By now you’ve probably found your go-to protein shake recipe, and you may even carry a shaker bottle to the gym. But when it comes to maximizing your workout performance and recovery, is protein powder all you need?
For athletes striving to achieve a new strength goal, boost their exercise intensity, or take their endurance to the next level, a workout supplement may help. “The thing I tell people is that supplement use is the last two to three percent of performance,” says Jason Machowsky, Board Certified Sports Dietitian and Performance Specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
The big three? Protein powder (see our handy guide here), pre-workout supplements and post-workout supplements.
For your pre-sweat prep, you’ll want to search for a product containing carbohydrates and moderate amounts of caffeine — to delay fatigue and help you stay strong through that final set of intervals, or that last mile of your long run.
Then, immediately following your training session, a post-workout recovery blend is one way to potentially speed muscle recovery. Got tired legs? Experts point to tart cherry and branched-chain amino acids as two common post-workout ingredients that may help prevent soreness and repair taxed muscle tissue.
Get the run-down on six fundamental ingredients you can expect to find in a pre- or post-workout supplement:
Pre or Post: Both
It may seem obvious, but carbohydrates are key to any athlete’s prep routine, especially if you’re exercising for more than an hour at a time. “Carbs refuel your muscles, and get stored as glycogen. When glycogen is depleted, that’s what’s associated with fatigue and hitting the wall,” says Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
That said, a big plate of pasta isn’t exactly a recipe for success — especially right before a workout. Instead, fueling with a supplement or sports drink can be a great way to ensure your body’s gas tank stays is full. “[Carbs are] the quickest and easiest way for your muscles to get energy,” Machowsky says. “Especially when you’re working at higher intensities, your body will use a greater percentage of carbohydrates for fuel.”
Once you’ve powered through the final moments of your sweat session, carbs are still crucial. “If you knock the glycogen stores down to where you are highly fatigable and grumpy, what did you gain?” says Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS, past-president of the Collegiate and Professional Dietitians Association “And, if you don’t replenish, it puts you at greater risk for injury.”
How much: Each day, people engaged in a heavy, high-intensity training routine should aim to consume 3.2 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight that they carry, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To determine how to break down your pre- and post-workout carb intake, consult a sports nutritionist as recommendations will vary depending on your individual training routine and goals.
Pre or Post: Pre
When consumed pre-workout, caffeine can be key to making a long session feel more effortless, Clark says. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, recent research indicates that athletes who consumed moderate amounts of caffeine one hour prior to a workout increased their endurance during spinning and running tests (in a laboratory setting).
Just be sure to double-check the caffeine dosage on your supplement label. “If you take too much you can feel jittery, nervous, nauseous,” Clark says. “People learn through trial and error the right amount of caffeine to take. Some people who are caffeine sensitive may want to avoid things [with caffeine] because it makes them feel not so good.”
How Much: To figure out your limits, consider this: A tall 12-oz cup of Pike Place coffee from Starbucks contains about 260 milligrams of caffeine. According to the FDA, the average American consumes about 200 mg of coffee per day and, as a rule, people should never consume more than 600 mg each day.
3. Vitamin C
Pre or Post: Both
Most commonly known as the supplement people reach for when they feel a common cold coming on, vitamin C plays an essential role in helping the body deal with stress, whether from environmental factors or a strenuous workout schedule, according to Machowsky.
“Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which helps with dealing with metabolic stress — and training is metabolic stress,” Machowsky says. “Anytime you’re putting the body under a stress load, having things in the system to help deal with that stress load can be helpful.”
Bonus: Vitamin C may also help reduce an athlete’s likelihood of developing coughing or wheezing before and after exercise.
How Much: No more than 2,000 mg per day. Male adults should get at least 90 mg per day, while women should get 75 mg per day, according to the National Institutes of Health.
