Sports Nutrition and Supplementation Series: Supplementation (Part 1 of 3)

I analyze the wide, complicated world of sports nutrition and supplementation to build a personal wellness plan that will help me to become the best athlete I can be.

Aspergians usually have one central focus in our life that we pour all of our energy into and are particularly passionate about. For many aspergians, that subject is something like math, physics, music, electricity, or heavy motorized vehicles like trains or construction equipment.

For me, I’ve always revolved my life around sports. They are my lifeblood, and in true aspergian fashion, are oftentimes my singular focus. Being the best athlete I can be is an obsessive passion of mine.

To achieve this goal, I love analyzing and controlling all of the inputs that contribute to the output of athletic excellence. I try to perfect all aspects I have control over: training, technique, competition strategy, mindset, overall health and wellness, recovery, sleep.

However, one input that I’d never done much research on until now had been nutrition and supplementation. It had never been a topic of interest to me, so I’d never put much thought into my nutrition, or considered taking any supplements.

Recently, I found myself with some free time on my hands and decided it was time to be intentional about my strategy towards sports nutrition and supplementation. After all, it is an important input to athletic excellence, not something that should be left up to chance.

This post series covers the research and analysis I did on sports nutrition and supplementation. There are 3 parts.

Part 1 (this post) focuses on supplementation. Part 2 dives into exercise physiology to the extent needed to understand sports nutrition (part 3). Each post encapsulates my thought process, rationale, and conclusions I’ve reached based on my research and analysis.

Disclaimer

Unlike previous posts, this series is somewhat personal to me as an athlete. So if you’re not interested in diving into my thought process (or if the thought of doing so downright scares you, in which case I don’t blame you 😉 ), these may not be the posts for you.

Otherwise, sit back, grab a bag of popcorn, and enjoy!

Supplementation: Ignorance

I’ve always been naturally against sports/nutrition supplements. Part of this is because I believe a large proportion of them are under-researched, over-marketed products created to put money into the pockets of corporations. They promise enhanced athletic performance, when in reality most of the time they either have no benefit or even sometimes a detrimental effect.

I’ve known many athletes hoping to use supplements as a replacement for hard work towards achieving their goals. These athletes are particularly vulnerable to the marketing claims of supplement products.

Additionally, I’ve always valued simplicity in life. This value has led to an underlying belief that keeping the inputs simple will lead to my best athletic self: work hard, eat a generally healthy diet, and get adequate rest.

For these reasons, I’d never seriously considered taking any supplements. I even had a stigma against them. Recently however, I began worrying that perhaps my stigma against supplements was overly biased, even if some of the underlying beliefs were true.

Was I being ignorant towards a potential key input to athletic performance? What if this ignorance was inhibiting my goal of being the best athlete I can be?

I realized that when it comes to sports supplements and aids, there are 3 primary factors I care about:

  1. Improved athletic performance: This is the purpose behind taking them
  2. Long-term health: I value my mind and body, and am unwilling to take a supplement to improve athletic performance if the tradeoff is a negative health consequence
  3. Ethical concerns: I’m unwilling to take a supplement that crosses ethical sport boundaries or violates the integrity of the sport/game.

Decision-Making Framework

As I thought about these factors, I began developing a “decision-making framework”. This is a flowchart of sorts. I use this framework to help me quantify a supplement or aid in terms of the primary decision-making factors for me.

For a given supplement or aid I’m considering using, I start at the first question of the framework. I research and analyze the supplement, answer each question, and proceed through the flowchart until I arrive at a decision on whether I should consider taking it.

This framework took hours upon hours of research, analysis, and deep thinking to arrive at. It has been carefully constructed to encapsulate all that is important to me about supplements.

Others may have different primary factors that are important to them. So feel free to agree, adapt, or disagree with any parts of this framework. You can even build your own!

Question Flowchart

Question 1: Are you convinced it actually benefits athletic performance?

Factors to consider

  • Depth, breadth, and quality of peer-reviewed studies
  • Potential sources of bias on those studies
  • Can you intuitively understand the logic behind how it would physiologically benefit performance?

Answers

Yes: Proceed to question 2

No: Don’t take it. Doesn’t help performance.

Question 2: Does it have any negative health consequences, short or long term?

Factors to consider

  • Peer-reviewed studies, any long-term studies?
  • Anecdotal evidence of people who’ve taken it

Answers

Yes: Don’t take it. Not worth it.

No: Proceed to question 3

Question 3: Is it illegal or against the rules of the relevant sport?

Answers

Yes: Don’t take it. It ruins the integrity of sport. The whole idea of sports is that everyone competes against each other, playing by the same set of rules. Breaking those rules literally ruins the beauty, purpose, and draw of sports.

No: Proceed to question 4

Question 4: Does it have any other tradeoffs (financial, environmental, ethical, etc.)?

Factors to consider

  • How the supplement is produced. Does it harm any humans, animals, or the environment?
  • How the supplement is disposed of
  • The price of the supplement
  • Does the supplement have any other negative effects on the body?

Answers

Yes: Proceed to question 5

No: Proceed to question 6

Question 5: Does the improved athletic performance outweigh the tradeoffs for you?

Answers

Yes: Proceed to question 6

No: Don’t take it. The negative impacts of the supplement outweigh the performance benefit.

