“If you had to pick one performance plug-in, what would it be?” I am often asked this question. Amidst the myriad information and bro-science out there, it’s hard to figure out which supplements can offer you the most for your money.
CrossFit, the sport of fitness, is constantly evolving. Competitors are getting more ready, faster and stronger, and competition standards are constantly improving. Therefore, we need a better understanding of how to maximize the potential of training. As the volume and intensity of training increases, so does our need to improve our diet in order to recover more effectively from training. Here supplements play a vital role.
Nutrition for optimal effect
There are no truly essential supplements. They are called “supplements” for a reason – they are generally designed as a supplement to your diet. They are not intended to replace meals or nutrients that you can get from whole foods or healthy sources.
I find it hard to determine one supplement that I would recommend for performance, so instead I think in terms of diet for optimal effect. You have three key areas for this – before training, after training and within training.
“[I]If you are serious about your CrossFit performance, I would strongly consider adding these three key supplements to your diet plan.“
Proper supplementation at these times can have positive effects on performance including:
- Increasing working capacity
- Reduce recovery between rounds, intervals or sets
- Improving tolerance to training volume
- Improve recovery between sessions
I have compiled a list of the three main supplements to be taken at these key moments and ranked them according to:
- How well they work (from personal experience and study results)
- How well researched they are
- How profitable they are.
As it turns out, choosing supplements is really as simple as ABC.
A – amino acids
This could just as easily be a “P” for protein, but then it wouldn’t be as appealing as ABC. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and protein intake plays a huge role in both body composition and recovery from exercise.
Branched-chain protein or amino acid supplementation (BCAA) can help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise and has been shown to improve recovery, reduce muscle pain and improve body composition.1.2
The most commonly supplemented amino acid is leucine (a branched chain amino acid highlighted in whey protein powder). Leucine plays a significant role in building muscle tissue. It can be found in many food sources, but is generally found in higher concentrations in whey and dairy products, making them ideal for improving muscle growth and repair.
In terms of effect, supplementation with whey protein or amino acids has been shown to work:3,4,5
- Improve muscle recovery after exercise
- Improve muscle retention during weight loss
- Improve muscle gains combined with resistance exercise
- Reduce muscle pain and improve recovery
There have also been studies associated with the use of BCAAs before training to improve training intensity and lower levels of exercise-induced fatigue.2.6
“Amidst countless marketing information and bro-sciences out there, it’s hard to figure out which supplements can offer you the most for your money.“
Whey protein is often advised to be taken immediately after a workout to improve recovery from a workout. However, whey protein could be equally recommended before training. Because it is quickly digested, it allows amino acids to be broken down quickly and released into the bloodstream, making amino acids available to muscles for use when needed during training.
The BCAA supplement is equally versatile, as BCAAs can be helpful when used before, within, or after a workout, depending on your goals. BCAA supplementation can prevent muscle breakdown if taken within training, and can also prevent catabolism if taken after training. This can be especially helpful if you have a calorie deficit for weight loss but don’t want to lose muscle mass.
B – Beta-alanine
Beta-alanine is called a lactic acid buffer and can prevent the accumulation of metabolic by-products that occur at high exercise intensities. The addition of beta-alanine can also help remove these byproducts from our muscles and bloodstream when the byproducts reach thresholds that begin to limit performance.
Beta-alanine works by increasing intramuscular levels of carnosine. Carnosine is released into the bloodstream when blood levels become more acidic and helps prevent the accumulation of hydrogen ions (which cause acidity in the blood) that cause muscle burning. Thus, higher levels of carnosine in the blood will prevent or at least delay the onset of this burning sensation and allow us to work longer. Beta-alanine has been shown to be particularly effective in improving performance and power output in exercise attacks lasting between one and four minutes.7.8
Beta-alanine is often prescribed as a pre-workout supplement. But beta-alanine supplementation is not time-dependent, so it can be taken in doses throughout the day. The main reason why it is taken before training is that it can be matched with creatine supplementation (see below) for additional synergistic effects on training performance.
In terms of dose, beta-alanine is most effective in the range of 2-5 g per day. Higher doses can cause tingling (a harmless side effect). This can be avoided by breaking the dose into smaller portions.
C – creatine monohydrate
Creatine is one of the most researched sports supplements and has a reputation for improving performance in high-intensity exercise (especially interval training).9.10 Creatine can improve performance in any case that requires explosive bursts of power. These short bursts of energy are stimulated by our creatine phosphate system, and this energy system is only effective for six to ten seconds of high-intensity activity before our creatine stores are depleted. During our recovery periods, our creatine stores are replenished.
