The supplement industry is a large one. And they’re savvy marketers. But that doesn’t mean every supplement is worth your wallet—on the contrary, few are helpful and almost none are necessary. Indeed, much of the supplements industry is about money for the makers and sellers, not advantages for the athlete.
These three, however, we recommend (to those who need them).
Carbohydrates are best at providing the human body with energy to move, but after we’re done moving and need to recover, they aren’t much help. That’s where protein, which is four calories per gram, comes in to play.
After a hard workout breaks down our muscle fibres, protein helps the body repair and rebuild stronger than before. Protein (along with sufficient rest) is what allows us to train hard and train often, progressing in ability as we do.
A sedentary person doesn’t have to worry about protein too much, but the more you do, the more protein you need. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming upward of 1.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day to ensure sufficient recovery for endurance athletes, and up to 1.7 grams for strength-based athletes. (That’s about 0.8 grams per pound.)
Unlike carbohydrates, there’s little risk in consuming too much protein, so it’s better to err on the upper end of most guidelines when possible. If you don’t have trouble getting plenty of protein, though, this is a pointless purchase.
Protein powder, available as both dairy and vegan, can have up to 30 grams of protein in one scoop. Mix your favourite flavour with some fruit and ice for a healthy, macro-friendly post-workout snack. Look for one with as little carbs and fat per serving as possible; at least 23 grams of protein and fewer than 3 grams of carbs and fat each is ideal.
Typical diets today often include a lot of processed foods and far fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole foods than in generations past. One of the many issues with this approach to food is that our bodies do not receive sufficient micronutrients. These vitamins and minerals are essential for optimal physiological functions; they influence your brain, muscle, skin, nerves, bone, and immune system.
Now, a daily multi-vitamin is hardly a solution for a lacking diet. But there’s certainly no harm in getting an extra boost, and this is among the cheaper supplements on the market.
However, if you already eat a varied, well-balanced diet, this is probably a supplement you can safely skip, according to a special report from Harvard Medical School. You may still want to consider fish oil, though, which has been found to show a lower risk of heart disease, or vitamin D, especially for those living in regions or during seasons where access to natural light is limited.
Most people consume caffeine already—in many cases, multiple times daily. Whether it’s in the form of coffee, tea, or pre-workout, this drug has proven benefits with minimal side effects.
Boosting workouts via caffeine is “a truth almost universally acknowledged in exercise science,” notes Gretchen Reynolds, a physical education writer for The New York Times.
“No matter the habitual caffeine intake in the diet, acute caffeine supplementation can improve performance,” Dr. Bruno Gualano, a nutrition and physiology professor at Brazil’s University of São Paulo in Brazil, affirmed to Reynolds.
Honorable Mention: Creatine
Creatine is an amino acid that exists naturally in our bodies. Many believe that taking in extra creatine through supplementation—typically 5 grams of a monohydrate powder daily—can improve overall strength and performance in the gym by boosting our body’s ability to produce energy.
However, the science remains mixed on whether ingesting additional creatine has a meaningful impact. There’s also at least one potential downside: creatine often causes water retention, triggering weight gain in users.
If you do try creatine, stick with monohydrate powder. Creatine mixed with other ingredients is just overpriced marketing fluff, and liquid versions have been shown to break down in the blood system, thus losing out on the desired effect. A good quality monohydrate will dissolve well.
And if you want to try getting extra creatine the old fashioned way, up your intake of beef, pork, and salmon.
Oh, and Don’t Forget…
Always remember that supplements are just that: supplements. They are not a fix or a solution. They will only work if you work, too.
Eat well, train consistently, and supplement only as necessary.