There’s nothing like that sinking feeling of working out really, really hard and wondering if somehow, your effort’s going to waste.
Fitness enthusiasts and hard core iron gamers cherish every extra pound on the bar, every extra rep, or minute on the track. So, how to make sure the workouts count and results stick? How to keep what you’ve worked for, and maybe get an edge. That’s the idea, right?
Intra-workout supplements promise lean tissue growth, better workout performance, hydration, and recovery.
Intra-workout supplements refer to oral consumables—powders, pre-mixed drinks, or tablets—that are consumed at an interval during a workout, thereby the prefix “intra”, meaning “inside” or “in the midst of”.
Intra-workout supplements differ from pre-workout and post-workout products, but are probably most like pre-workout in that there’s frequently an energy-enhancement component to both to get the exerciser through all or part of a workout.
Even some hardcore exercisers are perfectly comfortable with eating clean and getting enough of the right nutrients to assure gains. Many are not and want all the insurance possible to make sure that their hard work in the gym isn’t going to waste.
Intra-workout supplements are for people whose workouts are strenuous enough and long enough to demand extra energy and muscle recovery, and who believe timing is everything.
Two Basic Groups of Intra-workout Supplements
Intra-workout supplements fall into one of two groups: muscle building-muscle sparing, and energy generating-fatigue reducing.
Muscle Building-Muscle Sparing
The muscle building-muscle sparing ingredients most often found intra-workout supplements are Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), Creatine, and Betaine Anhydrous. Protein is of course a renowned muscle building supplement, just not as closely associated with intra-workout supplements.
BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids)
The BCAAs are not produced by the body, meaning they must be consumed in the diet or in a supplement.
The BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They’re present in beef, chicken, eggs, fish, dairy, soy, legumes—particularly chick peas, lentils, and peanuts.
Leucine especially is shown to influence protein synthesis1, (Stark M, et al) which in lay-terms means it’s important to muscle-building, how well your body uses the protein you consume.
Then there’s soreness. Immediate post-exercise soreness and DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness…in other words soreness the day-after-the-day-after) can limit your ability to hit it hard the next time you hit the gym.
There’s clinical evidence that BCAAs reduce post-workout soreness2 (Shimomura Y, et al). It’s not exactly known why, although it’s thought that leucine stimulates protein synthesis and inhibits protein breakdown.
The most popular reason to take BCAAs is muscle growth, and there’s reason to believe they work for that very purpose. BCAAs have been clinically shown to increase lean muscle mass, strength, and decreased body fat3 (Stoppani J, et al), so there’s more than just gym lore to support their use.
Creatine monohydrate is a primary source of energy for muscle contraction. Your body can manufacture about 1 gram per day of it.
The science behind creatine metabolism into the muscles is complex, including its role in regenerating adenosine triphosphate.
Creatine is found in red meat and seafood, although most avid resistance trainers like the idea of creatine supplementation, just to be sure.
The clinical literature supports that creatine and creatine supplementation can be effective in high-intensity, intermittent activity, which makes it attractive for resistance trainers and sprinters4 (Cooper R, et al).
There’s very little risk in taking in additional creatine in the form of supplements and the potential upsides outweigh the downsides for healthy individuals who regularly exercise with high intensity.
A number of intra-workout supplements contain creatine as one of their ingredients. It’s probably not important to take creatine by itself during a workout, although there’s no harm in doing so.
Betaine Anhydrous—also called trimethyl glycine (TMG) or just betaine—is another compound that’s believed to help athletic performance. It helps in the metabolism homocysteine, which is involved in the normal function of many different parts of the body. It’s relevant to our discussion here because it is believed to increase creatine synthesis because methionine is formed in the breakdown of homocysteine which in turn supports creatine synthesis.
A 2013 paper by Cholewa JM, et al, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrution5, concluded that six weeks of betaine supplementation grew arm size, bench press capacity, and improved muscle-to-fat ratio. Interestingly, it also found increases in power but not strength. (Power is defined as work over time, so in our context here, explosive exercise.)
