An ergogenic aid is any external influence created to enhance sports performance. This can include legal sports supplements (such as beetroot juice and caffeine), as well as illegal drugs and banned substances (such as steroids, EPO, ephedrine, and DHEA). Of course while illegal ergogenic aids are best avoided for many reasons (ha!), we can have lots of fun with legal and natural ways to get faster race day results.
Let’s look at some natural strategies and substances we can reach for to increase race day performance below. Note, I’ve listed them in order of what I believe to be greatest importance down to least importance.
Metabolic flexibility is a benefit of focusing on becoming more metabolically efficient. By eating a higher percentage of your daily calories as fat on lower volume/intensity days (higher carb on higher volume/intensity days) as well as doing fasted training, you train your body to burn more fatty acids for fuel.
This benefits you on race day by conserving glycogen stores, which are limited (where as fatty acids stores are virtually unlimited). The ability to utilize fatty acid stores for fuel has been shown to enhance performance by up to 4.5%.
ACTION: draft menu examples for yourself that prioritize fasted aerobic workouts and supportive macronutrient breakdowns to match your training day.
To be implemented as far in advance as possible before race day, but at least 3-4 weeks prior to make any notable difference. Alternatively, you might practice ‘fat-loading‘ 10 days prior to race day (with a 3 day carb-load just prior to race day).
It is undisputed that intense (hard or long) training increases muscle protein turnover and therefore increases an athletes daily protein requirements. Studies show that consuming a protein supplement before and/or after training sessions lead to greater muscle mass and strength gains, leading to increased performance.
In studies where athletes were already consuming adequate amounts of protein in their diet, taking additional protein in the form of supplements before and after their workouts made no difference to muscle synthesis or strength. Therefore, if an athlete is able to meet their daily protein requirements with food alone, there is no need for a protein supplement. However some athletes may find it much easier to meet their protein requirements with a supplement (such as those who weigh 100 kg or more, those who are an a calorie restricted diet, those who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet or those who require convenient options).
The most popular protein supplement is whey, because it is digested and absorbed relatively rapidly, making it useful for promoting post-exercise recovery. It has a higher concentration of essential amino acids than milk and about half that protein consists of BCAAs, which have been shown to minimize muscle protein breakdown during and immediately after high intensity exercise. Research also shows that whey protein stimulates glutathione production in the body (glutathione is a powerful antioxidant and also helps support the immune system, useful for athletes who train intensely).
ACTION: consistently consume 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight daily.
To be implemented as far in advance as possible, at least the entire training cycle.
Race Day Carbohydrates
What you choose to eat for breakfast as well as during your race will have a substantial impact on your race day performance. Eating 2.5 grams per kg of bodyweight 2 to 4 hours before your race, as well as topping up with 30-60 grams (and up to 90g) of carbohydrate per hour during your race will delay fatigue and improve endurance. If you don’t consume enough carbohydrate before/during your race, you risk running low on fuel and ‘bonking’.
ACTION: well in advance of race day, practice race day breakfast and race day fuelling.
To be ingested 2-4 hours prior to your race and every 30-45 minutes during your race.
Carb-loading is considered appropriate if your race will last longer than 90-120 minutes. By eating 7-8 grams of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight for 3 days prior to your race (or 10 grams carbohydrate for one day only, the day before race day), you’ll ensure your glycogen stores are completely full as you begin racing, which can enhance your performance by 3% or more.
ACTION: outline a carb-load plan for yourself, paying particular attention to your dinner the night before race day and practice this pre-race dinner at least once if not multiple times (the day before key long workouts).
To be implemented 1-3 days prior.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids may be a good way to help reduce inflammation in the body including post-exercise muscle soreness, improve muscle functioning, support blood vessel elasticity and boost delivery of oxygen to muscles. Many studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids to be highly advantageous to the athlete, including one study that showed increased muscle activity and less fatigue experienced during exercise, increasing overall performance by at least 1% (for some substantially more). For performance gains, take 375 mg EPA, 230 mg DPA and 510 mg DHA daily for 21 days.
