Linda Woolven & Ted Snider
August 10, 2016
Have you been inspired by this summer’s Olympic Games? Well, here’s the latest science on how natural supplements can safely improve your workout.
Carbs have been used for thousands of years to enhance exercise. Ancient Greek athletes used honey to boost carbs. And they were on to something. Science says carbs may be the most important nutrient for athletic performance (Int J Sport Nutr 1995;5:S13-38) because they are the most efficient fuel for energy production. So, when it comes to diet, focus on whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables and reduce saturated fats.
Carb drinks that have healthy ingredients are beneficial when the training is of longer duration, though there is no evidence of benefit for training sessions of shorter duration. One study asked cyclists to swish either a simple carbohydrate glucose solution, a more complex carbohydrate maltodextrin solution or a sweetened placebo solution. Both carb solutions led to significantly increased speed, showing the ability of carbs to improve performance (J Physiol 2009;587:1779-94).
Whereas carbs are best for long duration training, creatine is best for short duration, high intensity exercises like weight training or sprinting, whether the sprint is in running, biking or swimming. Over 49 double-blind studies show that creatine improves performance in this kind of exercise. With the exception of cycling, the evidence for creatine for endurance training is weaker. Creatine seems to work because muscle tissue uses it to produce energy. Adding creatine to strength training produces greater increases in muscle size than the strength training alone (Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999;31:1147- 56; Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32:654-8; Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001;33:1674-81). It has been shown to improve strength and lean body mass (J Strength Conditioning Res 2009;23:2673-82).
In a placebo-controlled study, the creatine group had greater power output and less fatigue in 30 second maximal sprints on a bicycle (J Sprots Med Phys Fitness 2005;45:507-11).
Creatine will allow you to train harder. Compared to a glucose drink, people drinking the same drink with added creatine experienced less loss of strength on the first 4 days after exercising and lower markers of muscle injury (J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2009;6:13). Compared to a placebo, creatine has been shown to enhance the ability of muscle to resist fatigue (Nutr 2011;27:451-5).
The International Society for Sports Nutrition calls creatine monohydrate “the most effective nutritional supplement available to athletes to increase high intensity exercise capacity and muscle mass during training” (J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2010;7:7-50).
In possibly the most exciting recent sports supplement study, a new superstar has emerged. This study had two parts. The first put two groups of people through an 8 week training program and then tested them on the Army Physical Fitness Test, which consists of as many push ups and sit ups as you can do in 2 minutes and a 2 mile run. The only difference between the two groups was that one was given 100mg a day of pinebark extract (Pycnogenol) and one wasn’t.
The men and women in the pinebark group had significantly better improvements in their 2 mile running time and were able to do significantly more sit ups and push ups. They also had significantly less oxidative damage.
Part 2 put men through 4 weeks of training for a triathlon. One of the groups also took 150mg of pinebark extract. Training improved their times in swimming, biking and running, but the improvements were significantly greater in the pinebark group. The control group had an average time of 96 minutes and 5 seconds; the pinebark group’s average was 89 minutes and 44 seconds. Training alone improved their times by 4.6 minutes; training plus pinebark improved times by 10.8 minutes. The pinebark group also had less oxidative stress and faster recovery times (J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2013;53:644-54).
Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is loaded in nutrients and antioxidants. A double-blind study found that spirulina significantly increased the amount of time people could train on a treadmill before they became exhausted. The spirulina significantly lessened skeletal muscle damage. It also significantly increased antioxidants that occur naturally in the body and significantly decreased free radical damage (Eur J Appl Physiol 2006;98:220-6). So spirulina can help you to work out and help you to stay healthy while you do it.
Other controlled studies have also shown that spirulina can help you work out longer. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that spirulina could significantly improve time to fatigue in a 2 hour moderate intensity run. The spirulina also improved fat burning by 10.9%, and, as in the last study, it improved exercise antioxidant status (Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010;42:142-51).
Phosphatidylserine is another nutrient that can help you work out longer. Double-blind research has shown that it can increase the amount of time you can exercise before becoming exhausted by about 25% (Med Sci Sports Exerc 2006;38:64-71).
Beet root juice is an odd sports drink you’ve probably never heard of before. But several professional and NCAA football team swear by it. Is there anything to it? So far, at least 2 small studies suggest there is.
When 8 healthy people were given .5 litres of beet root juice or a placebo, the beet root juice was found to benefit exercise efficiency (Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2010;299:R1121-31).
A double-blind study that also used .5 litres of beet root juice found that healthy men increased their time to exhaustion while exercising and significantly reduced the amount of oxygen used by body tissue by about 20% (J Applied Physiol 2009;107:1144-55).
Not usually thought of as a herb for athletes, a double-blind study found that male weight lifters who took fenugreek extract had significantly increased upper and lower body strength compared to a placebo (J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2010;7:34).
23 strength trained male athletes were given either 2.5g a day of betaine, also known as trimethylglycine, or a placebo during 6 weeks of training. The athletes on the betaine had improvements in arm muscle size and bench press training value versus the placebo. They also had significantly improved body composition (fat mass, percent body fat and lean body mass) compared to the placebo (J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2013;10:39).
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain and discomfort that can be experienced for a few days after strenuous exercise. It is experienced as stiffness, tenderness and pain during activity. It is problematic for people in training because, aside from the discomfort, it can limit training.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study gave either a placebo or 300mg of saffron powder or 75mg of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) indomethacine to 39 men for ten days, starting a week before exercise and continuing until 3 days after. The placebo group experienced severe pain for 3 days after the exercise, but pain in the saffron group was 11.2 times lower after 24 hours. The antiinflammatory drug group took 3 days for the pain to go away, but the saffron group had no pain after 48 hours. The researchers concluded that saffron is more effective than indomethacine for DOMS (Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;25:105-12).
The adaptogenic herb schizandra can improve physical performance. A controlled 1995 Soviet study found that 74% of distance runners ran their best time when taking schizandra.
Fifty-seven men between the ages of eighteen and fifty who were not regular resistance trainers were given either a placebo or 300mg extract of the herb ashwagandha root twice a day for eight weeks. The study was double-blinded. During the eight weeks, the men did a resistance training program that targeted major muscle groups in the upper and lower body. Results were measured by bench press and leg extensions.
After eight weeks, upper body strength improved significantly more in the ashwagandha group: the placebo group increased the amount they bench pressed by 26.4 kg (58 lbs). But the ashwagandha group increased theirs by 46 kg (101 lbs). The same results were obtained for lower body strength. The placebo group increased their leg extensions by 9.8 kg (22 lbs) compared to a 14.5 kg (32 lbs) increase in the ashwagandha group.
And the ashwagandha group built bigger muscles too: arm muscles were 5.3cm larger in the placebo group but 8.6cm larger in the herbal group; chest muscles were 1.4cm larger in the placebo group but 3.3cm larger in the herbal group.
The ashwagandha had other benefits too. It improved muscle recovery time better than placebo and significantly reduced muscle damage. The ashwagandha also produced significantly greater loss of body fat percentage. Testosterone levels also increased significantly more in the ashwagandha group. (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2015;12:43).
People who had a chocolate drink during their recovery period after exercise were than able to cycle 51% longer than people who drank a carbohydrate replacement drink and 43% longer than people who drank a fluid replacement drink. This study shows that chocolate is an effective recovery aid during workouts (Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 2009;34:78-82).
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