system and delaying fatigue,” Jacks says.
A review of research published in January 2021 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that caffeine can improve aerobic endurance and athletic performance when consumed in doses of 3 to 6 milligrams per kilogram of body mass. This is the equivalent of 273-545 milligrams for a 200-pound athlete. For reference, a cup of brewed coffee contains around 100 milligrams.
Caffeine can help athletic performance in a variety of events, research shows. A review of research published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living in December 2020 concluded that both active people and elite athletes use caffeine purposely to improve performance in endurance events, like the marathon, triathlon, cycling, tennis and weightlifting.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are NCAA regulations that can disqualify a competitive athlete for having too much caffeine in their system. Under NCAA rules, athletes who are found to have more than 15 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter in a urine test could face a yearlong suspension.
This supplement may help fuel quick and explosive anaerobic activities, such as sprinting and box jumps.
“Creatine supplements may support explosive power and strength in athletes, leading to increased muscle mass and potentially improved body composition,” Jacks says.
Research shows that using creatine supplements is associated with increased energy output during intermittent, high-intensity bouts of exercise and has the potential to boost recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage.
Some athletes use creatine to help speed up their recovery time during high-intensity interval training.
6. Vitamin D
When she’s working with athletes, Yasi Ansari, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles, often recommends vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D supplements are especially helpful for athletes who train indoors and have little exposure to the sun.
“Vitamin D can help increase calcium absorption, which helps support bone health,” says Ansari, who is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “That helps decrease injury risk.”
Research published in the journal Nutrients in February 2020 concluded that having low amounts of vitamin D could have a negative impact on the health and training efficiency of athletes. Certain athletes are at risk for suboptimal vitamin D status, which may increase the risks for acute illness, stress fractures and suboptimal muscle function.
Vitamin D also helps:
- Promote cell growth.
- Support immune function.
- Reduce inflammation.
Fatty fish (like salmon), fortified dairy products and cereals are also good sources of vitamin D.
The daily upper limit for vitamin D for adults over the age of 19 is 100 micrograms (4,000 international units).