Six Great (Legal) Performance Enhancers for Sports or Fitness
Sorting Out the Hype
With all the marketing claims out there, promises that you'll lose weight, gain huge muscles, and tear up all competition, it's difficult to sort out what's real. I always come back to the same conclusion: A well-balanced diet that is centered around lean proteins, whole grains (NOT white flour), and lots of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, is the best way to boost your performance. Sleep and proper hydration are also essential (but that's a separate article).
That said, there are some tricks and shortcuts - and believe me, I take advantage of these! What follows is a list of supplements that I truly feel make you leaner, enhance performance, and make working out easier. Based on word of mouth between athletes, it seems that many professional endurance athletes agree.
As an amateur triathlete who started late with little experience, and began competing seriously fairly quickly, I've tried all kinds of sports supplements and vitamins. I have not used any illegal methods for boosting performance, though I know too many people who have!
This article is not intended as advertizing material, or as a cure-all for low energy. I do want to share a few supplements that I have field-tested extensively, and that have made my life a little easier.
1. Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
A holistic health practitioner originally recommended this to me years ago, when I was battling chronic fatigue. In more recent years, I started using it as a pre-workout supplement too. Co-Q10 (ubiquinone) is a substance that is already present in your body. Essentially, it converts food calories to ATP, or the energy your body uses to do physical work.
The sensation I experience is that CoQ10 makes you able to do the same amount of physical work without feeling it as much. I especially notice that I'm not breathing as hard while I'm swimming, running, or lifting weights.
The bonus is, the more out-of-shape you are, the more CoQ10 will help you. The difference is more noticeable when you're out of shape, because your body hasn't developed the ability to convert food energy to output energy efficiently. CoQ10 helps your body produce usable energy, so you can actually work out harder, and gain fitness more quickly!
CoQ10 is available over-the-counter, at most drug stores. If you happen to live near a Trader Joe's, they have great deals on it. Start with a lower dose (typically 30 mg), and then try up to 100 mg if you don't feel the difference at first.
2. Chromium Picolinate
--Another great substance that's available over-the-counter at most drug stores. Chromium picolinate is already at work in your body; it helps you utilize glucose.
While there are numerous health claims and debates associated with this supplement, I can offer my personal experience with it, and my interpretation of its benefits. Chromium Picolinate does not make you lose fat all by itself, but if you do regular aerobic exercise, it helps your body access its stored fat, and convert the fat to energy. It's particularly helpful in longer aerobic sessions, like a run longer than one hour, a 2-hour hike, or a long bike ride. After about 1-1.5 hours, the body starts to use stored fat as an energy source.
If you do have some extra body fat you'd like to lose, the benefit is even more noticeable. I felt and saw a difference in my early seasons of triathlon training. During a long run, usually I'd feel more tired after an hour. However, if I took chromium picolinate at least 30 minutes before a workout, I didn't feel that "wall" at all. My body kept on going like the Energizer bunny, with no slowing down.
3. Recover - Amino Power
This one is made by a small company called SportQuest Direct in North County San Diego, which is a major hub of triathlon activity. Recover is simple: It's the perfect blend of amino acids, cranked up to a high dose, and refined to a form that your body can still absorb.
Amino acids (protein) are the building blocks of muscle. Put simply, you need protein in order to build muscle. The more balanced and complete your profile of Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), the more lean muscle mass you can potentially have. However, if you're training hard, it's very difficult to eat enough lean meat to get the amount of amino acids you really need.
When taken at the proper times, Recover helps your muscles rebuild their tissue during and after exercise. The more lean muscle mass you have, the more quickly your body burns fat stores. So, Recover makes you leaner, improves muscle tone, and stabilizes energy. The key here is, you have to work out to get the benefits! You take one dose first thing in the morning, and then another dose after your workout. For every hour of exercise over two hours, take another dose. So, if you work out for three hours one day, take three doses in all.
I started taking Recover over a year ago, while training for half-Ironman-distance triathlon. I already had endurance and strength, but at 34, I'd begun retaining more body fat and showing less muscle than I had previously. After three weeks of taking Recover (while keeping my diet and training routine the same), I noticed a marked difference: I had lost two pounds of body weight and three percent body fat. And (forgive the expression), my muscles looked ripped again!
I was so impressed, I asked my coach about it. (He is an honest professional triathlete who relies on his natural strength and talent.) He said Recover was the one supplement he actually used regularly.
Note that Recover is not a substitute for adequate sleep, necessary calories, or a balance of food nutrients.
Caffeine has long been used by endurance athletes as a muscular endurance aid. This is because it really does work. Caffeine actually prolongs the time to muscular fatigue, or makes you able to run, ride, swim, lift, dance...for longer, and at a higher power level.
A Tour de France rider might down as many as five cups of coffee before a day of racing, and then continue to top it off throughout the day. (There is a legal limit on the amount of caffeine you can have in your bloodstream in professional or Olympic competition.)
Caffeine can make you feel jittery and mentally unfocused, but these symptoms will probably fade once you're in motion. Be aware that caffeine also acts as a laxative, so make sure you have access to restroom facilities before you start your workout!
Coffee or espresso can cause stomach upset in some people, or trigger acid reflux. If you're looking for a source of caffeine without coffee or carbonation, check out Think Geek's website.
We know that caffeine alone boosts physical energy muscular endurance (at least temporarily), but this product puts a new twist on these benefits. Motivator is another winner from SportQuest Direct, the makers of Recover.
Motivator is a patented blend of caffeine from Guarana seeds, Ginkgo Biloba, amino acids, and vitamin and vitamin precursors. It is designed to energize you before a workout, and enhance muscular endurance and mental focus during a workout or race. Unlike caffeine by itself, this "magic bullet" actually quiets your mind and keeps it in a serious zone while you're working out. The relaxed state of your mind lets you actually work harder; you are stronger and have better reflexes when you're mentally relaxed.
You get the same benefits caffeine offers, but a brain-booster at the same time. When I use Motivator on a long training ride, I feel smooth, strong and focused. It's much easier to push aside those self-defeating thoughts that float into my brain when I get tired - "It's hour three, I'm tired now;" or "I don't know if my legs can handle another hill." I would describe the effect as pure zone power.
6. Race Caps Supreme
This formula is made by Hammer Nutrition, and is available online. Hammer specializes in completely natural, low-sugar fuels and supplements for endurance athletes. (I also recommend their Hammer Gel for a quick fix if you want to go for a short run within 30 minutes or less, but feel too hungry and tired. It's also great for mid-workout, if you start to tire.)
Race Caps combines the benefits of CoQ10, digestive enzymes, and other specialized ingredients that supposedly help your body make and use energy (ATP). All I know is, it makes my workouts feel easier! This means I can make the most of a harder workout, and rest and relax more during an easy workout. Again, I believe this supplement produces more noticeable benefits if you are just starting out, or building your basic fitness.
If you work out frequently, or even if you just endure daily stress (as most of us do!), I also recommend a few very basic, supporting supplements: vitamin C (for immune system strength) a complete vitamin B blend (for stress management), a calcium-magnesium-zinc blend (for bone strength and resistance to colds, etc.), glucosamine (for joint strength and health), and a good digestive enzyme.