Question 6: Does it trick your mind/body or work against the body’s natural efforts?

I am skeptical of supplements (or anything else) that inhibits the body’s natural processes. Human bodies are amazingly adaptive, and excellent at regulating many different physiological processes. Overriding or hindering these efforts can be detrimental for a couple of reasons:

  1. Hijacks the system: The body is full of millions of feedback loops. These loops almost always trigger the body to engage in efforts that are beneficial for the system as a whole. Impeding these efforts prevents the body from doing something it thinks it should do for optimal health.
  2. Dependence: Because the human body is so adaptive, it can learn to rely on stimulus that is frequently provided to it. Over time, this dependence can hurt the body’s own ability to regulate that physiological process. An example of this is chronic caffeine usage causing us to be more tired without caffeine. When this happens, our bodies have lost the ability to regulate our arousal levels.

Answers

Yes: Don’t take it. I believe it is detrimental to long-term health.

No: Proceed to question 7

Question 7: Does it add a new component or feature to your body? Or, does it explicitly modify the nature of your body?

A few examples will help to explain this question.

Imagine you could prevent your body and mind from feeling any pain. This may be beneficial in the short-term for you if you were engaging in a sport that pushes up to a pain threshold, like cycling or running.

Doing this would be explicitly modifying the nature of your body. The nervous system is a natural functioning component of your body, and silencing it is explicitly modifying your body’s nature.

Another example would be “genetic doping”, or intentionally changing your genetic code to yield better athletic performance. This would classify as explicitly modifying the nature of your body.

As an example of adding a new component/feature to your body, consider directly injecting muscle cells to your body to increase muscle mass. Or doing a blood transfusion to introduce fresh oxygen-rich blood to your system during the middle of a 3-week-long bike race.

Enhance Existing Functionality

The alternative to adding a new component or feature to the body or modifying the body’s nature is to enhance existing functionality.

An example of this would be taking a vitamin pill. Or eating protein after a workout to help rebuild muscles. These things are simply helping your body do something it already does on its own.

For sake of example, even anabolic steroids could be considered to enhance existing functionality as opposed to explicitly modifying the nature of your body. Your body already produces testosterone on its own.

Don’t worry though, anabolic steroids would never have made it to this stage of the decision-making framework- they already fail out of multiple previous questions!

I admit the distinction between enhancing existing functionality vs. modifying the body or adding a component can be quite subtle. Nonetheless, it is an important one for me to attempt to make.

Ethical Considerations

The distinction is important to me because it draws an ethical boundary I am unwilling to cross. Substances or supplements that modify the nature of the body or add a new component change the nature of the sport or game itself.

Instead of the sport being about who can best work with their mind and body to play the sport the best, the game changes. It becomes about who can best modify their body and add the best components to their body to win. This distinction may not matter for some. But for me, this difference means everything.

Take the Tour de France as an example. Cycling skill and hard work are important, but an equally important factor now is about who can logistically dope the best during the race.

Who can skirt the rules, manipulate the authorities, and get their body as doped as it can be without triggering positive tests? This is a component that has nothing to directly do with the act of the sport itself (cycling), yet is a huge determining factor for overall performance.

Imagine a potential future world where anyone can change their genetic code to be whatever they want. Sports would largely become who can either find the right genetic sequencing for optimal athletic performance, or who has the money to do so. In this reality, the nature of sport will have changed indeed.

Health considerations

There are also potential health implications to consider. Your body engages in physiological processes that it has evolved to do for a reason. Explicitly modifying this nature or adding a new component is a drastic change that could have unforeseeable negative downstream health effects.

Answers

Yes: Don’t take it. Hurts integrity of sport, changes it to be about who can best modify the body

No: Proceed to question 8

Question 8: Does it naturally occur, both in nature and the body?

A substance that is artificially made is less likely to encapsulate all of the intricate complexities that natural substances from the world around us have. This complexity is essential to your body fully gleaning the benefits of the substance, and it is difficult to artificially duplicate.

A substance that does not naturally occur in the body but is introduced to it is more likely to create adverse physiological effects within the body.

Answers

Yes: Proceed to question 9

No, does not occur in nature: Revisit question 2 to reconsider if there are any health consequences

No, does not occur in body: Revisit question 7 to reconsider if it modifies or adds to the body’s nature

If good after revisits, proceed to question 9. Otherwise, don’t take it.

Question 9: Why does your body not naturally create the effect the supplement is intended to create?

If a supplement has made it to this question of the framework, it is because the supplement is beneficial to athletic performance and creates an effect in the body that the body does not naturally do itself (at least to the extent the supplement does).

The question is why? Why does the body not produce this effect, whether from evolution (over many generations) or adaptation to workout stimulus (over the course of a training program)?

Valid Reasons

There could be valid reasons. Evolution is a process that rewards traits beneficial for species survival only. This is a different goal than athletic excellence, so there could be some athletically beneficial traits that evolution “does not care about” so to speak.

From an adaptation standpoint, even though human beings are very adaptive, we are not perfectly adaptive. For example, no matter how much you swim, you will not develop gills. Our ancestors spent most of their time on dry land, and thus from evolution, we “lost” the ability to develop gills, even through bodily adaptation to workout stimulus.

