With all due respect to sugary chews and whey protein, science is now showing that there is a new crop of powders and fluids that can power you up for a workout or race. Sports nutrition is always evolving, so why be stagnant in what you take to give you an edge?
Here are four cutting-edge fuels that may seem at first glance like an odd way to charge up your workouts, but they just may help you crush your next tempo.
This marine green — a type of cyanobacteria grown in water — may help you maintain a faster pace in your workout sessions and races. A recently released study in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that when male cyclists supplemented with 6 grams of spirulina daily for 3 weeks their heart rates and lactate levels were lower during a submaximal cycling test (55% of max effort) than when they took a placebo before completing the same exercise trial. The benefits of this altered heart rate and lactate response are that it could lower the perceived effort of an exercise task and perhaps increase the time to fatigue allowing you to push the pace for longer.
It was also discovered that using spirulina allowed for significantly higher peak and average power outputs during repeated sprinting tests which is good news if you are interval training. In this separate investigation more specific to runners, nine fairly fit volunteers who supplemented with 6 grams of spirulina (roughly 2 teaspoons of powder) for a month were able to run longer before fatiguing during a 2-hour treadmill test at 70 to 75% of max effort. They also burned more fat at a given work effort than when they used a placebo.
One of the most likely reasons for these benefits is that consuming spirulina at high enough levels appears to increase levels of haemoglobin, which, in turn, increases the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood. More oxygen delivery to working muscles makes them more efficient during any given task. Compounds in spirulina, including phycocyanobilin, might be responsible for this bump in haemoglobin. We still need to see more larger-scale studies involving other demographics such as female athletes before being able to say with confidence that spirulina can noticeably improve performance, but these promising results might make the stuff worth trying.
Spirulina can be consumed in pure powdered form or as capsules. The powder can be mixed with water or blended into smoothies and has only a faint taste of the ocean. You probably need to take 3 to 6 grams daily for several days before any improvements in workouts can be expected.
What to buy: Zhou Spirulina Powder
2. Cricket Protein
Could bug protein be the muscle-building powder of the future? A recent paper published in the American Journal of Nutrition found that there was no significant difference in protein digestion and absorption rates as well as muscle synthesis levels when participants consumed 30 grams of insect protein (in this case from mealworms) or 30 grams of milk-derived protein following a bout of resistance exercise. That makes sense when you consider that insect protein contains a full arsenal of amino acids to stimulate muscle repair and growth in response to training — something that no runner should take lightly.
As for cricket powder, the more readily available form of bug protein on the market, other research shows that the little chirpers supply a range of essential nutrients including iron, copper, calcium and immune-boosting zinc, at even higher amounts than beef. Worth noting is that insect protein requires much fewer resources, including water and feed, than what is required to produce other animal-based protein powders such as whey. It may even be more sustainable than plant-based proteins like pea that require more land to produce. That makes this micro-livestock a sustainable way to sneak a little extra muscle-friendly protein into your post-run smoothies or bowl of morning oatmeal.
You should know that cricket powder is simply dried whole crickets (sourced from cricket farms) that are then ground into a fine powder. The result has a mild nutty flavor – no buggy aftertaste. If you’re not squeamish about the idea of eating bugs or the hefty price tag of the niche protein, it might be worth giving this powder a whirl.
What to buy: Chirps Cricket Protein Powder
3. Pink Sports Drinks
Drinking sports drinks is nothing new to athletes, but perhaps choosing the right color of your beverage could make a difference in how well you perform. British investigators recently found that a pink drink can increase exercise performance and also enhance the ‘feel good’ effect which can make exercise seem like less of a struggle. During the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, participants were requested to jog on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a self-selected speed ensuring their rate of exertion remained consistent. Throughout the exercise, they rinsed their mouths with either a pink artificially sweetened drink that was low in calories or a clear drink that was also artificially sweetened and equally low in calories. The researchers decided on the color pink as it has been previously associated with perceived sweetness, increasing expectations of sugar intake to boost performance. The results showed that the participants ran an average 212 meters further with the pink drink, while their mean speed during the exercise test also increased by 4.4%. Yes, the placebo effect is certainly a real player.
On top of this, feelings of pleasure were also improved, meaning people found the running to be more enjoyable. Rinsing the mouth with a pink drink may have stimulated the reward centers of the runner’s brains to improve performance without actually providing any sugar calories. Research regarding the influence of color on athletic performance is still in its infancy, but if a sports nutrition brand decides to harness this study and put out a pretty in pink sports drink it might be worth taking a sip. It will be interesting to see if future research builds on this study to show which colors are most effective at assisting in specific fitness goals. (If blue, for example, leads to better recovery after a run.)
4. Chicken Broth
Before lacing up your shoes you might want to slurp up a bowl of steamy chicken broth. According to this double-blind study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, males adults who consumed chicken broth before a high-intensity aerobic effort experienced an improvement in mean power output compared to when they were given a placebo before working out. The study authors surmise that certain compounds in chicken broth, including carnosine and anserine, are behind this boost. Carnosine may act as a pH buffer allowing for improved high-intensity efforts and tolerance to higher workloads such as sprinting up killer inclines.
We can also assume that sipping chicken broth before a sweat session will help with hydration levels and deliver a dose of electrolytes, namely sodium. This can also make the liquid useful after a hard, sweaty run.
Of course, not all chicken broth is created equal. For the biggest benefit you likely do not want to use the watered-down mass-produced stuff at the supermarket. Look for products marketed as bone broth, that will come from liquid that is made from slowly boiling animal bones and connective tissue, resulting in a greater release of compounds like carnosine that may rev up your runs.
What to buy: Bonafide Provisions Organic Chicken Bone Broth