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Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Five Best Supplements for Crossfit

For fifteen years as a Triathlete and as a Sports Nutritionist I was always researching the latest supplements for Endurance Sports.  Having converted to Crossfit a year ago a similar interest was sparked.  Whilst there are commonalities between the two sports there are also some very distinct differences particularly in terms of what energy systems (lipid v anaerobic/anaerobic-alactate) and muscles fibres (Slow twitch v Fast twitch) are used.  It is interesting how many supplements have made their way from Endurance Sports into the Crossfit (and Body-Building) worlds almost by default.

By definition the word Supplement means in addition to. As they say you can't out-train a bad diet so there is an expectation that your general diet is sound. As Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit said in 2002 - Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

Once your diet is correct then these five supplements can help with improving the quality of your training and recovery.

Creatine (strictly Creatine Monohydrate) is one of the oldest sports supplements around.  Well tested and well proven across multiple studies and over a long period of time (which is important in terms of side effects).  Creatine can be found in small amounts in animal products such as red meat and is often an important supplement for vegetarian athletes as there are no non-animal sources. 

It is used by the body as part of the ATP-CP cycle.  In simple terms it is used for the re-synthesis of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which is the the body's short term (5-10 sec) max effort energy system.  For weight training ATP is the primary energy source which is where Creatine becomes useful.  Supplementing with creatine allows you to push more weight for longer periods.  More work means more stress on the muscle which results in more muscle growth (assuming other nutrition factors are correct of course) or muscle fibre recruitment.

After intense exercise such as set of heavy squats ATP typically takes around 60-90 seconds to 'reload' into a muscle.  For that reason that duration is often the optimal rest between sets

It was originally thought that you needed to load with creatine - typically 20g per day for a week before settling on a maintenance dose of 5g per day which is approximately one teaspoon of Creatine.  More recent research has shown that this loading period isn't required which is good as higher doses of Creatine can cause some people gastro intestinal (GI) distress.

Note that Creatine ONLY assists in high power, 4-10 second output.  It has no real value to longer duration outputs.  As a Triathlete I only used creatine during the off-season when hitting the gym more frequently so as to build power primarily for cycling.

Interestingly some recent studies have also shown creatine acts as a neurotransmitter increasing concentration.

Loading:   No but should be continual to maintain levels
Dosage:    5g per day.
Timing:     Daily

Branch Chain Amino Acids
Branch Chain Amino Acids, or BCAA's for short are a great supplement for Crossfit but not for the reasons commonly thought (or advertised).  BCAA's consist of three of the Essential Amino Acids - Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine.  They are called Essential Amino Acids because they are required by the body but cannot be produced by the body itself (and must therefore be consumed)  There are in fact nine Essential Amino Acids for adults - twelve for children.  The correct ratio of these three Essential Aminos Acids as part of Branch Chain Amino Acids is 2:1:1. Some supplements use different ratios often 6:1:1.  This is typically done for cost reasons - include more of a cheaper product to fill the container and then come up with pseudo-science to justify.

BCAA's are often sold as assisting with muscular development or muscular recovery/rebuilding.  This isn't strictly correct as all nine amino acids are required for this.  If muscle development is the goal then it is best to supplement with Essential Amino Acids or complete proteins.  By definition a complete protein is one that contains all of the essential amino acids in sufficient levels (the 'complete' set).  Virtually all animal derived proteins are complete - no single plant based protein is complete so sometimes supplementation of individual amino acids is required to make those proteins complete - but I digress...

BCAA's first came to prominence in my previous sporting life in endurance sports.  Numerous studies with cyclists found that supplementing with BCAA's delayed the onset of Central Nervous Fatigue (CNF) increasing power output duration by up to 10%.  In essence they help delay mental fatigue when exercising.

Ever noticed in an AMRAP workout that the last round is one of the fastest ?  Or the last kilometre in a marathon is one of the quickest ?  This is due to Central Nervous Fatigue (CNF) in the middle rounds.  Once 'the end is in sight' CNF is easily overcome hence the quicker final round.  The fatigue in a longer workout often isn't muscular (if it was the final round wouldn't be quicker) but mental.

For longer work outs including multi-WOD sessions BCAA's can assist with delaying the onset of mental fatigue and maintaining power output.  Outside of the workout itself there is little value in supplementing with BCAA's

Loading:   No
Dosage:    10g per hour of exercise.
Timing:     During Exercise

Beta Alanine
Like BCAA's, Beta Alanine as a sports supplement's heritage is endurance sports.  Beta Alanine works by helping to increase Carnosine levels within the blood.  During sustained exercise the 'burn' that athletes feel is often incorrectly attributed to lactic acid where in fact it is a build up of Hydrogen ions in the blood in the muscle.  Carnosine assists in clearing these ions and reducing this burning feeling which assists with prolonging output.  Beta Alanine takes time to assist in building up Carnosine.  It is not an immediate dose/response effect and can take up to fourteen days to have a significant effect on carnosine levels.  Therefore it should loaded for around fourteen days and then dosage maintained.  Sports drinks which contain Beta Alanine are not particularly effective due to the time it takes for Carnosine to increase.  Beta Alanine, like BCAA's is most effective for longer term output (hence its endurance heritage) than for short term explosive output.

People who consume Beta Alanine often experience a tingling feeling at the skin.  Many athletes I work with actually call Beta Alanine their 'itchy pills'.  This is a histamine response and is completely harmless.

Loading:   Yes.  Approximately 14 days
Dosage:    4g per day.
Timing:     Daily

Casein Protein
Casein Protein is Whey Protein's lesser known Big brother.  Like Whey, Casein is derived from milk and is complete in terms of Essential Amino Acids. It's Whey's BIG brother as there is more Casein Protein in milk than there is Whey even though Whey is more popular.  The difference between Whey and Casein is that the later is digested more slowly resulting in higher levels of blood amino acids for a more sustained period of time. Amino Acid levels in the blood have been shown to be elevated for up to seven hours after consuming Casein protein.

This means from an overnight recovery perspective Casein protein is superior.  Immediately after a workout Whey is preferred as amino acids are required quickly however from an overall recovery perspective a slower, more sustained release of amino acids is preferrable.  Consuming Casein protein immediately before bed ensures that adequate amino acids are available whilst we recover over night.  Personally I have found that taking Casein immediately before bed lessens the incidence of muscle soreness such as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) the following day.

When performing endurance sports the volume of muscle breakdown is relatively low.  High Intensity sports and sports that involve moving heavy weight have a higher incidence of muscle breakdown and therefore need for amino acids for repair.  For these type of sports I generally recommend around 1.5g of complete protein per kilogram of bodyweight - for an 80kg athlete this means around 120 grams of protein per day.  Most people struggle to digest more than 30g of protein in a single serving and, in fact, excess protein consumption can actually down regulate protein absorption - in simple terms eating more protein can mean you digest LESS overall.  I typically recommend around 30g of Casein protein immediately before bed.

Loading: No
Dosage :  30g per day with consideration of overall daily protein consumption
Timing:  On days of high muscle damage workouts

Magnesium is a co-factor in over 350 enzymatic reactions in the body. It is necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses, muscular activity, heart function, temperature regulation, detoxification reactions, formation of healthy bones and improving insulin sensitivity.  Like Creatine, Magnesium is also used as part of the ATP-CP cycle to generate energy with muscles, it is required for the generation of hormones such as testosterone and Insulin Growth Factor (IGF-1) and even plays a role in protein synthesis.  Magnesium is also a muscle relaxant for recovery.  It is, as the key ingredient in laxettes, the ultimate muscle relaxant so care should be taken when consuming...

Magnesium is easily sourced from natural sources such as nuts and green vegetables however two things should be noted
1.  Modern farming techniques have meant less magnesium in the soil and therefore less magnesium is available in the food grown in them.
2.  Like creatine, a serious athletes Magnesium requirement can be much higher.

As magnesium supplementation has become more popular virtually every vitamin manufacturer has a magnesium supplement however many of these contain a 'cheap' form of magnesium such as Magnesium Oxide and Hydroxide.  Although inexpensive these forms of magnesium are poorly absorbed by the body.  In terms of absorption chelated magnesium is probably the best although Magnesium Sulphate (also known as Epsom Salts) is well absorbed through the skin.

The recommended dosage for Magnesium is around 400mg per day taken before bed.

Loading:   No
Dosage:    200-400mg
Timing:    Nightly

There are numerous other supplements that can be beneficial such as Omega 3 fish oil, Iron and Zinc however if your diet is good and contains a balance of meats such as fish and grass fed red meat, colored vegetables and nuts there can often be easily obtained without the need for supplementation.

Got a question on one of these or think I may have missed a key one ?  Just contact me on the link at the top of the page.

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