These lesser-known supplements have actual compelling research to back up their benefits
We’ve all heard it time and again: Nothing beats hard work if you want to elevate your performance. The amount of work we put in should also be properly supported with other factors such as enough sleep, a proper diet, and a smart training program. That should cover just about everything right?
Well, if you’re already doing all these things, there might just be certain ways to squeeze every last bit of gains from an already well-formulated strategy for success: one of which is supplements.
First, let me make it clear, supplements should never be thought of as a replacement for any of the keys to success I mentioned above. Rather, think of these as a possible ancillary aspect that can help us perform at our best. That said, here are a few lesser-known supplements that have compelling research to back up their benefits.
This is an amino acid that has a more popular sibling with a similar function: L-Arginine. This has been popular for several decades now in bodybuilding circles for good reason. Both L-Citrulline and L-Arginine are Nitric Oxide (NO) precursors that allow for the desirable post-workout “pump” most of us look for. What does it do? In a nutshell, these are vasodilators that relax our blood vessels and capillaries. This means more blood is able to flow into our muscles (hence the “pump” phenomenon). As a result, more oxygen and nutrients can potentially be delivered to our hard-working muscles.
So why L-Citrulline? While the two aforementioned amino acids function similarly, L-Arginine tends to break down rather quickly compared to L-Citrulline. This means the latter is better utilized by the body. There is a rather notable 2016 study showing that L-Citrulline exhibited improved cycling time trial performance. More notably, higher power output for the same oxygen utilization (VO2) was observed. Muscle soreness was also notably less, possibly as a result of better nutrient delivery to utilized cells. There are also similar studies with very similar results that make L-Citrulline a compelling option to consider.
Like L-Citrulline, L-Carnitine is another noteworthy amino acid on our list. For a lot of people, this term will be forever associated with a certain juice drink commercial in the early 2010s. However, there’s more to L-Carnitine than just a weight loss supplement. There’s an important benefit that’s not yet as mainstream: fat oxidation.
Let me emphasize, improving fat oxidation does not necessarily equate to weight loss. Rather, it just facilitates the use of one fuel over the other (i.e. fat vs. carbs). In simple terms, a study by N. Longo et. al notes that L-Carnitine allows for better long-chain fatty acid uptake by our cells’ mitochondria. These are our cells’ power plants where energy conversion happens. When more fatty acid is utilized, muscle glycogen can be preserved. This means we, as endurance athletes, can have a lower chance of bonking (with proper nutrition of course).
Like L-Arginine, beta-alanine has been quite popular in the bodybuilding circle for quite a while now. Why? It claims to allow users to do more high quality work by aiding in the production of carnosine, a substance that helps manage acidity in muscles. Our body’s intramuscular acidity increases when subjected to high-intensity workload and this is what causes the onset of muscle failure and fatigue. Naturally, being able to mitigate these effects makes this an attractive supplement to use.
To back up this theory, a study by R. M. Hobson et al. noted a significant ergogenic effect on high-intensity exercise. Subjects were able to improve in exercises that lasted 1 to 4 minutes.The effect on exercising for a longer duration (more than 4 minutes) also seemed promising.
Sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda, is quite similar to beta-alanine as it helps neutralize acidity in our muscles. It should be noted though that the two have rather different mechanisms involved. Yet, there have been additive effects observed between the two. This means the two supplements, when taken together, help enhance each other’s effects.
A study by Dr. Florian Egger et al. noted an improved time to exhaustion in cycling, thus supporting the hypothesis that it helps buffer acidity in the muscles. However, unlike beta-alanine, gastrointestinal discomfort might be a hindrance towards performing at your best since sodium bicarbonate, when mixed with stomach acid, produces gas. This can be avoided by consuming it gradually several hours before exercise though.
In closing, let me emphasize that supplements should always be taken with a grain of salt. As with everything, people tend to respond differently to the same supplements. This then makes it a bit hard to conclude with respect to the efficacy of the supplements to buy. However, I firmly believe that there are huge upsides (and minimal risks) toward giving a chance to supplementation. At the end of the day, we just have to decide if we want to see what works for us.
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