The 4 Key Supplements for Athletes

Get research on your side to find the most effective supplements.

Walk in to any supplement store and you’ll immediately see images of super lean physique athletes. This might make you think supplements are only good for the bodybuilders and hard-core fitness people. That’s not true at all.

Supplements are beneficial for almost anyone wanting to live optimally. But with thousands of different options, differentiating between ones that work and don’t can be confusing. In this article, I will go over four of the most effective and dependable supplements, according to research.

Smart supplementation can round out the rough edges of your diet and make your training more impactful. [Photo courtesy of Cara Kobernik]

1. Multivitamins

You may have heard people tell you to “Eat the rainbow.” This means having a well-balanced diet with a wide variety of colors to get all the 27 essential micronutrients. The word “essential” means our bodies can’t create these micronutrients, so we need to get them through foods.

While there may be some people who try to eat the rainbow every day, the ones who actually do it are as rare as pink unicorns. I and almost all people I have worked with do not eat the rainbow. Supplementing with a multivitamin is an easy way to cover your bases.

Research suggests daily multivitamin supplementation can significantly reduce the risk of total cancer and cardiovascular disease, and does not appear to increase all-cause mortality.1 Multivitamins may actually provide a modest protective benefit. And the need to take a multivitamin is more pronounced if you are dieting. In 2010, 65 million Americans – approximately 25% of the population – were on a diet of some kind. When looking at four popular diet plans – namely DASH, South Beach, Best Life and Atkins – there is a high likelihood of becoming micronutrient deficient.2

According to an editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “more than 93%, 61%, and approximately 50% of adults in the United States do not get the Estimated Average Requirement of vitamins D and E, magnesium, and vitamin A and calcium, respectively, from their diet. 98% and 71% do not meet the Adequate Intake of potassium and vitamin K, respectively.”3 Although good nutrition is simple in theory, it’s not that simple in reality. If everyone could easily consume an optimal well-balanced diet, would we have to talk about food and health as much as we do? I doubt it. There’s no doubt that consuming whole, fresh foods is ideal, but there will likely be nutritional gaps. A cheap multivitamin can provide some insurance for a few cents a day.

More on Athlete Nutrition:

Fuel to Be Strong: Nutrition for Strength Athletes

2. Protein

We used to think that we don’t need to consume any more than the RDA for protein (0.8 to 1.0 g/kg/d), but research in the last decade has proven otherwise. Improved metabolism, lean body mass, fat loss, satiation and bone health have been seen in diets with higher protein intakes.4 Higher protein intake also helps maintain lean muscle mass during a diet, which is essential in improving body composition. Studies have consistently shown benefits with protein intakes of 1.2-3.4 g/kg per day.5

That seems like a wide range, so what’s the ideal range for you? Jose Antonio, PhD and CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, suggests basing your protein recommendations on your goals. “If you are training for a bodybuilding/physique contest or perhaps a strenuous endurance event (i.e., triathlon, 1/2 marathon, marathon, etc.), it would be wise to consume protein in amounts greater than 2 grams per kg daily,” he says. “For all other activities, 1.5-2.0 g per kg is sufficient.”

Most people find it a challenge to consume this amount of protein only through whole foods. Protein powders provide a convenient and portable method for doing so. There are many types of protein powders to choose from based on the source and taste you prefer. Some common sources of protein powders are egg, rice, egg, milk (whey), pea, hemp, and soy. There will always be debates about what source is optimal. As long as you meet your daily needs, don’t get bogged down by the minutiae.

3. Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine is one of the most popular and widely researched natural supplements. It has regularly been shown to increase strength, power output, endurance performance, and lean tissue. Creatine supplementation has also been shown to provide cognitive and neurological benefits, specifically impaired cognition due to sleep deprivation and aging.7 Since creatine is mainly found in meat, vegetarians tend to have lower amounts.

