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 Facts And Fiction on Performance Enhancing Supplements: Pre-exercise supplements – Kleio Bathrellou

A well-designed, balanced nutrition that meets energy needs and incorporates proper nutrient timing is the necessary foundation to develop good training program. Numerous reports are being published annually claiming that specific nutrients or products have ergogenic value but where is the evidence to support all this? In this week’s article find out which few supplements actually work among the enormous variety of products claiming to improve exercise performance. Can they really boost your daily workout at the gym? Who will benefit and how? It should be noted that, based on current literature, although certain nutrients do not seem to affect performance and training adaptations, that does not mean they do not have possible health benefits for active individuals.

Effective performance enhancing supplements

It is very important to know what the best pre-workout supplements are as they can make a real difference in your performance. Simple things such as keeping your body hydrated and having a carbohydrate rich snack about half an hour before your start physical activity are enough to do the trick!

  • Rehydration: Water & Sports Drinks

Frequent ingestion of water and/or sports drinks during exercise is one of the easiest and most effective ergogenic aids. It may come as a surprise but people often neglect the importance of rehydration while exercising. Preventing dehydration is the key to maintaining exercise performance. Engaging in intense exercise especially if it takes place in a hot or humid environment can easily cause dehydration. The goal should be not to lose more than 2% of body weight during exercise. Therefore, it is necessary to frequently ingest water or sports drinks (for example 1- 2 cups every 10 – 15 minutes).

Most sports drinks contain salt and carbohydrate at specific quantities, and according to studies, ingestion of sports drinks during exercise can help prevent dehydration and improve endurance exercise capacity. In fact, studies report that carbohydrate intake during team sports can increase exercise performance and central nervous system function. However, sports drinks are only needed when the workout lasts longer than 90 minutes. Plain water is sufficient for moderate physical activity as the body does not require the extra carbohydrate and minerals at this point. Therefore, always make sure you sip on water or a sports drink during your workout session and you will see the difference!

  • Carbohydrate

Carbohydrate is proven to be one of the best ergogenic aids available for athletes and active individuals. Consume a diet high in carbohydrate (on average 55 – 65% of calories or 5-8 grams/kg/day) is essential in order to maintain muscle and liver carbohydrate stores. Research has clearly proven that carbohydrate supplementation can prolong exercise. Additionally, ingesting a small amount of carbohydrate and protein 30-60 minutes prior to exercise and use of sports drinks during exercise that lasts longer than 90 minutes, can increase carbohydrate availability and improve overall performance. Moreover, ingesting carbohydrate and protein immediately following exercise can enhance carbohydrate storage and protein synthesis. So, next time you are at the gym remember to pack a carbohydrate rich snack to make the most of your session!

  • Creatine

Although creatine supplementation is one of the best supplements to increase muscle mass and strength, it can also improve exercise capacity. Using creatine supplements will have the best effect when your are performing high intensity, intermittent exercise, such as jogging, weight lifting sets, repeated sprints etc. Creatine has also been shown to be effective at improving high intensity interval training. In terms of sports physiology, the benefit of creatine supplementation is that it increases creatine stores prior to carbohydrate loading and therefore can improve the ability to store carbohydrate. Carbohydrate loading is a technique often used by athletes in which dietary carbohydrate intake is increased before competition in an attempt to maximize carbohydrate stores.

According to the latest ISSN position stand, ingesting 20 grams of creatine for 5 days can improve endurance and anaerobic performance especially in trained individuals. Another interesting fact is that creatine supplementation during training may help people maintain weight if they have issues with weight loss as is often seen with people engaging in resistance exercise. However, this last point is mostly relevant to athletes and trained individuals.

  • Sodium Phosphate

There is some research indicating that sodium phosphate supplementation may increase resting energy expenditure, which is the amount of calories required for a 24-hour period by the body during resting conditions. Therefore, it could serve as a potential weight loss nutrient. However, most research on sodium phosphate focuses on its potential value as an ergogenic aid. A number of studies indicated that sodium phosphate supplementation (1 g taken 4 times per day for 3-6 days) can increase maximal oxygen uptake or in other words maximal aerobic capacity and anaerobic threshold by 5-10%. In simple terms, these findings suggest that sodium phosphate may effectively improve endurance exercise capacity.

  • Sodium Bicarbonate

Bicarbonate supplementation may improve performance in activities like running, sprinting or swimming. The scientific explanation behind this involves what happens on our bodies during exercise in terms of chemistry. During high intensity exercise, acid (H+) and carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulate in the muscle and blood. In order to get rid of the acidity, the acid and CO2 are buffered with bicarbonate ions and are then removed through the lungs. Bicarbonate loading (0.3 g per kg taken 60-90 minutes prior to exercise or 5 g taken twice a day for 5 days) is an effective way to buffer acidity during high intensity exercise with 1-3 minutes duration. However, one drawback of this supplement is that bicarbonate may cause gastrointestinal distress. Nevertheless, it is regarded as a safe supplement.

  • Β-alanine

The effects of b-alanine supplementation on performance have recently sparked interest. B-alanine has ergogenic potential based on its relationship with carnosine. Carnosine is believed to be one of the primary muscle buffering substances available in skeletal muscle and increase the available store may improve exercise performance. According to studies, supplementation of b-alanine for 28 days can increase carnosine levels. Consequently, it can increase work capacity and decrease time to fatigue. In other words, it can be a very efficient performance enhancing supplement. Furthermore, adding b-alanine supplementation with creatine may improve performance compared to creatine alone.

  • Caffeine

Caffeine is a naturally derived stimulant found in coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks, energy drinks and many nutritional supplements. Caffeine has a proven positive effect on energy expenditure, weight loss, and body fat, and it is an effective ergogenic aid as well. In fact, it can improve speed, peak power, and mean power. Studies indicate that ingestion of caffeine (3-9 mg per kg taken 30 – 90 minutes before exercise) can spare carbohydrate use during exercise and therefore improve endurance exercise capacity. This is explained if we consider that low carbohydrate stores lead to fatigue. In addition to the apparent positive effects on endurance performance, caffeine has also been shown to be beneficial during anaerobic activities.

According to the ISSN, caffeine use does not cause dehydration and is considered a safe and effective supplement after several studies reviewing the existing literature and evidence around this topic. People who drink caffeinated drinks regularly, however, appear to experience less ergogenic benefits from caffeine. However, doses above 9 mg/kg can result in urinary caffeine levels that surpass the doping threshold for many sport organizations.


Adopting and maintaining a nutrient dense and balanced diet, regular training, proper timing of nutrient intake, and ensuring there is adequate rest are cornerstones to enhancing performance. Using a limited number of nutritional supplements that research has supported such as sports drinks, carbohydrate, creatine and caffeine can help improve energy availability, promote recovery and are therefore beneficial for the active individual when take with caution. The main thing to remember is to be open-minded and critically appraise media reports when it comes to dietary/sports supplements. Knowledge is power!


By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & Certified Sports Nutritionist

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