In this way, there could be supplements that create effects in the body that the body simply cannot “adapt” to produce, since it wasn’t built to. I’m not saying there are supplements that will let you grow gills, but the gill example illustrates the overall principle of the human body not being perfectly adaptive to workouts.

Unhealthy Reasons

On the other hand, there could be other reasons the body does not naturally create the effect the supplement is intended to create. Take anabolic steroids as an example. They artificially increase testosterone levels to help you recover from workouts faster, and they really do work for this purpose!

So if extremely high levels of testosterone are athletically beneficial, why does the body not just start producing more testosterone (to the levels of anabolic steroids) as you work out more and more?

Well, it turns out there are a whole host of potential health problems associated with increasing testosterone levels to high levels artificially. There are many valid reasons your body has for keeping your testosterone levels below what may be theoretically the most beneficial for workout recovery.

The point here is it’s important to analyze why the body doesn’t create the effect the supplement creates on its own. This can help uncover additional hidden negative consequences to taking the supplement.

Answers

The body has an important health reason for not creating this effect: Don’t take it, not worth it.

The body wasn’t built to produce this effect, but the effect isn’t unhealthy: Proceed to question 10!

Question 10: Start taking the supplement, and objectively and subjectively evaluate the results. Is it having the desired effect?

Start gradually, and constantly be mindful and journal about how you feel. Additionally, create an objective benchmark/test to evaluate how it is affecting your athletic performance.

Answers

Yes: Continue taking it, but always monitor how you feel and keep up-to-date with research about it.

No: Stop taking it. Trust both empirical and anecdotal evidence.

Diagram

Supplements: Case Studies

The next section analyzes various supplements through the lens of the decision-making framework. It includes not just supplements but other aids or techniques intended to benefit performance, known as “ergogenic aids”.

For the interest of brevity, this section only includes a high-level overview and the decision-making framework outcome. More detailed explanations about each supplement or aid can be found in the Appendix: Supplement Case Studies.

Anabolic Steroids/Testosterone

Anabolic steroids speed up recovery from workouts by increasing testosterone levels and decreasing the production and facilitation of glucosteroids.

Decision: Don’t take it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Health (q2): Many documented, studied adverse health effects
  • Illegal/against rules (q3): Banned in almost every major sport
  • Why does body not make more (q9): Adverse health effects

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Anabolic Steroids/Testosterone

Psychotic Drugs

Decision: Don’t take it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Performance (q1): Doesn’t benefit athletic performance, likely hinders it for most sports
  • Health (q2): Can alter chemistry of the brain
  • Against body (q6): Tricks the mind

Genetic Doping

A generic term for modifying your genetic code to attempt to benefit your athletic performance.

Decision: Don’t do it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Health (q2): There could be drastic long-term health concerns, like causing cancer
  • Illegal/against rules (q3): Most major sport governing bodies have banned this process
  • Modifying the body (q7): Quintessential example of this

EPO (Erythropoietin)

Artificially increases red blood cell count, which helps deliver oxygen to muscles for aerobic-oriented endurance sports.

Decision: Don’t take it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Health (q2): Many documented negative health effects
  • Illegal/against rules (q3): Banned by almost all sports
  • Why does body not make more (q9): Because there are adverse health effects

Blood Transfusions

General process is to save some of your blood and inject it back into yourself at a later point when you may be depleted of oxygen and red blood cells, like in the later stages of the Tour de France.

Decision: Don’t do it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Health (q2): Can cause major adverse health problems if your body rejects the blood
  • Illegal/against rules (q3): Banned by almost all sports
  • Modifying the body (q7): Adding a component to the body

HGH (Human Growth Hormone)

HGH helps your body rebuild muscle and recover after workouts. The body naturally produces it, but it can be artificially enhanced.

Decision: Don’t take it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Health (q2): Can cause major health problems, including cancer.
  • Illegal/against rules (q3): Banned by most sports
  • Why does body not make more (q9): Because there are adverse health effects

Bacteria-growing HGH

My friend told me about an idea for improving athletic performance whereby the athlete swallows a bacteria that has been grown for the purpose of producing more HGH. I include this ergogenic aid because it is a prime example of an aid that gets eliminated by question 7.

Decision: Don’t do it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Health (q2): There could be adverse health effects to doing this- it hasn’t been studied.
  • Modifying the body (q7): This is a prime example of adding a component to the body. Even though the body already produces some HGH, this is adding an entirely new externally grown entity that wasn’t there before. This definitely qualifies as modifying the nature of your body.

CBD (Cannabidiol)

Some athletes use CBD oils and products to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation.

Decision: Don’t do it.

Eliminating questions:

Creatine

Creatine is one of the most widely studied nutritional supplements. It is commonly used by bodybuilders and explosive athletes alike. The creatine phosphate energy system is used for explosive athletic movements, and creatine supplementation aims to increase the amount of creatine phosphate fuel available to power these movements.

Decision: Take it!

Amended Decision: After taking it, I quantitatively and qualitatively did not notice improvement, so I stopped.

Eliminating questions:

  • No improvement (q10)

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Creatine

Caffeine

Caffeine is the most widely used neurostimulant in the world. There are many claims that it actually benefits athletic performance as well, in particular for endurance sports.