Because of its role in metabolism, it makes sense to consume betaine anhydrous along with creatine, or in close proximity timewise. Betaine naturally occurs in shellfish, broccoli, beets, whole grains and spinach.
Betaine is commercially-available in powder and pill form, flavored and unflavored.
Energy Production and Fatigue Reduction
Don’t fear carbs.
Your muscles use carbohydrates as their primary energy source. Performance on the track or field, in the pool, or in the gym, relies on you having sufficient glycogen stores in your muscles, and that means carbs.
Not only are carbs crucial for intra-workout performance, they’re important for recovery and illness that can come from over-training immune responses6 (de Deus Sprinadelli LC, et al).
Intra-workout supplements containing carbs engineered for quick uptake by the body can boost energy and enhance post-workout recovery. The longer and more strenuous the workout, the greater the justification for intra-workout carb supplement.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap from the diet industry. A very diverse range of foodstuffs are carbs, including fruits and colorful vegetables. Regrettably, highly-processed packaged foods composed mostly of enriched flours have shellacked the larger carb family as primary contributors to obesity.
Beta Alanine is a non-essential amino acid. Beta-alanine is one of those chemicals that is important because it can increase the presence of another really important chemical. In this case, carnosine.
Carnosine helps improve exercise performance, in particular in high-intensity exercise and athletic events greater than one minute7. (Artioli GG, et al).
Carnosine (not to be confused with carnitine) has several beneficial effects in the body, among them being an anti-oxidant and wound healer. It has been shown to prevent the downsides from too much sugar in the body, which is important for persons with Metabolic Syndrome (insulin resistance) and diabetes, although maybe not crucial for people who are healthy otherwise. And, there’s evidence that it improves muscles’ ability to contract and resist fatigue8 (Everaert, et al).
Not having available beta-alanine in the body limits carnosine in the muscles. Beta-alanine supplements have been shown to increase muscle carnosine content and possibly have the potential to improve performance during high-intensity workouts.
Carnosine occurs naturally in animal proteins like beef, chicken, and pork.
Vegetarians would likely benefit most from a beta-alanine or carnosine supplement. Vegans and vegetarians can have as little as half the carnitine in their systems as omnivores.
There is a side effect. Beta Alanine can cause itchy skin, as can niacin.
Are Intra-Workout Supplements Necessary?
Let’s first ask “Are supplements necessary?” Realistically, they’re not. At least for everyone.
Supplements, by definition, make up a deficit of some sort. By taking nutritional supplements, the consumer’s essentially saying, “I’m not getting enough” of a certain nutrient through normal everyday diet. Extremely strenuous training can place nutritional demands on the body that challenges the everyday diet’s ability to supply.
But let’s be real.
Most gym-goers’ workouts aren’t sufficiently strenuous to require the nutrients found in a glass of milk or a handful of peanuts, let alone a beverage packed with high levels of protein constituents and metabolic stimulants. A set of 10 cable crossovers followed by two minutes of hunching over a cell phone checking social media just isn’t strenuous enough to require supplementation.
However, if you’re a competitor, a hard core exerciser, or an iron game enthusiast who wants to get an edge, and insure that not a single minute or joule of hard work is squandered, supplements make sense. Understand that anything your body can’t metabolize is going down the toilet, or—horror of horrors—going to fat storage. It’s true: too much protein can go to fat just like too much of any nutrient.
Because we’re talking about intra-workout supplements, we’re talking about timing. Is it important to precisely time when you eat or take a supplement: before, during, or after a workout?
The clinical evidence differs. Some studies have suggested some fairly specific intake timing depending on the supplement9 (Naderi A, et al).
Just because a supplement is categorized as intra-workout doesn’t mean that it’s only potentially effective when taken during a workout. Chances are good that consuming a quality intra-workout supplement would be just as effective before a workout, or after.
