By Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD
Professional athletes have genetics on their side, but that’s only a small part of what makes them elite. Hang out with any professional strength, endurance, or hybrid athlete for a day and you will soon realize that the “best of the best” all have an impeccable drive and capacity to train and perform at 100% from day to day, without missing a workout. However, despite having superhuman work capacity, we can agree that athletes aren’t immune to the negative impact that excessive stress, sleep deprivation, and low energy have on workout performance.
So, how are elite athletes able to maintain the daily grind?
Well, first, the people at the top of their game understand the importance of good nutrition, adequate sleep, and proper rest. Second, they understand the importance of taking the right supplements at the right time— especially in the 30-minute window prior to training—A.K.A. “preworkout”. In this article, we outline some of the key supplements aimed at giving you the energy of a professional athlete—- ensuring that you are just as motivated, focused, and intense at the end of your workout as you were at the start!
MENTAL FOCUS AND INTENSITY
What it is: A potent and safe stimulant that is ingested daily by 90% of North Americans. Caffeine is one of the most effective supplements for priming your energy levels prior to training.
How it supports mental focus and intensity: In the brain, adenosine binds to nerve cells and makes them slowdown in their activity; this is what makes you feel sleepy at bedtime. Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant by blocking adenosine’s effects in the brain—resulting in heightened nerve cell activity. This hyperactive neural environment produces effects of increased wakefulness, energy, rapid heart rate, dilated pupils and several other “fight or flight” symptoms. As well, caffeine ingestion promotes increased dopamine levels in the brain, giving the user a greater sense of well-being. Several studies have shown that pre-workout caffeine ingestion decreases perceived exertion, and increases workout intensity and endurance.
How to use it: Take 100 mg to 300 mg of caffeine anhydrous, 30 minutes preworkout (adjust dose according to caffeine sensitivity).
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
What they are: The BCAAs are the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are share a unique branched chain structure (hence their name) and are stored in skeletal muscle.
How they support workout endurance: It has been known for years that the body depletes BCAAs stores during heavy exercise to be used as energy. In the short term, supplementing BCAAs prior to training leads to an elevation in blood BCAA concentration and spares muscle BCAAs. Having elevated blood BCAAs has been shown to decrease fatigue and ratings of perceived exertion—enabling you to focus and push harder from workout to workout.
How to take them: To energize your workouts use a formulation with an leucine:isoleucine:valine ratio of at least 2:1:1 (i.e., there should be at least twice as much leucine compared to the others). Take 5-10 g of BCAAs, 30-minutes preworkout.
What it is: A non-proteinogenic amino acid, meaning that it is not involved in synthesizing proteins. In skeletal muscle, beta-alanine and histidine form carnosine.
How it supports workout endurance: Beta-alanine supplementation can increase muscle carnosine levels by more than 60% in just 4 weeks. Elevated muscle carnosine levels boost muscle performance by buffering skeletal muscle acidity that accumulates during prolonged high intensity exercise. Since one of the primary causes of fatigue during heavy exercise is metabolic acidosis, it makes sense that intramuscular carnosine levels are beneficial to strength athletes. High muscle carnosine also prolongs neuromuscular excitation-contraction coupling, enabling sustained force production in working muscle. In the end, beta alanine can help you push harder for longer during your workouts.
How to take it: To boost workout endurance take 1.6 to 3.2 grams 30 minutes preworkout.
What it is: Betaine (aka trimethylglycine or TMG) is a methylated derivative of the amino acid glycine and exists in dark green leafy vegetables, beets, shellfish, and whole wheat. In the body, betaine is produced during choline metabolism.
How it supports workout endurance: One of betaine’s main roles is to methylate, or transfer methyl groups, to various molecules in the body. Methylation is important for several biochemical processes in the body, including protein synthesis necessary for muscle building. Overall betaine has been shown to improve muscular endurance at high power output, it hydrates cells, reduces inflammation, maintains intestinal function, protects DNA, and lowers cysteine and homocysteine thiolactone levels. High levels of homocysteine promote insulin resistance and decreased protein synthesis, which can lead to fat gain and muscle loss respectively.
How to take it: Take at least 1.5 g of betaine 30-minutes preworkout. Research has shown that the ergogenic effects of betaine are most significant when using 2.5–5 g/day, so make sure you get an additional 1 to 3 doses sometime throughout the day.
ENERGY DELIVERY, WASTE REMOVAL, AND MUSCLE PUMP
What it is: Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid and plays roles in energy production and energy delivery. Citrulline malate is a mixture of citrulline and malic acid, which is easily absorbed and may have enhanced potency over citrulline alone.
How it augments energy delivery, waste removal, and muscle pump: This amino acid assists in production of energy by increasing the rate of phosphocreatine and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production. Citrulline, also converts to arginine (a precursor to nitric oxide) in the body, which optimizes blood flow and nutrient delivery to working muscles. Research indicates that citrulline supplements boost blood arginine and nitric oxide levels more effectively than arginine ingestion. Citrulline maleate has proven to be a great pre-workout supplement, as a single dose of citrulline can combat exercise-induced fatigue, increase time to exhaustion, and substantially decrease muscle soreness.
How to take it: Take 6-8g of citrulline malate, 30-minutes preworkout.