A balanced diet is the foundation for sports performance, certain dietary supplements can be beneficial.
Are dietary supplements good for athletes?
Specific dietary supplements for athletes vary by sports performance goals and the individual athlete. Endurance athletes and strength athletes have different nutrient requirements; thus, the recommended dietary supplements differ
Key nutrition for endurance athletes
Endurance athletes engage in regular sustained and intense physical activity which requires specific nutrients to maintain. While eating a balanced diet is the foundation for sports performance, certain dietary supplements can be beneficial to enhance muscle performance and recovery.
Some of the most important dietary supplements for endurance athletes include:
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for muscle endurance. Supplements like energy chews, gels, and drinks that contain easily digestible carbohydrates in the form of glucose or maltodextrin can provide a quick and convenient source of energy during long workouts or competitions.
However, a ‘food first’ approach is favored over supplements. Foods like raisins, bananas, and honey are popular pre- and post-workout choices for easy digestion and absorption (Naderi, 2023).
Caffeine: Caffeine is a common ergogenic aid that can improve focus, reduce rate of perceived exertion, and increase fat utilization.
Electrolytes: Endurance sports, especially in hot and humid weather, can cause electrolyte loss through sweat. Electrolyte supplements containing sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium can help maintain fluid balance and prevent muscle cramps.
Recommended for rehabilitation therapists: ACSM’s Nutrition for Exercise Science – Module 1 Nutrition Principles, Dietary Supplements and Nutritional Issues Related to Athlete Health, Disease and Injury
Additional supplements for endurance athletes
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): BCAAs include isoleucine, leucine, and valine. These compounds help reduce muscle breakdown and delay fatigue during prolonged training and competition, and support muscle recovery.
Beta-Alanine: During sustained high-intensity exercise, lactate acid builds up. Beta-alanine can increase muscle carnosine levels, which may buffer lactic acid build up and delay muscle fatigue.
Nitrate: Nitrate-rich supplements like beet juice improve oxygen efficiency, blood flow, and ultimately reduce the amount of oxygen muscles required to sustain high intensity exercise.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s support cardiovascular health essential to muscle endurance. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that impact heart and muscle health and improve performance and recovery.
Iron: Iron is crucial for oxygen transport and endurance. However, many endurance athletes, especially female athletes during reproductive years, are at risk of iron deficiency. Iron is lost through sweat and repetitive impact and supplements, when used with professional guidance, can replenish iron lost and enhance performance.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): CoQ10 plays a role in cellular energy production and supports cardiovascular health and mitochondrial function, both of which are vital to endurance performance.
Magnesium: Magnesium is required for muscle function, energy production, and electrolyte balance. Endurance athletes lose magnesium through sweat and often need dietary supplements to replenish what was lost.
L-Carnitine: L-Carnitine is a popular dietary supplement that plays a role in fat metabolism during endurance exercise and can potentially promote the utilization of fat for energy.
What supplements do strength athletes need?
Strength athletes have specific nutritional needs to support muscle performance. For strength athletes, muscle mass, strength, and power are vital to overall sports performance. It can be difficult to maintain muscle mass essential to strength and power development through diet alone. Some of the most common dietary supplements for strength athletes include:
Protein: Protein is vital for muscle growth, strength, and power. Whey protein, casein, and plant-based protein options can help increase an athlete’s daily protein consumption and muscle function.
Creatine: Creatine acts to improve muscle mass, strength, and power by increasing the availability of ATP for short bursts of high-intensity exercise like weightlifting. In a meta-analysis study, results showed that creatine combined with strength training increased muscle mass in the upper and lower body (Burke, 2023).
Additional supplements for strength athletes
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): BCAAs, particularly leucine, support muscle protein synthesis, decrease the rate of muscle breakdown, reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), and facilitate recovery.
Caffeine: Caffeine can increase focus, energy, and muscle strength output during training and competition. It may also decrease the rate of perceived exertion, allowing athletes to work harder with less discomfort.
Beta-Alanine: Beta-alanine can increase muscle carnosine, a substrate needed for high-intensity, short-duration activities like weightlifting.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties which help to reduce muscle soreness and promote joint health.
Magnesium: Magnesium supports muscle function and aids in recovery. It is required for energy production, muscle contraction, and protein synthesis.
Zinc: Zinc is an essential compound for protein synthesis, immune function, and wound healing. Athletes who engage in high-intensity weightlifting may benefit from increased zinc.
Glutamine: Glutamine is an amino acid that promotes immune function and aids in muscle recovery, especially during high-intensity training and competition.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress and facilitate immune function.
Individual dietary supplements need depends on sports performance goals, training intensity, duration, frequency, and dietary intake. Supplements should not replace a well-balanced diet, and only be used with the advice of a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist.
This article was written by Amy Ashmore, PhD .