4. Vitamin B6 and B12
Pre or Post: Both
While clinical vitamin B12 deficiencies are relatively rare, it’s not uncommon to be slightly deficient in B vitamin complex, particularly B6. Though more research is needed, it’s possible these nutrients can be more easily depleted when the body is under stress.
RELATED: The Benefits of Vitamin B Complex
According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin B helps the body form red blood cells and get or make energy from food. It can also help reduce inflammation and regulate mood and sleep patterns. In other words, this vitamin helps fine-tune the essential bodily processes that need to be in place in order for you to feel strong during a workout, or any other time of day.
5. Tart Cherry (Juice or Powder)
Pre or Post: Post
This stone fruit is quickly emerging as a favorite post-performance superfood for endurance athletes because it has similar effects to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs).
“[Tart cherry] has an effect right away, like an Ibuprofen would, so you can use it for pain, you can use it for muscle damage, and it looks like you can use it as a potential chronic anti-inflammatory,” says Dr. Kerry Kuehl, an associate professor at Oregon Health and Science University and co-director of OHSU’s human performance laboratory.
A small 2010 study conducted by Kuehl and his colleagues revealed that marathoners recovered more quickly after knocking back a glass of tart cherry juice post-race. The juice drinkers recovered their strength more quickly and experienced less inflammation post 26.2 than those who drank a placebo beverage.
RELATED: 9 Homemade Sports Drink Recipes
“Tart cherry has phytochemicals that are very health protective,” Clark says, noting that other dark fruits, like blueberries juice and grape juice, also have similar properties. Now, researchers throughout the country are working on developing tart-cherry derived supplements and medications. Expect to see a range of new products on the market that aim to harness the superfood’s powers.
How Much: The jury’s still out. Runners who consumed up to two 10-ounce bottles of tart cherry juice, or the equivalent of 45 tart cherries recovered faster post-marathon in Keuhl’s study. Amounts of tart cherry powder in post-workout supplements will vary.
6. BCAA Blend
Pre or Post: Both
Branched chain amino acid (BCAA) blends consist of a mixture of three important amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. The body uses amino acids to help digest food, repair body tissue and promote growth, among other functions. Commonly found in protein sources such as meat and eggs, the three amino acids that make up BCAA blend are essential for people looking to build muscle, and also repair damaged muscle tissue after intense workouts.
“The most important [essential amino acid] in the blend is leucine, especially when it comes to fixing the damaged muscle,” Ellis says. “[It’s particularly important] when we get done beating a muscle up with a lot of work in the weight room or sprinting or running steps, or pounding for an endurance athlete.”
Also found in some protein powders, BCAAs “help perpetuate that strong signaling in the body to fix a damaged muscle,” says Ellis.
How much: While dosages will vary depending on a person’s goals, an athlete can consume up to 20 grams of BCAA per day.
The Final Word
Because the U.S. FDA does not regulate supplements, it can be tricky to know which blends work, and which are bogus. Always look for a brand that has been produced in an FDA-certified Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility, or carries a label that identifies it as a USP Verified Dietary Supplement. This ensures you’re getting a product that actually contains what it says it does.
In general, Machowsky advises clients to avoid “anything that doesn’t have research behind it,” and to be wary of supplements with long ingredient lists. Because new information is still being discovered about many ingredients found in supplements, its unclear how some these compounds interact with one another. In other words, it’s best to keep supplementation simple. And always avoid supplements that include mega-doses of ingredients like caffeine.
Still confused? Don’t hesitate to consult with a sports nutritionist to figure out the best mixture of ingredients for your individual needs.
Regardless of the supplement you choose, it’s important to remember that they’ll do little for you unless you already have a solid foundation of good health habits in place. Sleep, a nutritious diet and safe exercise habits are the most important ingredients for workout success.
“Trying to take supplements when the basics are shot is like putting lipstick on a pig,” says Machowsky. “That being said, if someone is firing on all cylinders, there are a few supplements which have some good research showing they could be useful.”