When you think of supplementation for the gym, your mind may well turn to things like protein shake and pre-workouts. Generally, supplements for training will focus on building muscle as this seems to be the market that is happiest to part with its cash. Just behind this are those supplements that are focussed on burning fat and toning up, such as fat burners and appetite suppressants.
You see far fewer supplements aimed at other sports and activities. But actually, supplements can give you an edge in a vast range of different activities – including aerobic sports and training like running, cycling, swimming and even sports. These can help you to run faster and further, to maintain a steady heart rate and to recover more quickly afterwards. The result is better splits, better times and more calories burned.
Let’s take a look at some of the best supplements out there for aerobic performance…
Cordyceps is a mushroom/fungus that grows on the backs of caterpillars and moths and that was discovered by Tibetan herdsmen. It saw a sudden rise in popularity, following the performance of the Chinese women’s Olympic team in 1993. After smashing records all over the place, the coach explained that their secret weapon was in fact cordyceps.
Cordyceps works in two ways, at once increasing ATP production and usage and also opening up the upper respiratory tract. This seems to aid with oxygen intake, as well as improving energy metabolism. The result is potentially better long distance performance and improved recovery time.
Reports and studies are very mixed on this one, so don’t blow your life’s savings on it just yet. Order a small sample and see if it works for you. The good news is that it also has antioxidant properties and a number of other beneficial health effects, so there’s no harm in trying!
If you’re looking for something that will more reliably do what cordyceps is thought to do, then look no further than beetroot juice. Beetroot juice is a powerful and natural vasodilator that can open up the blood vessels and thereby allow more blood and oxygen around the body. There are many studies supporting the effectiveness of beets and it has become a staple for many athletes as a result. It is possible to buy ‘beetroot powder’ which is designed specifically as a running supplement but plain old beet juice or beets themselves will do the same thing and cost less!
If there is one supplement that gets pretty much universal praise from athletes, studies and the web, it is creatine.
Creatine’s role is to allow the body to recycle used ATP. ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the main energy currency of our cells and it can be used for an immediate contraction and energy output lasting one to three seconds. Problem is that the amount readily available in the muscles will deplete after that time, which is why the body then needs to turn to other less available energy sources like the glycogen stores or fat.
Creatine allows us to recycle the ATP available in the muscles, thus meaning we can rely on that faster and more efficient ATP-CP energy system just a little longer. In real terms, that means more energy output before you start to fatigue. This is useful for weightlifters and runners alike but may be even more useful for HIIT.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that can be found in some fish, or supplemented. Non-essential means that it is produced in the body, meaning that you don’t need it in your diet. Getting extra might just be beneficial though, seeing as it seems to be able to improve anaerobic capacity and the lactate inflection point. It does this by preventing the build-up of acids in the muscles that lead to fatigue and this can allow you to potentially rely on the glycogen-lactic acid system just a little longer. That in turn means you can run longer before you need to slow to a steady jog. It also means you won’t experience that unpleasant stage a few minutes into your run before you find your pace to the same degree.
Supplementation is recommended at 1-3 grams per day. Don’t expect miracles though!
BCAAs are ‘branch chained amino acids’, which essentially means they’re amino acids that are in a ready-to-use format.
BCAAs are often used by bodybuilders but runners should consider them too. That’s because one of the biggest drawbacks of running or cycling long distances is that it can lead to the breakdown of muscle. When you engage in aerobic activity for extended periods, it causes the blood sugar to drop and this triggers the release of myostatin (among other things). Myostatin causes the body to use amino acids for fuel, which can lead to the catabolisation of muscle. BCAAs provide a ‘buffer’ against this and can thereby be used to protect the muscle from the worst of it.
Chia seeds are seeds that have the ability to absorb liquid and increase their volume several times over. This means that you can consume chia seeds, drink large amounts of water and then get a steady supply of hydration over a long period.
Seeing as staying hydrated is one of the most difficult aspects of running, this can be potentially incredibly helpful and keep you going for longer. The biggest advocates of this seed are the ‘Tarahumara tribe’. These Native American people are known for their incredible feats of athletic performance – running 400+ miles in 50 hours among other things. Their success is attributed to both the chia seed and their preference for running barefoot!
The key to supplementation is to have moderate expectations. If there were a supplement that could really improve your physical performance many times over, then no doubt it would be incredibly well publicized and everyone would be taking it.
As it is, these supplements may be able to provide you with slight improvements in your performance and perhaps encourage better recovery. They are transformative and they certainly aren’t necessary. But if you’re looking for any edge you can find to push your PB, they might just be worth a shot!