Decision: Don’t take it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Athletic performance (q1): I don’t believe it benefits athletic performance
  • Tricks mind/body (q6): Creates a dependence, modifies body’s natural state
  • Why does body not produce effect (q9): Body naturally appropriately controls arousal levels

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Caffeine

Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is a non-essential (body produces it) amino acid. It is taken as a supplement to increase the body’s skeletal muscle concentration of carnosine. Carnosine is thought to help buffer against muscle acidosis during anaerobic activity, letting you exercise at a higher intensity for longer.

Decision: Take it. As always, monitor and evaluate to see if it is beneficial.

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Beta-Alanine

Taurine

Taurine is a non-essential amino acid/sulfur compound found in high abundance in skeletal muscle. It helps combat oxidative stress and free radicals, among many other functions. However, there’s not a large volume of research on its use as an ergogenic aid.

Decision: Don’t take it. Keep tabs on it for the future though.

Eliminating questions:

  • Athletic performance (q1): Not enough research showing it’s beneficial yet.

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Taurine

Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda)

This is a peculiar-sounding thing to take to improve athletic performance, but the logic behind it is actually pretty sound. It essentially raises your pH levels before intense exercise. This can help your resilience against the acidosis that inevitably occurs from anaerobic exercise (see part 2).

Decision: Try it to see if it benefits performance!

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda)

Branch-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs are a set of amino acids particularly important for muscle rebuilding and recovery. Because of this, BCAAs are a common supplement pre or post-exercise.

Decision: Don’t need it.

Eliminating questions:

Athletic performance (q1): While BCAAs do benefit athletic performance, I get enough from my diet that I don’t need to supplement (see part 3 for more details on sports nutrition)

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Branch-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Citrulline

Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid. It is not used to build proteins. Citrulline plays a role in the urea cycle, which removes harmful substances like ammonia from the body.

Decision: Don’t need it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Athletic performance (q1): Adequate amounts contained in plant-based foods (see part 3 for more details on sports nutrition)

Betaine

Occurs naturally in the body, and found in foods like beats, spinach, cereals, etc. It’s a chemical. Decision: Don’t need it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Athletic performance (q1): Studies don’t really support it benefiting, and I get it naturally and through diet.

Phosphatidic Acid (PAS)

This supplement supposedly stimulates a signal in your body to grow muscle. Here’s a guide explaining what it is and what it does.

Decision: Don’t take it.

Eliminating questions:

  • Athletic performance (q1): No reliable research showing it benefits athletic performance
  • Why does the body not produce effect (q9): Body has valid health reasons for not overstimulating the “muscle growing” signal

Wim Hof Deep Breathing

Wim Hof is commonly known as the “Ice Man” and owns multiple world records relating to cold exposure, like sitting in an ice bath for over 2 hours. He is a proponent of a specific deep breathing technique to get his body ready for these feats. The natural question is: can this technique benefit athletic performance?

Decision: Experiment with using it as a substitute for active recovery. Experiment with using it before workouts to benefit performance by increasing blood alkalinity and reducing CO2. 

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Wim Hof Deep Breathing

Wim Hof Cold Therapy

Hof claims that regular intentional exposure to cold makes you stronger and healthier overall. Can this be used as a training technique to help athletic performance?

Decision: Could try to use on active recovery days, but not generally helpful for athletic performance.

More Details: See Appendix: Supplement Case Studies: Wim Hof Cold Therapy

Conclusion

This post has been the first in a 3-part series on sports nutrition and supplementation. It focuses on my research, analysis, and decisions regarding sports supplementation and ergogenic aids.

I realized that despite my intense obsession with being the best athlete I can be and controlling all of the relevant inputs related to that goal, sports nutrition and supplementation was an input that I hadn’t thought much about and maybe even had some ignorant beliefs about.

After reflecting on which factors are important to me regarding supplements, I created a decision-making framework to encapsulate my logic on deciding whether to consider taking a given supplement. I then used that decision-making framework to analyze a variety of sports supplements and make decisions on whether or not I should take them.

Part 2 (next post) of this series will analyze all of the aspects of physiology relevant to sports nutrition, which is the focus of part 3. All of this culminates in the creation of a personal “guide” detailing my optimal sports nutrition and supplementation strategy.

Appendix

Supplement Case Studies

Anabolic Steroids/Testosterone

Anabolic steroids help you recover faster from workouts by doing two main things:

  • Increase testosterone levels artificially
  • Decrease production of and cell receptor’s ability to receive glucosteroids

Testosterone

Testosterone helps you recover from workouts because it facilitates the production and transportation of recovery and healing substances your body generates to repair muscles. It also increases your cell receptor’s ability to take in these substances.

The extra testosterone speeds up tissue regrowth, which speeds up recovery. This regrowth is called “anabolism”, meaning smaller tissues combining into larger ones.

Glucosteroids

On the flip side, glucosteroids get produced during stressful intense exercise because they help your body combat the stressful situation. During exercise, they are beneficial.

Glucosteriods send glucose to the brain to help you think quickly. They also increase glucose breakdown into energy which can be supplied to muscles. The classic “fight or flight” hormone is cortisol, which is a type of glucosteroid.

However, glucosteroids tend to linger after a workout. They contribute to catabolism, which is the opposite of anabolism: the breakdown of larger tissues into smaller ones. In other words, muscle damage.

The glucosteroids inhibit inflammation, which is your body’s way of recovering after the workout. They do this because the same process that helps recover muscles inhibits you during the workout itself. Glucosteroids help to prevent that from happening during exercise.

As a side note, chronically elevated levels of glucosteroids like cortisol are very detrimental to athletic performance and workout recovery. Sleep helps reduce cortisol levels, which is why sleep is so essential for adequate workout recovery.

Additionally, chronic stress from a job or other factors inhibits workout recovery for the same reasons: elevated glucosteroid levels contribute to catabolism.

Also, if you work out too much without enough recovery, your body never has a chance to reduce cortisol levels. This can leave you feeling very stressed, and prevent your body from actually rebuilding your muscles.

Glucosteroids also inhibit your immune system response, which is why lack of sleep or chronic stress can make you more vulnerable to illness and disease.

Anabolic steroids help rid the body of glucosteroids, and prevent glucosteroids from binding to cell receptors.

Combined Effect

Essentially, anabolic steroids amplify the positive effects (anabolism) and reduce the negative effects (catabolism) of muscle recovery. Here is an excellent link that describes more about the effect of testosterone and anabolic steroids on the body.

However, taking anabolic steroids artificially enhances testosterone. Over time, the body adapts to produce less of it naturally, which creates a less resilient system, as well as an external dependence on steroids.

The other major problem is that testosterone is a hormone with many other important roles in the body. The body keeps testosterone levels within an optimal range to support healthy bodily function. By increasing these levels well above where the body tries to keep them introduces a whole host of potential health problems, both in the short-term and long-term.

Conclusion

Because of the negative health effects and the fact that it is illegal and against the rules, I have decided to not take anabolic steroids! And if I did decide to take them, I probably wouldn’t put that fact in a blog post 🙂

Creatine

The body has multiple different pathways for producing energy needed to power muscle contractions. Which pathway is used is dependent upon the amount of force needed, as well as the duration. See part 2 of this series for a more in-depth discussion of these energy pathways.

Behind raw ATP itself, the creatine phosphate energy pathway is the most explosive but least efficient pathway. Essentially, the body uses spent ADP molecules and combines them with the phosphate group donated from a phosphocreatine molecule to produce ATP, the body’s energy currency.

This process can produce a large amount of force very quickly, but can only last a few seconds (< 10 seconds) before the muscle’s phosphocreatine stores are depleted.

The (proven) logic behind creatine supplementation is to increase the muscle’s baseline stores of phosphocreatine. The goal is to increase the energy supply available to power muscle contraction via the creatine energy pathway. This theoretically allows you to work out more intensely and fully exercise the creatine phosphate energy path, leading to greater muscular gains from training.

Creatine supplementation is very different from a lot of other supplements in that it has a somewhat large track record of peer-reviewed research and studies showing it improves athletic performance in explosive events.

One unique feature of creatine supplementation is that it almost instantly increases muscle mass, between anywhere from 3-7 lbs. This happens because the way your muscles store the increased creatine is by pairing it with water. So while the creatine itself isn’t very heavy, you essentially gain 3-7 lbs. of water weight after a 1-week loading phase of creatine supplementation.

Contrary to many false claims, this weight gain is unavoidable. Either muscular creatine stores increase and you get the weight gain, or they don’t, in which case you’re not getting the benefit of creatine supplementation.

This water weight gain can cause your muscles to look visibly bigger. This is why it is popular among bodybuilders, in addition to supposedly allowing them to train harder.

My Creatine Story

Creatine supplementation intrigued me. As a former collegiate track and field sprinter, I never took creatine or any other supplements, but the studies showing a benefit in explosive sports intrigued me.

Unfortunately, of the main sports I participate in now, most of them wouldn’t really benefit from creatine supplementation. Surfing, backpacking, skiing, and mountain biking do not use the creatine phosphate energy pathway primarily, and are also sensitive to body weight.

There is one sport I participate in now that may benefit from creatine supplementation: rock climbing. I read an article that convinced me to try it. First though, I ran it through the decision-making framework to ensure it fit within my health and ethical boundaries.

The large volume of positive research was encouraging. Additionally, studies show vegans and vegetarians have lower creatine baseline levels than meat-eating humans. Since I eat a plant-based diet, this meant I would potentially have more to gain from creatine supplementation.

There are no documented negative health effects of supplementation, and it is perfectly legal to use in every sport I know of. The body naturally produces creatine, so supplementation enhances existing functionality and supports the natural efforts of the body.

The one potential hang-up I had was question 9. Why does the body not adapt to have higher baseline creatine levels if that is beneficial for athletic performance?

After analyzing it, my best theory is that when humans began to introduce meat into our diets, the body evolved to produce less creatine naturally, since it was getting some creatine from the animals we ate. From an evolutionary perspective, we created a dependency on meat to get higher levels of creatine!

Creatine supplementation passed the decision-making framework. I decided to try it to improve my climbing performance.

For objective measures of performance, I used pull-ups, as well as the difficulty of the routes I was climbing. I recorded these before, during, and after creatine supplementation.

After about 3 months of continued supplementation, I noticed no performance improvement, neither in the difficulty of the routes I was climbing nor the pull-up benchmark.

I have a theory as to why. Even though creatine supplementation may have increased my muscle strength, my finger strength did not increase from the supplementation, while my body weight increased.

As a relatively beginner-level climber, finger strength is my main performance bottleneck. I just can’t hang on tiny crimp holds. Creatine supplementation cannot help my fingers get stronger (since fingers are mainly tendons) so it actually made what was already my performance bottleneck worse.