In supplement form, creatine is a white, odorless, and colorless powder that can be easily added to shakes and smoothies. You’ll find many different forms on store shelves, and some will try to convince you that they are superior to creatine monohydrate. Not only have other forms of creatine not proven to be as effective as creatine monohydrate, but they also have not been researched nearly as much. 7 Additionally, you might see a “loading phase” of up to 20 grams per day for 5-7 days on the product label. That’s unnecessary unless you have a competition or event coming up within that time frame. 7

Coaches, Apply What You Know:

Knowledge Is Nothing Without Application

4. Caffeine

This one is a no-brainer. Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. It’s a natural stimulant found in energy drinks, coffee, tea, and chocolate. Most of us consume caffeine to be more alert and focused with our daily activities. And when we need an extra kick, a cup of coffee usually does it.

It’s clear that caffeine has a positive effect on metabolism, weight loss, and performance both in endurance and high-intensity activities.8 Caffeine also reduces the rate of perceived exertion, which is your subjective perception of physical exertion.

If you’re not a fan of caffeinated drinks, you can buy caffeine tablets, powders, or pills, sold as caffeine anhydrous. These have been shown to have more potent effects compared to caffeine from a cup of coffee.

The downside with caffeine intake is that our bodies build up a tolerance over time, and the benefits start to decrease. Simply taking some time off from caffeine intake for a few days can help. Studies show effective dosage of caffeine to be 3-6 mg/kg 15-30min prior to exercise.  Just remember, more isn’t better, and there are no benefits seen when more than 9 mg/kg is consumed.

Be Smart

In an ideal world, we would all eat a well balanced diet every day. But in reality that’s not always easy. Smart supplementation can make help round out the rough edges of your diet and give your training a boost – all while keeping you in the game longer.


1. Alexander, Dominik D., Douglas L. Weed, Ellen T. Chang, Paige E. Miller, Muhima A. Mohamed, and Laura Elkayam. “A Systematic Review of Multivitamin–Multimineral Use and Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer Incidence and Total Mortality.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 32, no. 5 (2013): 339-54. Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.1080/07315724.2013.839909.

2.Calton, Jayson B. “Prevalence of Micronutrient Deficiency in Popular Diet Plans.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7, no. 1 (2010): 24. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-24.

3. Frei, Balz, Bruce N. Ames, Jefferey B. Blumberg, and Walter C. Willett. “Enough Is Enough.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 2014. Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.7326/L14-5011.

4. Phillips, Stuart M., Stéphanie Chevalier, and Heather J. Leidy. “Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: Implications for Optimizing Health1.” Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2016, 1-8. Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0550.

5. Antonio, Jose, Anya Ellerbroek, Tobin Silver, Steve Orris, Max Scheiner, Adriana Gonzalez, and Corey A. Peacock. “A High Protein Diet (3.4 g/kg/d) Combined with a Heavy Resistance Training Program Improves Body Composition in Healthy Trained Men and Women – a Follow-up Investigation.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 12, no. 1 (2015). Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0100-0.

6. Cooper, Robert, Fernando Naclerio, Judith Allgrove, and Alfonso Jimenez. “Creatine Supplementation with Specific View to Exercise/sports Performance: An Update.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 9, no. 1 (2012): 33. Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-33.

7. Kreider, Richard B., Anthony L. Almada, Jose Antonio, Craig Broeder, Conrad Earnest, Mike Greenwood, Thomas Incledon, Douglas S. Kalman, Susan M. Kleiner, Brian Leutholtz, Lonnie M. Lowery, Ron Mendel, Jeffrey R. Stout, Darryn S. Willoughby, and Tim N. Ziegenfuss. “ISSN Exercise & Sport Nutrition Review: Research & Recommendations.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 1, no. 1 (2004): 1. Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-1-1-1.

8. Goldstein, Erica R., Tim Ziegenfuss, Doug Kalman, Richard Kreider, Bill Campbell, Colin Wilborn, Lem Taylor, Darryn Willoughby, Jeff Stout, B. Sue Graves, Robert Wildman, John L. Ivy, Marie Spano, Abbie E. Smith, and Jose Antonio. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Caffeine and Performance.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7, no. 1 (2010): 5. Accessed April 14, 2016. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-5.

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