ACTION: take 1 tsp liquid omega-3’s (fish oil, cod liver oil or algae oil) supplement daily.
To be implemented as far in advance as possible but at least 21 days prior to race day.
Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is a rich source of flavonoids and anthocyanins (antioxidants) and has been shown to alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs) and reduce inflammation that occurs after an intense workout. Numerous studies show us tart cherries are valuable in hastening the recovery process, even supporting faster healing from injury. And, they’ve also been shown to enhance performance.
In one study, data came back indicating that the group who supplemented daily with 480mg CherryPUREFreeze Dried Tart Cherry Powder from Montmorency cherries for 10 days prior to their half marathon averaged 13% faster race times than those who took the placebo.
ACTION: drink ½ cup pure tart cherry juice or 2 Tbsp tart cherry juice concentrate daily.
To be implemented as far in advance as possible, but at least 10 days prior to race day.
Caffeine is a stimulant that acts on the central and peripheral nervous system. It is also said to be one of the strongest (legal!) ergogenic aid that athletes have at their disposal, enhancing performance for most types of endurance and strength activities. It works by blocking a sleep-inducing brain chemical called adenosine, thus increasing alertness and concentration, reducing the perception of effort and allowing exercise to be maintained at a higher intensity for a longer period.
Caffeine has been shown to increase performance and endurance on average a minimum of 3% (anywhere from 2% to 7%). Doses of 1-3 mg/kg is required for performance enhancement (which is much less than once was thought to be required). Caffeine should be consumed just before exercise, spread throughout exercise, or taken late in exercises as fatigue is beginning to occur.
As long as an athlete stays within the recommended dosage of 1-3 mg/kg caffeine is unlikely to cause diuretic effects, particularly if caffeine is consumed regularly and therefore a tolerance is built. A daily intake of less than 4 mg/kg caffeine actually provides similar hydrating qualities to water for most individuals. However, doses of caffeine over 600mg will likely result in a larger fluid loss.
Higher doses of caffeine can cause negative side effects whereas low-moderate doses produce positive effects and a sense of well-being. Doses of 6-9 mg/kg BW can increase the heart rate, impair fine motor control and technique, and cause anxiety or over-arousal, trembling and sleeplessness. It should be noted that some people are more sensitive to caffeine than other.
ACTION: utilize caffeine pre-race by using any of coffee / espresso, caffeinated gels, matcha / green tea, caffeinated gum or caffeine pills at a rate of 1-3 mg per kg BW (typically will be equivalent of about a double or triple espresso, or ~100 mg caffeine).
To be implemented 60-90 minutes prior to your race OR in the latter half of LONG races (those that last longer than 12 hours).
Beetroot juice is a rich source of nitrate that is converted into nitric oxide in the body. This dilates blood vessels, aiding the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles during exercise and helps to improve exercise efficiency (meaning it reduces the energy required to exercise at a given intensity). It ultimately enhances stamina and performance.
Research shows that beetroot consumption prior to running can boost performance by up to 3%. Interestingly it appears in studies that beetroot juice might be a more effective ergogenic aid for non-elite athletes than elite athletes. It appears most helpful in improving performance in endurance activities lasting between 4 and 30 minutes, as well as in high intensity activities involving single or multiple sprints.
ACTION: pre-race beet consumption needs to be practiced, experiment at least once if not multiple times before race day with either beetroot juice or a beet supplement such as Beet It or BeetBoost.
To be implemented 2-2.5 hours prior to your race (or 30 minutes prior if it’s a beet shot such as Beet It or BeetBoost). Alternatively (or additionally), you may choose to include beets in your pre-race dinner.
The above strategies are those I most often implement with my athletes. Below you’ll find other sports supplements that can act as ergogenic aids – but for various reasons I typically do not find myself recommending them.