Conclusion

I’m still intrigued by using creatine supplementation to improve performance in explosive sports, but I’ll wait to supplement with it again until I’m doing a sport that better warrants its usage.

Caffeine

Caffeine is an interesting case study. The logic behind caffeine benefitting performance is that it is a central nervous stimulant. This can increase energy levels, and even reduce your perception of pain.

I’m perfectly aware that as someone who does not consume caffeine, I’m in the minority. There’s a fair chance you’re drinking caffeine as you read this right now! This section is not intended to condone you or anyone else’s caffeine usage. It merely attempts to evaluate caffeine’s merits as an ergogenic aid.

There are some studies which show it actually benefits athletic performance, particularly in endurance-oriented sports. However, I don’t believe that these studies accurately isolated the confounding factors involved with testing caffeine in an athletic context.

First of all, most people in the world already have some dependence on caffeine. If you compare the athletic performance of these people with and without caffeine, you’re likely to notice an improvement with caffeine. This doesn’t mean caffeine actually improves performance though, just that not having caffeine inhibits the performance of someone who already has a dependence on it.

On the other hand, if you study people who don’t have a dependency on caffeine, they are likely to get a performance benefit from caffeine, as it stimulates their central nervous system. However, if they started regularly taking caffeine as part of their normal routine, this performance improvement would disappear. The body would adapt to depend on caffeine for arousal levels.

Someone who takes caffeine regularly is not going to be more awake than someone who does not take caffeine but has no dependency on it (provided they are both getting adequate sleep). 

Similarly, someone who takes caffeine regularly and takes it before a workout will not improve their athletic performance compared to someone who does not take it before the workout but has no dependency on it.

This is why I’m skeptical of the studies that show a performance improvement.

Conclusion

I don’t believe there is an athletic benefit to caffeine usage. Even if there was a performance improvement, caffeine fails at a later step of the decision-making framework, question 6. It modifies the natural state of the body, interrupting something the body normally regulates itself, arousal level. In this way, it works against the natural efforts of the body.

Beta-Alanine

Beta alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning the body produces it naturally. However, it turns out that it is the proven limiting factor in the production of carnosine. Carnosine is stored in your muscles, and plays an important role in athletic performance.

The logic behind beta alanine supplementation is that by increasing beta alanine levels, you increase carnosine production, and by increasing carnosine levels, you improve athletic performance.

How does carnosine help athletic performance, specifically? The theory is that a major limiting factor of anaerobic energy production is the accumulation of H+ ions in muscle cells which increases their acidity levels (see part 2 of this post series for more details on this).

Carnosine can help buffer against this increase in H+ ions by absorbing some of these ions. This theoretically helps the muscle stay more alkaline and less acidic for longer, increasing exercise duration.

Beta alanine is normally synthesized in the liver and combined with histidine to produce carnosine. If carnosine is what’s important, why not supplement directly with carnosine? Carnosine is broken down during metabolism before it can reach the skeletal muscle, so supplementing with it is ineffective.

Why supplement with beta alanine and not histidine also? It turns out the body has a ton of histidine relative to beta alanine. This makes beta alanine the limiting factor of carnosine production.

Just as with creatine, vegans have lower levels of beta alanine, because in addition to being synthesized in the liver endogenously, beta alanine can be acquired through diet by eating animal-based foods.

All of this makes sense, but how does beta alanine hold up against the decision making framework?

Well, studies do show performance improvements and no long-term negative health effects. Research is young in this field compared to creatine, but there is still an impressive amount of studies that have been conducted.

Beta alanine supplementation is not illegal or against rules, and simply supplements existing body functionality (the production of carnosine). Just like with creatine, the introduction of meat into the diet from an evolutionary perspective likely reduced our body’s ability to adapt and produce it endogenously.

Conclusion

I have not yet tried beta alanine supplementation, but since it passes the decision making framework, I am open to trying it. Just like with any supplement, I’d need to objectively evaluate it to see if it actually improves my athletic performance. It would only logically help in sports or activity bouts of a shorter duration (< 1 min.) that largely use anaerobic glycolysis for energy production (see part 2 for more details about this).

Taurine

Taurine is an amino acid/sulfur compound found in high abundance in skeletal muscle. It is non-essential, meaning the body produces it, but can also be found in animal-based foods. Taurine’s specific role in the muscle is not fully understood, but it is accepted to be very important.

It likely plays a role in all of the following: Reduce lactic acid accumulation, help combat oxidative stress, help body use triglycerides (fat) and glucose (carbs) for energy during exercise, increase force production in muscles, reduce fatigue, maintain a balance of electrolytes and water, assist digestion, assist immune system functionality, and combat free radicals.

Taurine is very important. The question is whether supplementation can effectively increase taurine levels, and whether that improves athletic performance.

That verdict is murky. There is not a large volume of research backing taurine supplementation, and some studies show no performance improvement.

Conclusion

The lack of conclusive studies, in addition to the fact that it is non-essential, leads me to decide to not take it as a supplement for now. I hope to keep tabs on it for the future though, and follow any future studies and research done on it.

Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda)

As described in the beta-alanine section, hydrogen ions (H+ ions) and carbon dioxide accumulate in muscle cells during high-intensity exercise utilizing the anaerobic glycolysis energy pathway. Bicarbonate is used by the body to buffer against this increased acidity.

CO2 is discarded through the lungs, and bicarbonate in the blood enhances extracellular buffering of hydrogen ions which accumulate and exit the working muscles. Essentially, the logic behind sodium bicarbonate supplementation is to increase pH levels of your blood pre-exercise to help delay the onset of inevitable acidity during intense exercise.

Supplementation is something that would theoretically be done pre-exercise. The problem is baking soda can cause gastrointestinal distress when taken too soon before exercise or if too much is taken. So a balance needs to be struck, otherwise an upset stomach can easily offset the potential performance benefits of the baking soda supplementation.

As always, I need to analyze baking soda through the decision making framework lens to determine whether I want to supplement with it.

There are studies which show clear athletic performance benefits from supplementation, and no studied negative health effects. It is not illegal, largely chemically produced from minerals, and has no other major side effects.

It does not trick the body or modify the nature of the body. The body produces it naturally. One key question I had when analyzing this was: why does the body not maintain a higher blood pH level if that is optimal for athletic performance?

The reason is that it is not healthy to elevate the blood pH and make it too alkaline long-term. The logic behind doing this pre-exercise is to elevate the blood pH preemptively before engaging in intense exercise you know will drop pH levels, to give your body a performance boost.

This supplementation should not reduce the body’s ability to endogenously produce it, because pH regulation is a natural metabolic function of the body.

Conclusion

This is a cheap and easy-to-try-out supplementation strategy that passes the decision-making framework. It just may require some fine-tuning on timing and amount. I haven’t tried it yet, but hope to potentially use this supplementation strategy for future anaerobic exercise bouts.

Branch-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

There are 21 total amino acids, 9 of which are essential (need to acquire from diet). Of those 9, 3 are BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine).

BCAAs are particularly important for muscle rebuilding and recovery, leucine in particular. BCAAs can decrease exercise-induced protein degradation and/or muscle enzyme release by promoting an anti-catabolic hormone profile.

However, I acquire plenty of BCAAs through my normal diet. According to WHO I need at least 3 g. BCA/day, and athletes could send 10-20 g./day to get benefits. I definitely get this range from my normal plant-based diet, as every plant has all of the essential amino acids in some proportion.

Conclusion

I do not need BCAA supplementation. It won’t give me any additional benefit beyond my normal diet.

Wim Hof Deep Breathing

The logic of breathing is that it has a certain duality to it: it’s normally controlled autonomically, but can be overridden and controlled consciously by us as well. This allows a pathway for us to influence certain bodily functions that normally would be controlled autonomically.

The Wim Hof breathing exercise involves intentionally hyperventilating by taking 30-40 quick but full breaths in and out, followed by a full exhale. You then simply sit without breathing, until you feel the need to exhale. You then inhale fully, hold your breath for 10 seconds, and fully exhale again. Hof recommends you do 3 or 4 sets of this, one after the other.

Amazingly, you may be able to go quite a bit of time without breathing after the hyperventilation. Why is this the case? What happens physiologically when you do this exercise?

It turns out that hyperventilation does not actually increase oxygen levels in your blood. This is already fully saturated. What it does do is reduce carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Carbon dioxide signals brain stems to trigger the need to breathe. Thus, reducing carbon dioxide levels reduces your need to breathe. The trigger to breathe simply isn’t there.

Another effect of this exercise is it increases the alkalinity of your blood (similar to sodium bicarbonate), by reducing carbon dioxide levels. Red blood cells carrying oxygen stop delivering their payload to muscles because blood acidity is what triggers the release. This induces a state known as hypoxia, which is the lack of oxygen reaching your tissues.

Eventually, the acidity raises again, triggering you to breathe out, and oxygen then gets released to your tissues. What does all this have to do with sports? How could this conceivably improve athletic performance?

Athletic Implications

The Wim Hof website argues that because the hypoxia induces a form of short-term aerobic stress, regularly doing it over the long-run helps the body strengthen any metabolic pathway that helps deliver oxygen to tissues and muscles, like red blood cell count, lung capacity, circulation, metabolic efficiency, etc.

While this logic makes sense, especially for someone not already stressing these pathways, I don’t think this would be desirable if your normal workout routine was already taxing this system. It would just be providing an additional non-sport-specific stimulus.

Another argument advocating for the breathing technique is that focused breathing helps modulate your body’s stress response by giving your body an actual survival stress stimulus. This helps modulate your response when faced with other life stress situations that aren’t really survival-based, like paying taxes or spilled milk.

The breathing technique definitely stimulates blood flow through circulation, and engages the lymphatic system responsible for clearing waste (illness and muscle damage) out of the body. This could be beneficial as a form of active recovery or on an off day from a workout routine.

Another effect of the breathing exercise is it releases high amounts of adrenaline to the blood. While this adrenaline could help get an athlete aroused before an important competition, I tend to have the opposite problem.

I get nervous before athletic competitions and need to relax, so the Wim Hof breathing technique would not help me in that sense. Additionally, studies show that Hof’s cortisol (fight or flight) levels spike when doing the breathing exercise.

However, there are a few other ways the technique could help if done before a workout or competition. The spike in blood pH could help buffer acidosis from anaerobic exercise, similar to the effects of beta alanine or sodium bicarbonate.