Timing of protein intake is probably not important, at least as important as was once thought11 (Schoenfeld BJ, et al). One study at a major university looked at protein uptake at the muscle cellular level in trained athletes, and the results were—well—timing of protein intake doesn’t matter, and by the way, neither did amount when the training environment was stable.
The one possible exception would be intra-workout energy supplements. Consuming energy drinks before or during a long workout makes more sense than afterwards.
Selecting the Best Intra-Workout Supplement for You
Which intra-workout supplement is best for you? Well, it depends on your training routine, your diet, and your pocketbook.
If your training regimen includes weights—lots of weights—you’ll want to select an intra-workout supplement that includes the muscle building and recovery compounds. Ingredients will include BCAAs, creatine, and betaine.
Weight lifters whose workouts are very long may shop for an intra-workout supplement that’s geared for energy as well.
If you’re a runner, cyclist, a Crossfitter, or engaged in another sport with long activity times, look for an intra-workout containing carbs and beta alanine. You’ll want one where the body puts it to use quickly.
Importance of Water and Clean Diet
Regardless of which intra-workout supplement you select, don’t ignore the basics. Supplements are as the name suggests: supplemental. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and eat a balanced diet that.
Make sure you get plenty of balance and diversity in your diet. The more different kinds of foods—lots of fiber and colors—makes your gut happy, and the happier your gut, the more effective it will be in getting those supplements where they need to go10.
Following these basic steps lays the foundation for performance and growth and assures your efforts will yield the results you want.
About the Research
Clinical study construction and control influences the outcome to a great degree. Know how to read the research objective, the methods used, the study size, and who sponsors the study if you want to know which studies to trust, if you use the research for your decision-making in the first place.
A weakness of many studies into the efficacy of supplements is their lack of dietary control, so it’s impossible to determine how much the study subject’s diet had to do with their individual study results, or how the supplement interacted with the diet they consumed. What this means is that a big question-mark remains into how much a supplement actually contributes.
Take note of the study sponsor. Scroll to the bottom of a study to see who paid for it. Studies sponsored by supplement manufacturers are automatically suspect. They may be completely legit and well-run, but even with good construction, funding matters. Study sponsors often reserve the right to publish only favorable results and sequester studies with results that don’t flatter their products.
- Stark M, et al. “Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2012; 9: 54. Published online 2012 Dec 14. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-54
- Shimomura Y, et al. “Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise.” The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 134, Issue 6, June 2004, Pages 1583S–1587S, doi.org/10.1093/jn/134.6.1583S 01 October 2004
- Stoppani J, et al. “Consuming a supplement containing branched-chain amino acids during a resistance-training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2009; Vol 6, Supplement 1
- Cooper R, et al. “Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2012; 9: 33. Published online 2012 Jul 20. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-33
- Cholewa JM, et al. “Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone”. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrution 2013; 10: 39. Published online 2013 Aug 22. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-10-39.
- De Dues Spirandelli LC, et al. “Transient Immune Deficit after Exercise and the Relationship with Immuno-Nutrition: A Short Review of the Literature.” International Journal of Sports and Exercise Medicine. doi: 10.23937/2469-5718/1510172
- Artioli GG, et al. “Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2010 Jun;42(6):1162-73. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181c74e38.
- Everaert I, et al. “Effect of beta-alanine and carnosine supplementation on muscle contractility in mice.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2013 Jan;45(1):43-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31826cdb68.
- Naderi A, et al. “Timing, optimal dose and intake duration of dietary supplements with evidence-based use in sports nutrition.” Journal of Exercise, Nutrition & Biochemistry. 2016 Dec; 20(4): 1–12. Published online 2016 Dec 31. doi: 10.20463/jenb.2016.0031
- Krajmalnik-Brown R, et al. “Effects of Gut Microbes on Nutrient Absorption and Energy Regulation.” Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 24 February 2012. doi.org/10.1177/0884533611436116
Schoenfeld BJ, et al. “The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Published online 2013 Dec 3. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-10-53