Creatine is a protein made naturally in the body from three amino acids (arginine, glycine and methionine), but can also be found in meat and fish or taken in higher doses as a supplement. Creatine supplementation raises phosphocreatine levels typically around 2% which enables an athlete to sustain all-out effort for longer than usual and recover faster between sets It also help promote protein manufacture and muscle hypertrophy and reduces muscle protein breakdown. Athletes who might benefit from creatine supplementation would be those who train with weights or do any sports that includes repeated high intensity movements, such as sprints, jumps or throws (such as rugby or football players).
The most common protocol is to creatine-load with 4 x 5-7 g doses per day (20-25 g daily) over a period of 5 days. However, studies show this isn’t the most efficient method, as two thirds of that ends up excreted in urine. Other studies show taking 6-7.7 g creatine daily for 5 days followed by a maintenance dose of 2g daily produced the same performance results. Or, load with 3g over 30 days. Taking creatine with carbohydrate and directly after exercise appears to improve absorption. It has been proposed that creatine is best taken in cycles, such as 3-5 months followed by a 1-month break.
Weight gain is an expected and normal side effect with creatine use, due in part to the extra water in the muscle cells and partly to increased muscle mass. Anecdotally reported side effects include muscle cramping, GI discomfort, dehydration, muscle injury and kidney and muscle damage.
Branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) consist of the three essential amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine. They are supposed to help prevent the breakdown of muscle, and can be used directly as fuel by the muscles (particularly when muscle glycogen is depleted). If an athlete is restricting calories or carbohydrates or protein, then doses of 6-15 grams of BCAAs may help reduce muscle protein breakdown. However, many recovery drinks (and all protein powders with balanced amino acid profiles) contain adequate amounts of BCAAs so there is little point in taking a separate BCAA supplement.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that is used to make carnosine (a dipeptide formed from beta-alanine and histidine). Taking 5-6 grams of beta-alanine per day increases muscle carnosine levels which raises the buffering capacity of the muscles. This increases the ability of muscles to tolerate high intensity exercise for longer, thereby increasing power output and performance in anaerobic exercise and decreasing perceived exertion.
Athletes who participate in sports involving high intensity efforts lasting between 1 and 4 minutes may benefit from beta-alanine, such those who play intermittent sports such as football and tennis that involve repeated sprints or bodybuilders and those following a strength training program. Beta-alanine supplementation has been known to cause parathesia (skin tingling), although this appears to be harmless and is associated with higher doses. Long-term effects of supplementation are not known.
Glutamine is essential for cell growth and a critical source of energy for immune cells (called lymphocytes). Supplementation during intense training periods is thought to help offset the drop in glutamine that is known to accompany periods of heavy training or stress. This is though to boost immunity, reduce the risk of overtraining syndrome and prevent upper respiratory tract infections. It’s also claimed glutamine has a protein-sparing effect during intense training, based on the theory that glutamine helps draw water in the muscle cells, increasing the cell volume which inhibits enzymes from breaking down muscle proteins and also counteracts the effects of stress hormones which are inevitably increased after intense exercise.
It’s unlikely that athletes require supplementation with glutamine. It is unlikely to prevent immune-suppression or improve body composition or performance. However no negative side effects have been found with its use.
Hard training can put a significant strain on an athletes immune system, increasing the risk of catching infections, including upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). A review of randomized controlled trials concluded that probiotics are effective for preventing URTI’s in athletes, and may also reduce gastrointestinal distress often associated with longer bouts of training. Probiotics can be taken in supplement form, or found in whole food sources such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Bicarbonate is a ‘pH buffer’ that increases the bicarbonate concentration in the blood, making it more alkaline. It buffers hydrogen ions that are produced during exercise, allowing an athlete to continue exercising at a high intensity a little longer. However, typical side effects include gastrointestinal upset, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting, as well as water retention.
Achieving metabolic flexibility, consistently consuming enough protein daily, appropriate carb-loading before race as well as strategic utilization of carbohydrates on race day (both before and during), caffeine, beetroot, omega-3s and tart cherry are by far, in my opinion, the most important ergogenic aids to integrate in order to help us achieve the best results possible on race day. It takes time and planning for them to all come together, but is well worth the effort!
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running,
Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist