There is so much information out there on supplements – what to take, how much, who needs what – that it can be confusing to sift through the research and separate the facts from the marketing hype. Michele Vieux, athlete and fitness trainer, helps athletes decide which supplements should be taken.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of months doing research on the web, through interviews and even by using myself as a test subject to try and figure it all out. The information I’ve compiled here should help you get a better understanding of what you may need to supplement with, what you are taking that you might not need to be spending money on, the quality of your supplements in your programme, how you can improve your regimen, correct dosing and timing of your athletic goals.
Step one is to make sure that the supplements you are purchasing are of the highest quality, environmentally friendly, and bio-available (absorbed by your body). You can check your labels or the company website for more information.
There are literally thousands of supplements out there for consumption and you could give a sound argument for the inclusion of many of them into your regimen. Unfortunately, this is not cost-effective or conducive to a happy life. Who wants to spend the entire day popping pills to ensure the proper timing for absorption and use by the body? I have narrowed down the list for you here to the top 7 supplements for athletes, otherwise known as your primary supplements. Start with these and only these to see how you feel. If something is still missing, then consider adding supplements particular to your situation or need.
THE TOP 7
1. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are probably one of the most commonly used supplements on the market today, and for good reason. When high quality fish oil is taken in large enough amounts, it provides the biggest bang for the buck as far as supplements are concerned. Most people know about the health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids: improved cardiovascular health and function, improved lipid profiles (lower triglycerides), improved brain function and mental acuity, and powerful anti-inflammatory properties without harmful side effects (such as those experienced with over the counter products). But what people don’t know is that every fish oil isn’t made the same. Depending on the size, type, or natural habitat of fish used, and how it was processed, can determine the quality (and levels of toxins present). It is important to use a reputable product to avoid the risk of toxic mercury levels. Look for brands that use small, cold-water (near the polar ice cap so it is more pure) fish like anchovies or sardines vs. larger fish like tuna or those harvested in warmer waters. Impurities are stated on the label – look for those measured in parts per BILLION, not parts per million. Athletes and those with body composition goals should start with 3 000 mg of fish oil per day spread out over 2 to 3 servings (it only lasts in the body for about eight hours) and then work toward taking up to 6 000 mg per day. There are vegetarian options of omega-3 fatty acids which are not derived from animal or fish sources.
B-vitamins increase energy production and are neurotransmitter co- factors so they help improve our mood, and they help us detoxify which we need after exercise (and binging). The process of building and repairing muscle (processing protein) depletes B-vitamins so if you’re lifting heavy weights or damaging your muscle tissue in your workouts, you need to take extra B-vitamins to help the rebuilding (strengthening) process because you are burning through them at an alarming rate. Look for B1, B2, B6 and B12. Avoid any of the B-vitamins in the hydrochloride (HCL) form as it is not absorbable by your body. Definitely take this supplement in the morning as the B12 will keep you awake. Your urine may be yellow, or even orange, so don’t freak out, but I noticed that once I switched to non-HCL forms of the B-vitamins, my urine was actually less yellow which means I was absorbing more!
Editor’s note: the intake of B-vitamins is based on the individual and the intensity of your training programme. Consult your trainer or health practitioner for the correct dosages.
Magnesium is probably one of the top three recommended supplements for athletes as it is an essential element in biological systems and most athletes are likely deficient. Magnesium deficiency is common and we all know that most Americans most certainly lead the typical sedentary, American lifestyle, so imagine the deficiencies in the trained and even arguably over-trained population. Magnesium is important to athletes because it regulates heart rhythm, allows muscles to contract and relax properly, reduces blood pressure, and is necessary to produce ATP (the main source of energy in our cells) which must be bound to a magnesium ion in order to be biologically active. Supplements based on amino acid chelates, such as magnesium glycinate and magnesium malate are much better tolerated by the digestive system and much more absorbable by the body than the other cheaper forms of magnesium such as magnesium oxide or magnesium carbonate. This is best taken post-workout on an empty stomach. Sedentary individuals need 600 mg a day and larger athletes in heavy training mode could take up to 2 000 mg a day.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is more like a hormone than a drug. It is produced by the body when exposed to sunlight and most of us don’t produce enough (25 000 iu/day), even if we frequently are out in the sun. It would take you prancing around, practically naked, for at least twenty minutes a day to produce those levels of vitamin D and most Americans are deficient. Normal levels are stated to be 35, but that is considered by many to be a ‘maintenance’ level. Optimal levels are between 50 and 70 while levels upwards of 70 to 90 are ideal for athletes. Besides working with calcium to improve bone density, vitamin D helps to reduce inflammation, risk of colon and breast cancer, improves mood and upper respiratory health by aiding the fight against infections from viruses and other pathogens, and allows the brain to release melatonin so we can fall asleep easier – like when you’ve been out in the sun all day and are tired as soon as night falls. This is why vitamin D is most effective when taken at night, about an hour before sleep and liquid drops taken sublingually are the best form, especially if you can hold the liquid under your tongue for 30 seconds before swallowing so it can really soak in and start to work before it has to be digested. According to Dr Robert Seik at Triton Nutrition, up to 30 000 units of vitamin D supplementation is safe. There are European studies that show 150 000 units for three days have treated upper respiratory tract infections that may be viral in nature.
