MF's sport supplements guide
Latest in Supplements
Our definitive guide to the sports supplements you need, depending on your training targets
For the...BEGINNER: These are the basics every man should have in his diet – serious gym-goer or not.
VITAMIN D: The sun substitute
Why You’re supposed to get vitamin D from the sun but that’s a forlorn hope for the deskbound Briton – 20 minutes’ exposure provides all the vitamin D you need in summer but according to the National Institute of Health, it’s impossible to get enough in winter. ‘Deficiency is common and is linked to reduced strength and increased body fat,’ says strength and conditioning coach Joe Lightfoot (jplightfoot.com). ‘It’s also associated with diseases such as diabetes and depression. Supplementing is very cheap and easy.’
How It’s available in tablet or oral spray form. Official government recommendations are low – experts recommend 3,000IU a day, which has been proved safe in multiple studies. It’s fat-soluble, so take it with a meal.
FISH OIL: The wonder fluid
Why ‘Having omega 3 fats in your diet is important for your health. Supplementation helps you to maintain a good ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 – modern humans consume far too much omega 6,’ says Lightfoot. ‘More specifically, studies have shown that fish oil supplementation results in decreased body fat and reduced inflammation.’ It has also been linked to an increase in serotonin levels, greater focus in training, lower stress and resistance to illnesses including Crohn’s disease and some cancers.
How Take a spoonful with your meals. Most authorities recommend taking 1-4g a day, depending on how much oily fish you already eat.
WHEY PROTEIN: The muscle builder
Why This is the simplest addition to your workout regime and probably the most effective. ‘It’s essential that you replace muscle glycogen after your workout and the best way to do that is with a good-quality whey protein,’ says Fitness First trainer Thomas Eastham. If you don’t train, make sure you’re getting adequate protein from your diet – or consider topping up.
How ‘Within 15 minutes of finishing your training, your cells are in serious need of nutrients, so you should be taking your post-workout shake before you stretch,’ says Eastham. Some nutritionists recommend a hit of protein before training or as soon as you wake up. Ideally you’d get this from food but a shake is a reasonable option.
MULTIVITAMINS: The backup plan
Why You shouldn’t rely on one to make up for a bad diet but a quality multivitamin can help fill in the gaps in an otherwise solid eating plan. ‘Deficiencies in vitamins can cause mood swings, depression, lethargy and exhaustion,’ says personal trainer Sean McPhillips (supremetraining.co.uk). ‘Taking multivitamins will keep you on the up and focused on your goals.’ There’s also evidence they can help you recover from a tough workout.
How ‘Try to have some consistency when taking this supplement,’ says McPhillips. ‘It makes sense to take it before a meal with a glass of water to aid absorption of the micronutrients.’
For the... INTERMEDIATE: Starting to get more serious? Make sure your nutrient intake matches your intensity in the gym.
CASEIN: The bedtime protein
Why Chances are you’re already getting a fair amount of casein, as it makes up around 80% of cow’s milk. ‘Casein is known as a “slow” protein,’ says McPhillips. ‘It’s digested slowly, so it isn’t ideal for straight after the gym when you want to get a hit of protein into your muscles instantly. The main benefit of casein over other proteins is its excellent amino acid profile – it’s a great muscle-builder.’
How ‘Simply have it in a shake,’ says McPhillips. ‘You can mix it with milk or water but if you’re using milk you’ll want a fair bit to thin it out. Because it’s a slow protein, it’s best taken before sleep to keep the muscle-building process going overnight.’
ZINC: The immunity mineral
Why Zinc is necessary for your health and immune system. ‘The main reason you should take zinc is that our bodies are unable to store it,’ says McPhillips.
How ‘The recommended daily allowance for adult males is 11mg – you should take no more than 40mg per day,’ says McPhillips. ‘Try to avoid taking it with coffee or foods that contain phytates – such as wholegrains – because these can block its absorption. For the greatest benefit, take it with a form of animal protein because this will promote absorption.’
MAGNESIUM: The sleep mineral
Why ‘Every organ needs magnesium, especially the heart, muscles and kidneys,’ says McPhillips. ‘If you skimp on this vital mineral you can experience anxiety, sleep problems and irritability. It also helps to maintain a normal heart rhythm, as well as aiding the body’s energy production.’
How ‘Stick to the recommended maximum of 350mg per day,’ says McPhillips. ‘Taking magnesium supplements on an empty stomach can lead to diarrhoea and an upset stomach, so it’s best to have a meal or snack first.’ Alternatively, it’s available in spray or bath-mineral form– some studies suggest it’s more easily absorbed through the skin.
BCAA: The muscle pill
Why ‘BCAAs [branched-chain amino acids] are the best choice during workouts because they help to keep a steady supply of proteins flowing into your muscles,’ says Eastham. ‘This has been proven to aid muscle building as it reduces the amount of muscle loss during exercise.’
How Opinions vary. ‘I’ll take anything from 10g to 25g, depending on the programme,’ says Eastham. Other trainers recommend higher doses – as much as 2g between every set during a long workout. BCAAs can also help prevent muscle loss during periods of intermittent fasting.
CREATINE: The backup generator
Why ‘Your body metabolises creatine into ATP, which is used for every muscle movement,’ says McPhillips. ‘Having adequate supplies is most important during heavy, high-intensity workouts to deliver the required energy to your muscles.’ In other words, it will let you lift harder for longer.
How ‘Take 2-10g after a workout to replenish lost stores, or split the dose and have half before your workout and the other half afterwards,’ says McPhillips. ‘There’s some evidence that taking creatine with glucose can help your body store it more effectively, so having carbs in your post-workout shake will help.’ And drink plenty of water: creatine is hygroscopic, so it sucks H20 into your muscles and can leave you dehydrated.
L-CARNITINE: The fat shredder
Why If burning fat during a workout is your priority, first you need to mobilise it. ‘L-carnitine is the compound responsible for transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria, our energy powerhouses,’ says nutritionist Ben Coomber (bodytypenutrition.co.uk). This means you’ll use fat for energy instead of glycogen.
How Take it before a workout. ‘A dose of 500mg should ensure you transport maximum available fat for fuel during exercise,’ says Coomber. ‘It’s especially useful if you’re training while fasting or on a low-carb diet, where fat oxidation is already maximised.’
HCL: The diet booster
Why HCL (hydrochloric acid) ensures you actually benefit from all the healthy food you’re eating. ‘If you’re not digesting and breaking down nutrients properly in your gut, all the other supplements and good foods could be wasted as you can’t absorb them effectively,’ says Coomber. ‘HCL is the acid responsible for digesting and breaking down nutrients in your stomach, so if you’re low, top up.’
How To see if you’d benefit from HCL, try Coomber’s simple test: ‘Take one tablet with each meal, upping your dose by one tablet each time until you get a slight burning sensation in the chest, then back off by one tablet. Stick to that dose for three weeks. If you hit above three tablets in your experiment, then you need a full course of HCL.’
GLUTAMINE: The gut calmer
Why ‘This is an intermediate supplement because it should already be present in your body,’ says Coomber. ‘But if you have gut issues or you train hard – especially in endurance sports – glutamine could be great for you.’
How You have several options, depending on your training plan. ‘Taking 10g in water on an empty stomach before breakfast will aid gut healing and function,’ says Coomber. ‘Taking 10g after a workout will help to replenish your stores. Or if you’re on a low-carb diet, 30g will enhance glycogen replenishment in the absence of carbs.’
For the... ADVANCED: You plan your workouts and recovery with precision, so make sure you're doing the same with your supplement regime.
ADAPTOGENS: The Olympic secret
Why ‘Adaptogens have been used widely in eastern countries for their medicinal properties and for decades by Russia’s Olympic weightlifting team,’ says Coomber. ‘Panax ginseng, yohimbe, astragalus, reishi mushroom and rhodiola rosea are some of the most widely used today. All adaptogens help the body do one thing – adapt to stress.’
How If you’re going through a serious training phase, peaking for a competition or otherwise stressing your system, adaptogens can help to prevent catabolism, or muscle loss. Stick to the dose on the bottle.
HOLY BASIL: The stress balancer
Why ‘Holy basil is an adaptogen that balances the stress hormone cortisol and your neurotransmitter function,’ says Coomber. ‘Because it’s an adaptogen, its potential benefit could be widespread but it’s most common use is in handling the stress of everyday life. Many of us live in a high-pressure, highly stressed world, so a few helpful herbs can’t hurt.’
How Take between 300mg and 2,000mg a day, preferably in a nice cup of tea.
PHOSPHATIDYL SERINE: The cortisol buster
Why ‘Anyone who trains intensely is likely to be under some serious stress,’ says Coomber. ‘The stress hormone cortisol is secreted in high amounts as a result but phosphatidyl serine blocks its secretion. This can speed up the recovery process, prevent muscle soreness and improve wellbeing. Testosterone works in tandem with cortisol, so high stress means low testosterone. In essence, this supplement can help you manage stress from training and from life, keeping things in check.’
How ‘If you’re training hard and you’re prone to high stress, take an 800mg dose of phosphatidyl serine after training or in the evening,’ says Coomber.
LEUCINE: The muscle booster
Why ‘Leucine can stimulate insulin secretion and muscle protein synthesis, enhancing the muscle-building process,’ says Coomber. ‘The science supporting the taking of a leucine supplement in and around training is now very strong. At 11%, whey protein Is very rich in leucine, which is one reason it’s so effective as a post-workout elixir.’
How ‘A 5g dose after training and between meals can increase the anabolic, or muscle-building, effect of food, especially when consuming protein sources that are low in leucine and might not stimulate maximum muscle protein synthesis on their own,’ says Coomber. ‘If you’re hungry for maximum gains, leucine is your advanced supplement.’
For more on sports supplements, subscribe to MF - we'll give you five issues for £5.
Looking for a boost? These aren’t essential but they can help you reach your goals
This is one of the best natural fat-burners around. Ditching your traditional cuppa in favour of green tea three times a day can give your metabolism a serious jolt. It has also been linked with prevention of everything from heart disease to Alzheimer’s.
Also known as fat-burners, these mixtures of herbs and stimulants can increase your body temperature, helping you torch fat. They can work for a short-term boost, although long-term use isn’t recommended. Take them before 2pm so they don’t affect your sleep.
The best bets for healthy testosterone levels are sleeping well, eating meat, training intelligently and having lots of sex, but there are promising studies on D-aspartic acid too. Try a 3g dose.
There's some evidence to suggest that this can reduce the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles and increase your body’s production of carnosine, helping you to work harder for longer.