Are you currently using supplements or skipping them thanks to your already healthy diet? As you’ll see today, supplements offer both health benefits and performance perks worth considering. And before you brush off the idea of toting around a chalky shake or jar of pills, not all supplements come in powder or capsule form — many come from natural, whole food sources.
So to help you learn about all the potential benefits of supplementing, I’ll be diving into why serious sports people should:
- See why supplementing is a smart idea
- Learn the best dietary options
- Make the top 5 supplements a regular habit
- Heed one word of caution
Let’s begin by highlighting why supplements even matter to your diet and performance.
Why Supplement in the First Place?
If you’re a serious athlete, you already know the importance of eating a healthy diet. But this may not be enough to see the explosive results you’re hoping for — especially if you’re training hard. A better way to approach this is to look at having a healthy diet as the foundation of your nutritional plan. It’s a necessary step, but not the only one you should be taking. That’s where supplementing comes in and serves as your next step. Now, when you hear the word “supplement”, your brain probably goes straight to an image of chalky powders and hard-to-swallow capsules. But there’s more to supplementing than that; you can supplement with specific foods delivering similar benefits. For example, did you know endurance athletes have a higher chance of being low in iron, a condition most people wouldn’t associate with athletes (read the paper here)? Not only can this affect your performance, it can also affect your energy metabolism and your body’s natural acidic balance (read the research here here).
That’s why endurance athletes may need as much as 30% more ironthan a sedentary person. This doesn’t mean you need to reach for iron supplements. Rather, you can simply eat more iron-rich food sources as I’ll show you next. If you’re not monitoring nutrients like this, you can bet your performance will suffer. And it’s not just iron you should think about.
Other important vitamins, minerals and fatty acids such as these should also be on your radar:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
How can you possibly keep track of all these nutrients in addition to hitting your important macros like protein and fat? That’s where using the powerful combination of foods and supplements comes in. By joining these two forces, you’ll have a more efficient system for giving your body the fuel it needs before, during, after and in-between your workouts. But before I dive into the specific sources to start supplementing with, there’s one more big point to consider here:
It’s Not Just About Carbs
Many people often associate working out with needing to refuel with carbs or carbo-loading beforehand, but that’s not always the best option.
In some cases, a lower carb intake may help improve performance for:
- Endurance athletes who have “hit a wall”
- Athletes who have trouble digesting carbs while exercising
- Longer races where there’s fewer options for refueling or the distance between refueling stations is far
- Off-season athletes who want to maintain their health while resting
- Low-intensity workouts, since fat gives you more energy for these workouts specifically
When you limit your carbs and add more healthy fats, you’ll notice:
- Less fatigue during longer training sessions
- Improved performance for low- to medium-intensity workouts
- Well maintained blood sugar levels throughout your exercise session
- More fat loss
- Preserved glycogen in your muscles
But this route isn’t ideal for every athlete and works best when you’re training for ultra-endurance races or performing low-intensity exercises.
For athletes who focus on short-bursts, such as sprints or burpees, and high-intensity workouts, a higher carb intake may be necessary to provide a quicker source of fuel. Since fat is a slow burning fuel source, it’s ideal for endurance athletes who need to keep their tanks full over a longer period of time. Because of this, you’ll need to narrow down the type of workouts you do to find the right fuel source to match. And that fuel should come from real food sources whenever possible, which is exactly what I’ll talk about next.
Best Dietary Options for Serious Athletes
These six foods are important to include in any healthy diet, but they’re especially beneficial for athletes specifically:
#1: Foods Rich in Iron
I touched on iron earlier because it’s an important mineral for athletes who up their heart rate. Iron is responsible for metabolising energy and moving oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. It even plays a big role in immunity and combating the oxidative stress that comes with working out.
You should always keep iron at the top of your list for replenishing. And you can do that by eating iron-rich sources of food such as:
- Red meat
- Pumpkin seeds
- Certain fish
And if not having enough energy is plaguing your performance, reach for these next.
#2: B12-Packed Foods
Vitamin B12 helps your body:
- Form new red blood cells
- Improve neurological firing
- Produce DNA
- Process fat and protein
Similar to iron, B12 also helps carry oxygen throughout your body while helping to get rid of carbon dioxide. But if you’re low in this important nutrient, you’re likely to feel weak and tired. You may even lose your appetite or struggle to produce a bowel movement (read more here).