Additionally, the Wim Hof breathing definitely helps hold your breath longer, and could conceivably help in an athletic activity where lack of oxygen is a concern, like maxing push-ups.

Conclusion

The Wim Hof breathing technique has some potential beneficial long-term health effects, and could be used as a form of active recovery. So I will consider using it for that. Additionally, I’d like to start experimenting with it immediately prior to engaging in an intense anaerobic-based activity to see if it can improve performance.

Wim Hof Cold Therapy

One of the major arguments for cold exposure is that it reduces inflammation in the body. This can help with autoimmune diseases or rheumatoid arthritis that are caused by chronic inflammation. However, for most cases, I believe inflammation reduction is a detriment to athletic recovery and performance.

Cold exposure can create a small “positive stressor”, similar to the hyperventilatory breathing technique. This can help your body modulate its stress response. It can be used as an exercise stimulus, but I believe this is only beneficial if you aren’t already taxing your aerobic system from your training program.

Conclusion

Ultimately I don’t see the logic behind using cold therapy as an integral part of an athletic training program. However, I don’t think it’s significantly detrimental. It also has some other potential health benefits.

Sources

1: Human Errors book about imperfections of human body from evolution: https://thehumanevolutionblog.com/book-human-errors/

2: Evolution of Vitamin B12: https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/the-evolutionary-quirk-that-made-vitamin-b12-part-of-our-diet

3: Genetic Mutations, role in evolution: https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/mutationsanddisorders/evolution/

4: Blog about human errors and evolution: https://thehumanevolutionblog.com/2018/11/12/imperfection-why-human-errors/

5: Role of Testosterone in body: https://www.health.harvard.edu/drugs-and-medications/testosterone–what-it-does-and-doesnt-do

6: Climbing blog on Creatine: https://www.climbing.com/gear/climbing-nutrition-creatine-supplement-guide/

7: Inside Tracker blog on Creatine: https://blog.insidetracker.com/creatine-supplements-myths-misconceptions-dispelled

8: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position on Creatine 2017: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z

9: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position on Creatine 2007: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/

10: Basic overview of creatine supplementation: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-creatine

11: Opinion on creatine supplementation: https://muscleinsider.com/features/evolution-creatine

12: Wikipedia on creatine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creatine

13: Creatine Supplementation for Vegans: https://nutrifix.co/fitness-blog/should-vegans-supplement-creatine/

14: Daily creatine requirement: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00726-016-2188-1

15: Science/Chemistry of Phosphocreatine: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Phosphocreatine

16: International Society of Sports Nutrition Stand on Beta-alanine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4501114/

17: Overview of carnosine, vegan beta-alanine supplements:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-nutrients-you-cant-get-from-plants#3.-Carnosine

18: Healthline overview of beta-alanine supplementation:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/beta-alanine-101

19: Carnosyn product for beta-alanine supplementation:

20: Beta-Alanine Supplementation Research Paper Study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17690198/

21: Food sources of carnosine: https://www.superfoodly.com/carnosine-benefits-and-natural-food-sources/

22: Review of current research on beta alanine supplementation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257613/

23: Study on carnosine levels in quad during exercise: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00376439

24: Cycling study of beta alanine supplementation :https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19841932/

25: Foods you can’t get as vegan: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-nutrients-you-cant-get-from-plants#7.-Taurine

26: Food sources of taurine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2352336/

27: Running study of perf benefits of taurine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22855206/

28: Rat study on taurine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19423840/

29: Mice study, showing specific exercise physiological effects of taurine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14974726/

30: Mice taurine decreases lactate accumulation: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19455480/

31: Human exercise effects of taurine supplementation: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15042451/

32: Another taurine rat study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12107759/

33: Cycling study on taurine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20739720/

34: Taurine weightlifting study: https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/abs/10.1139/apnm-2012-0229

35: Taurine Healthline overview: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-taurine

36: Taurine No performance effect: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5611412/

37: Sodium bicarbonate overview: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y

38: Sodium bicarbonate ergogenic effects: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/fulltext/2008/07000/ergogenic_effects_of_sodium_bicarbonate.13.aspx

39: pH in the body: https://www.news-medical.net/health/pH-in-the-Human-Body.aspx

40: BCAA ISNN review: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y

41: BCAA Healthline review: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/bcaa

42: Plant-based protein complete source of amino acids: https://tenderly.medium.com/busting-the-myth-of-incomplete-plant-based-proteins-960428e7e91e

43: Phosphatidic acid: https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/your-expert-guide-to-phosphatidic-acid.html

44: Wim Hof breathing exercise: https://www.wimhofmethod.com/breathing-exercises

45: Deep breathing overview: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/proper-breathing-brings-better-health/

46: International Society of Sports Nutrition Comprehensive Ergogenic Aid Overview: 

https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y

47: Overview of Ergogenic Aids and Summarizing Current Research: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/0301/p913.html

48: Roles of creatine, carnosine, taurine, others on health (beef cattle association): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7088015/

Published by Analytical Aspergian

I am an Aspergian who loves logically analyzing the world around me. On this blog, I analyze anything that interests me, from economic design to electromagnetism to sports nutrition and recovery.

3 thoughts on “Sports Nutrition and Supplementation Series: Supplementation (Part 1 of 3)

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