The Truly Safe Supps
While navigating the supplement aisle can be daunting, it’s usually best to just hone in on simple, singular ingredients that have been shown to be safe and, more importantly, effective. In 2018, the International Olympic Committee released a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise that identified the five supplements that have been found to directly improve sports performance and are generally safe: caffeine, creatine, nitrate, beta-alanine, and sodium bicarbonate.
Larson-Meyer was one of the researchers involved in the statement, and she says that this these five supplements rose to the top after finding enough evidence that they were safe and effective: “We really couldn’t ignore that, because the key thing is to use a supplement that has been proven.” But, she cautions, the studies show that they are clearly not good for all types of athletes or exercises.
For example, endurance athletes shouldn’t take creatine because it can cause body weight gain, which could actually reduce performance. “There’s definitely side effects of all of them and you have to know those and understand how it might be different for individual athlete’s body,” she says. “It’s almost like a drug—if you’re taking it in ways that haven’t suggested, then they may not work or could cause more side effects.”
- Caffeine obviously needs no introduction, but researchers found that taking 100–300 mg (about two cups of coffee) of the common stimulant can improve endurance and power output, and the potential side effects—nausea, anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness—were negligible.
- Creatine, which has been studied thoroughly for its muscle-strengthening attributes, was found to increase lean mass, high intensity exercise performance, and muscular power, with some possible anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects. No negative health effects were noted besides some potential body mass increase from water retention after creatine loading.
- Nitrate, found in leafy greens like spinach, beets, and celery, can enhances nitric oxide bioavailability in the blood, which helps get more oxygen to muscles and mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell!). It has been found to enhance performance in high-intensity, intermittent exercises lasting from 12 to 40 minutes long. Few to no side effects besides possible upset gastrointestinal (GI) tract were noted.
- Beta-alanine is an amino acid that can increase the amount of carnosine in muscles, which they found may help stave off muscular fatigue during exercises lasting from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. The only negative side effects found were possible skin rashes or tingling in the extremities.
- Sodium bicarbonate—yes, common baking soda—can enhance the bodies’ ability to reduce lactic acid buildup during workouts. It has been shown to most effectively help performance during high-intensity exercise like sprints that only last around a minute. GI tract distress is the only potential side effect.
Other common performance/recovery supplements that are generally safe—provided you get them from a reputable and third-party tested brands—include protein powder (whey, casein, pea, hemp, brown rice), amino acids (arginine, BCAAs, betaine, carnitine, citrulline, glutamine, etc.), conjugated linoleic acid, carnitine, arginine, antioxidants (vitamins C, E and coenzyme Q10), beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB), ginseng, quercetin, ribose, and tart or sour cherry.