Whether you are a true athlete, a weekend warrior, or just trying to take off a few pounds, you want to get the most out of your workouts. A few simple supplements will greatly enhance this process. The recent controversy over BMPEA, an amphetamine-like substance found in some sports supplements, highlights the need for erring on the side of safety. If it’s on the internet and it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Our advice is to keep it simple. No need for complex muscle-building formulas, just good basic nutrition. Safe sports supplements fall under four main categories. Here are the four and what to look for in each:
- High quality, digestible protein
- Hydrators and electrolytes
- Joint, tendon, ligament and muscle care
High quality, digestible protein is key to building and maintaining muscle. Anti-aging experts identify the loss of muscle as the greatest overall contributor to aging. Many of us either do not get enough protein, or do not get enough highly digestible protein. The rule of thumb is to get .8-1.5 grams of protein per lb of body weight. You will want to be at the low end of the range if you are moderately active and at the high end if you have an intense workout program and intend to build muscle. So for a 175 lb man that is moderately active and wants to preserve muscle, that is 140 grams. And for a woman that is 130 pounds and moderately active their goal is 104 grams. I think very few women eat this much protein. If you are overweight, you should calculate the amount of protein you need based on a healthy weight for you.
Meats, eggs, fish and dairy products are great proteins, but conventionally raised animal products are very inflammatory to the body. These animals are fed GMO feed, i.e. mostly grains, and this is not their natural diet. They also contain steroids, antibiotics, and other hormones, which can wreak havoc on our body processes. Pasture-raised, organic, grass-fed, and humanely raised animal products provide good protein without all the chemicals. They also contain nutrients like CLA, from grass, that help with fat-burning.
Protein shakes and bars can be safe sports supplements. There is the added benefit of quick and easy preparation. There are many excellent vegan proteins available now and some of my favorites are the Sunwarrior Warrior Blend and Sprout Living’s Epic Plant-Based Protein. The Sunwarrior contains pea, cranberry and hemp proteins. Pea protein most closely mirrors muscle in terms of its amino acid profile and the hemp provides essential fatty acids. Sprout Living sprouts their proteins, making sure they are highly digestible and at the peak of their nutrition. They also add root vegetables like maca or lucuma that increase endurance and protect the body from stress.
A new product that I am really excited about is Metagenics’ Ultra Meal Advanced Protein shake. It specifically addresses sarcopenia, or clinically diagnosed muscle loss. That follows, of course, that it would help you to preserve muscle even if you don’t have this condition. It is high in the branched-chain amino acids that help to build muscle, and has a full compliment of other vitamins and minerals. It also tastes great! Metagenics’ protein bars are high quality bars that are great after a workout. You should have protein and carbs within 1 hour after a workout to ensure full recovery. Shakes and bars are very convenient, but all shakes and bars were not created equal. Look for a high quality protein source, a reasonable amount of sugar and carbs, and a lack of colorants and preservatives. If you prefer to take a pill you can opt for Amino Acid caps or Branched-Chain Amino Acids capsules.
Keeping the tissues oxygenated is key to muscle function. The best ways to keep tissues oxygenated are to 1) get enough breath and 2) have adequate iron. Endurance athletes like runners need to pay special attention to this. Tonic mushrooms are a great way to improve lung function and enhance the breath. Chinese athletes have long used supplements like cordyceps mushroom and chaga to enhance lung capacity. They are also a favorite of mountain climbers as they help with oxygenation at high altitudes. Cordychi, a combination of reishi and cordyceps mushroom, can support oxygenation by enhancing the breath. The addition of reishi to the cordyceps helps the body to react better to stress. A combination called Breathe that contains Chaga, Reishi, and Cordyceps is also very helpful. The addition of chaga adds antioxidant power to handle the normal free radicals produced by exercise. While it is possible for muscles to operate in an anaerobic, or oxygen-free environment, exercise in this kind of environment quickly fatigues the muscles. Vitamin C has also been found to be very helpful in preventing attacks in those with exercise-induced asthma.
Iron is an important part of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. Runners and menstruating female athletes tend to be deficient in iron. That said, you should not supplement with iron unless you have had your blood tested and you have a deficiency. Some signs of iron deficiency are dark circles under the eyes and low energy. My favorite iron supplement is the Floravital liquid iron. It is essentially pre-digested and very bioavailable. If you prefer a pill, the Blood Builder by Megafood and Vitamin Code iron are also very good.
Hydration is extremely important for working out. Water may be the single most critical nutrient for exercise. Since heat is produced with all forms of exercise, it must be dissipated through sweat. Without adequate hydration, you will not produce enough sweat to maintain proper body temperature. Muscle is also made up of 70% water, so water is ultra important to muscle function. The electrolyte minerals are also needed for muscle function. We lose electrolytes through sweat, with potassium experiencing the greatest depletion. Gatorade is still a favorite among the sports set but it won’t really do you any favors. At least one study has been done showing that sugar decreases testosterone production and a 20 oz Gatorade has 34 grams! That’s about 80-90% over what we would consider a reasonable amount. Gatorade also contains artificial colors, which have been connected with attention and other issues, and brominated vegetable oil (BVO), listed by the Center for Science in the Public interest as one of the top 7 things you want to avoid in food. BVO also may inhibit thyroid function, slowing down metabolism and therefore overall body function. Coconut water is an excellent hydrator and great for electrolyte replacement. I love the Harmless Harvest brand. Metagenics also makes a powdered supplement called Endura that is excellent for hydration and electrolyte replacement. Taking a mineral supplements with lots of water is also an option.
Joints and other connective tissue sometimes take a beating with sports and workouts so we want to share some tricks of the trade with you on this. Collagen is one of the main proteins in connective tissue so is excellent for joint building and repair. We have a powdered form that is from pasture-raised animals and mixes well in any liquid, yogurt, or shake. As a side benefit, it is also great for your skin and is an important part of the bone matrix. Inflammation in the joints can cause pain and inhibit movement. Turmeric and boswellia are two herbs that calm the inflammation associated with sore joints. We also have several combination formulas that will have anti-inflammatory herbs as well as joint building materials like collagen, glucosamine, and chondroitin.
For the occasional strain, sprain or bruise, T-Relief (the replacement for Traumeel) is my favorite. It combines homeopathic remedies that are good for inflammation, strains and sprains, healing connective tissue, supporting bone and more. The ultimate sports remedy! It can be found in tablet, liquid, or topical form. Arnica is mainly for bruising and inflammation, and is also great for injuries or soreness. For more serious injuries, there is Ligament Restore by Pure Encapsulations.
If you tend to get very sore muscles after activity, you may be producing too much lactic acid in the muscles. Make sure you are getting enough breath while you exercise (see above). Concentrated sour cherry juice and 100% unsweetened cranberry juice can be taken after a workout to help remove the lactic acid. Electrolytes will also replace some of the minerals necessary for muscle recovery.
So that’s it! There are simple steps you can take to get the most from your workouts that are safe and effective. No need to go for fancy muscle-building formulas that may have the potential to contain ingredients that are not on the label. Good basic nutrition, adequate breath, hydration, and care for the muscles and joints are all you really need.