Since no athlete wants to deal with those issues, you can keep your B12 levels where they should be with these foods:
- Sockeye salmon
- Top sirloin beef
- Swiss cheese
What about supplementing with B12? While it’s definitely an option, getting your B12 from food is the better route to take, as with most vitamins and minerals, including this next one. Technically it’s a fatty acid, but it’s still a vital nutrient nonetheless.
#3: Foods with Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids tout several science-backed benefits, including:
- Combating depression and anxiety
- Decreasing your risk of heart disease
- Improving your eye health
- Lowering your risk for metabolic syndrome (i.e., obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, etc.)
Omega 3s have also been studied for their anti-inflammatory perks too. So by consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, you’ll reduce the production of molecules connected to increases in inflammation. This is great news if you’re an athlete because less inflammation means you can work out harder and longer.
To get those omega-3 benefits, eat more:
There’s also another way you can fight inflammation: using the antioxidants in this next food.
#4: Berries: Tiny Antioxidant Bombs
Antioxidant-rich foods such as berries can help reduce oxidative stress and lower inflammation, which may shorten how long it takes your body to recover from intense workouts. Researchers also discovered a higher intake of antioxidants (such as vitamin C and E) can also lead to greater muscle strength.
To score all those positives, reach for:
And if you’re watching your carbs, a few other rich sources of antioxidants sans all the fruity sugar include:
The next food group also contains a healthy dose of antioxidants.
#5: Nuts & Nut Butters To Power Through Your Day
Most nuts (and nut butters) contain a nice mix of protein and fat to keep you fueled from warm up to cool down. Plus, many nuts also contain antioxidants. So not only will you have the fuel you need to get through your workouts, you’ll also ward off damage from environmental pollutants and inflammation while doing so.
Some of the best nuts to add to your diet include:
- Pine nuts
While nuts may already be on your radar, many athletes forget about this next important nutrient.
#6: Vitamin D is Also Key
Many athletes assume they’re getting enough vitamin D from simply being outside during their workouts. But if you’re bundled up during the cold weather months or wearing SPF clothing and sunscreen when it’s hot, that may not be the case. If you get to a point where your vitamin D levels are too low, you may unknowingly increase your risk of developing certain cancers and heart disease. Vitamin D is also essential for helping your body take in enough calcium so it can form and keep strong bones.
Without it, you could leave yourself vulnerable to:
- Getting sick more often
- Feeling tired all the time
- Trouble healing wounds
- Hair loss
Once again, these are conditions no athlete wants to deal with since they have the potential to delay or prevent you from sticking to your training schedule.
To avoid a vitamin D deficiency, reach for foods like:
On top of adding these foods to your weekly meal planning, there are also five supplements worth your time too.
Best Dietary Supplements for Active People
Similar to the foods I just mentioned, these five supplements can give you the boost you need as an athlete:
#1: Collagen Protein Powder
You’re probably not surprised to see protein powder on the list, especially when it comes to supplements, and it’s here for good reason.
Protein powder is a convenient way to quickly refuel after a grueling workout and it also:
- Repairs your muscles
- Boosts your immune system
- Helps recovery after a workout
- Improves muscle growth
There are plenty of protein powders on the market you can choose from. Whey protein, one of the most popular, is a complete protein that comes from milk. Because of this, it can be hard for some people to digest and may cause stomach cramps, bloating and nausea. Not the best before your run, right? A better option is to use a collagen based protein instead. With this, you’ll get all the benefits of whey protein, minus the unwanted side effects of an upset stomach.
Studies have also found collagen can:
- Strengthen joints, ligaments and bones
- Improve your gut lining
- Fortify connective tissue
- Protect your brain from neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s
- Prevent heart disease
- Heal leaky gut
- Reduce joint and knee pain
The next supplement on the list also delivers more than one health benefit.
Beta-alanine is simply an amino acid similar to the amino acid alanine, only with a slight modification. Studies have shown beta-alanine is a viable option for increasing endurance both with weight training and cardiovascular exercises.