Creatine supplementation can help in this process in two ways. It can replenish our creatine stores, which means it will take longer for our creatine levels to be depleted, as well as faster to replace the creatine used during activity.
“There are no truly essential supplements. They are called ‘supplements’ for a reason – they are generally designed as a supplement to your diet.“
From a performance point of view, creatine monohydrate supplementation means:11
- Improved strength and power
- Improved recovery between rounds and sessions
- Faster sprint times
- Improved hydration level
- Reduced fatigue during training
Most creatine supplementation protocols promote the filling phase used for faster cell saturation. After this period of saturation it is common to use a dose of 5 g per day. This saturation can be achieved more easily by taking a dose of 2-5 g consistently before and after training. Using the latter strategy provides synergistic benefits of supplementation with beta-alanine (pre) and whey protein (after) to further improve performance and recovery.
Benefits for every crossfitter
This is by no means a comprehensive list or what I would recommend to everyone. However, if you take your CrossFit performance seriously, I would strongly consider adding these three key supplements to your diet plan.
Check out these related articles:
1. Bigard AX, Lavier P, Ullmann L, Legrand H, Douce P, Guezennec CY. – Branched-chain amino acid supplementation during repeated long-term altitude skiing exercises. Int J Sport Nutr. September 1996; 6 (3): 295-306.
2. Shimizu M, Miyagawa K, Iwashita S, Noda T, Hamada K, Genno H, Nose H. – Energy consumption during a 2-day hike in the mountains (2857 m) and the effects of amino acid supplementation in older men and women. Eur J Appl Physiol. March 2012. 112 (3): 1077-86. doi: 10.1007 / s00421-011-2057-2. Epub, July 9, 2011
3. Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Tranchina CP, Rashti SL, Kang J, Faigenbaum AD. – Influence of protein supplementation time on changes in strength, power and body composition in resistance-trained men. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2009. April; 19 (2): 172-85.
4. Kerksick CM, Rasmussen CJ, Lancaster SL, Magu B, Smith P, Melton C, Greenwood M, Almada AL, Earnest CP, Kreider RB. – Effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on performance and training adjustments during ten weeks of resistance training. J Power Cond Res. 2006. August; 20 (3): 643-53.
5. Andersen LL, Tufeković G, Zebis MK, Crameri RM, Verlaan G, Kjaer M, Suetta C, Magnusson P, Aagaard P. – Effect of resistance training combined with time protein intake on muscle fiber size and muscle strength. Metabolism. Feb. 2005; 54 (2): 151-6.
6. Blomstrand E, Hassman P, Ek S, Ekblom B, Newsholme EA. – Influence of branching chain amino acid solution intake on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiol Scand. January 1997; 159 (1): 41-9.
7. Zoeller RF, Stout JR, O’kroy JA, Torok DJ, Mielke M. – Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on aerobic strength, ventilation and lactate thresholds and time to exhaustion. Amino acids. 2007. September; 33 (3): 505-10. Epub, September 5, 2006
8. Stout JR, Cramer JT, Zoeller RF, Torok D, Costa P, Hoffman JR, Harris RC, O’Kroy J. – Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the occurrence of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilation threshold in women. Amino acids. 2007; 32 (3): 381-6. Epub 2006, 30 November.
9. Graef JL, Smith AE, Kendall KL, Fukuda DH, Moon JR, Beck TW, Cramer JT, Stout JR. – Effects of four weeks of creatine supplementation and high-intensity interval training on cardiorespiratory fitness: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. November 12, 2009; 6:18. doi: 10.1186 / 1550-2783-6-18.
10. Juhász I, Györe I, Csende Z, Rácz L, Tihanyi J. – Creatine supplementation improves the anaerobic performance of elite junior fin swimmers. Acta Physiol Hung. September 2009. 96 (3): 325-36. doi: 10.1556 / APhysiol.96.2009.3.6.
11. Kendall KL, Smith AE, Graef JL, Fukuda DH, Moon JR, Beck TW, Cramer JT, Stout JR. – Effects of four weeks of high-intensity interval training and creatine supplementation on critical strength and anaerobic performance in college-age men. J Power Cond Res. September 2009; 23 (6): 1663-9. doi: 10.1519 / JSC.0b013e3181b1fd1f.
Photos 1 and 3 courtesy CrossFit Los Angeles.
Photo 2 courtesy Shutterstock.