Protein, if taken within 10 minutes of training, will reduce the amount of stress hormones (mainly cortisol) released! This has a huge implication on belly fat. But don’t overdo it – 20 to 30g per hour is the maximum you can digest. Too much protein leads to body acidity which leads to many other problems. But the right amount of protein – besides providing energy – repairs tissues and reduces muscle soreness. Protein should be eaten – from primarily animal sources – throughout the day and most certainly within 10 minutes of training. Whey protein is a highly marketed protein and is fairly inexpensive so it is frequently used by athletes. Many, however, have an intolerance to whey such as gas, bloating and postnasal drip. Soy protein is not a good option because most of soy is genetically modified and it is very low in branch chain amino acids which are necessary to build muscle. It increases oestrogen levels in the body – the opposite of what someone trying to build strength wants – and many also have a food intolerance to soy. Protein in the form of casein is dairy-derived so if you have an intolerance to whey, you may have an intolerance to casein as well. Vegan proteins that combine a wide variety of sources can be good options because they are less likely to produce allergies. Remember, only 20 to 30g maximum at a time!
Editor’s note: Calculate your daily protein intake on the basis of per kg of your total body mass. For example, if you weigh 70kg consume 70g of protein a day.
This is a guide, so remember to take an individual approach.
Editor’s note: Vegan and vegetarian protein options:
- Hemp seed protein powder
- Pea protein powder
- Rice protein powder
- Nuts and seeds
- Whey protein (not vegan)
6. Vitamin C
Vitamin C needs to be complexed to carbs (the vitamin C molecule needs to be attached to a carbohydrate molecule) to increase absorption and reduce possible diarrhoea. That diarrhoea is caused by the body flushing out what it can’t absorb in the small intestine (your vitamin C in the improper form). Vitamin C is mostly present in fruits – which contain fructose – thereby allowing your body to absorb the nutrient. If you are watching your sugar intake, there are products out there, such as Metagenics Ultra Potent-C, that use Ribose instead so you can avoid the insulin response associated with fructose intake. Ribose has also been proven to reduce oxidative stress (such as damage created by strenuous exercise) and aids in the removal of lactic acid, as does vitamin C, so you get a double bang for your buck with this product. But that’s not all! Vitamin C aids the production of our old friend, ATP, helps wound healing, and is a co-factor to building collagen and repairing muscle. It is normally recommended to take 1 000 mg of vitamin C a day (the RDA is enough to prevent scurvy). I suggest athletes take a minimum of 4 000 to 8 000 mg a day. Vitamin C products available in South Africa include Natural Vibrance Super Natural C and NRF Vita-C (powder form). During and post-workout are the optimal times to take vitamin C. You can even make your own energy drink with it.
Editor’s note: Excellent food sources of vitamin C include:
Broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, lemon juice, strawberries, mustard greens, kiwifruit, papaya, kale, cabbage, romaine lettuce, turnip greens, oranges, cantaloupe, summer and winter squash, grapefruit, pineapple, chard, tomatoes, collard greens, raspberries, spinach, green beans, fennel, cranberries, asparagus and watermelon.
7. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
Coenzyme Q10 is an important antioxidant also known as ubiquinone (good!), ubiquinol (not-so-good), and abbreviated at times to CoQ10. CoQ10 is the ONLY antioxidant found within cells and it allows the mitochondria to produce ATP. It also gets rid of lactic acid (and other waste). CoQ10 should be in the news more because of its important implications for the heart – which is high in CoQ10 to keep us ticking. CoQ10 in the heart can be depleted by statins (drugs used to treat high cholesterol) and ‘stressful’ athletic training/exercise (ultra-distance athletes, crossfitters, etc.). In fact, there have been a number of young, ultra-distance runners drop dead from cardiac failure due to the lack of CoQ10 in their hearts which caused scarring and damage from years of training abuse. Anyone who participates in strenuous training or is on statin drugs should take CoQ10. The best, most usable form of CoQ10 is ubiquinone (not ubiquinol which enters the bloodstream but does not go into the cells) delivered in oil (make sure it’s an approved oil and not soy, which is common). Don’t take your CoQ10 at the same time as your fish or vegetable oils because this can actually inhibit the absorption rate. A recommended dosage of CoQ10 is 100 to 200 mg a day and higher dosages can actually be used to treat diseases such as essential hypertension and certain heart arrhythmias. If you are an athlete, try increasing your dosage when you are approaching an event to improve performance, endurance, strength and recovery. Post-workout is the best time to take your CoQ10 but don’t take it too close to bedtime if you are sensitive to stimulants.
Hopefully this article has helped you understand why we take different supplements, how to determine what you need to be taking, and how to judge the quality of your supplements. I recommend starting with these and going from there to your secondary supplements if you still feel something is missing or you aren’t getting the results you are seeking. Remember, secondary supplements will be different for everyone.