Here’s what else the research shows beta-alanine can do:
- Improve muscular endurance by 2.85%
- Increase anaerobic running capacity
- Have a small effect on reducing fatigue
- Lower your time to failure
- Aid in fat loss
- Increase muscle mass
And these effects may be seen in as little as 2-5g doses per day. Keep in mind, beta-alanine has been known to cause a tingling sensation in large doses. So if you end up experiencing this while experimenting, a lower dose may be in order.
The next supplement on the list is one you may be more familiar with, especially if you’re going low carb.
#3: Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)
Medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, are saturated fatty acids that quickly convert to usable energy once ingested. Since they don’t require digestive enzymes to be processed like glucose-based sources, the energy is ready for your body to use right away.
There’s also no fat storage with excess MCTs, which is another opposite of glucose. Since your body uses all the energy from MCTs instead of creating and storing excess reserves, you won’t deal with fat storage in your trouble spots. And thanks to its slow digesting nature, you’ll also have a nice boost in steady, sustained energy. Where can you find this powerful boost? It’s naturally occuring in sources such as coconut oil and grass-fed butter. But athletes will want a more efficient source: c8 MCT oil. C8 oil contains 100% MCTs while coconut oil only clocks in at 45–50%. And while regular coconut oil is made of c12, or a longer carbon chain, c8 oil is made from a shorter chain of MCTs (an 8 carbon chain, to be specific). This means c8 is processed faster than coconut oil. As soon as the liquid hits your system, it will start the process of converting the fatty acids into usable energy molecules known as ketones, which also happen to be next on this list.
#4: Exogenous Ketones
Another supplement you may not be as familiar with is exogenous ketones. These are simply energy molecules that are made outside of the body (exo – outside, genous – produced). When taken, exogenous ketones can give you sustained energy for a long endurance workout, aid with losing weight and improve your mental focus. They can also provide you with an additional fuel source that’s perfect for extending your time between refueling. It even encourages your body to use its fat reserves for energy when its low. Exogenous ketones are also helpful for offsetting a higher carb intake due to exercise demands requiring short bursts of intensity. They can even help you get back in ketosis if you’ve had more carbs than your macros allow. And finally, the last supplement on our list is another you may not be familiar with but should get to know.
#5: Zinc Magnesium Aspartate (ZMAs)
When you sweat during your workouts, you lose many minerals and important electrolytes such as zinc and magnesium. And without replenishment, these low levels can affect your athletic performance and cause damage to your overall health.
When you don’t get enough zinc, you may experience:
- Low immune function (i.e., getting sick easily)
- Diminished appetite
- Brain and memory fog
- Trouble sleeping
Low levels of magnesium can lead to:
- Muscle cramps and spasms
- Weak muscles
- Elevated blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
While you can and should get both minerals from your diet, it may not be enough. That’s when supplementing with ZMA can help. The acronym ZMA stands for zinc magnesium aspartate. This powerful combination of minerals has been proven to significantly increase muscle strength. It can also give your immune system the boost it needs to power through cold and flu season so you’ll have less down time and more time for training. Now there’s one more piece of advice to consider when it comes to all 11 supplements on today’s list:
Word of Caution: Choose Your Supplement Sources Wisely
No matter if it’s keto snacks or supplements, you must consider your sources carefully. For any foods on the “dirty dozen” list, or those with the highest levels of pesticides, organic is a must. The same goes for your meats and seafood options too. Organic, grass fed choices (including dairy) are better nutritionally than commercialized alternatives pumped with added hormones, antibiotics and other harsh chemicals. Your seafood sources should also be wild-caught from sustainable fisheries to ensure you’re getting fish with the lowest levels of mercury. But since there’s no federal regulation when it comes to the supplement market, it’s up to you, the consumer, to do your homework and find supplements that aren’t filled with cheap additives, chemical flavors and artificial preservatives.
If you don’t spend the time to find the best sources for your supplements, you’ll end up doing your body the same disservice of not taking them in the first place.
Start Supplementing Today
As a serious athlete, it’s time to take your supplement game seriously too. Consider the type of fuel your body’s craving and what gets lost during the exercises you perform. Then you’ll know exactly how to give your body the boost it needs to perform or outperform your old personal best. Do this and there’s no telling how many PRs you’ll crush.