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5 Key Nutrients to Optimize Your Athletic Performance

Strong woman running

Athletes are always seeking to find the key to go faster, longer, and stronger! They may have the food and sports nutrition down pat. They also do the massage, stretching and compression boots. Maybe even the sauna training and cryotherapy and float tanks, but it is not enough. They want more and so do I! I want to go faster and feel strong with every session. There is nothing worse than the mind feeling fresh but the body does not go. Or, you are motivated but the body slows down and feels weak.

Many factors go into optimal performance. Remember that athletes are putting their bodies through stress and strain above and beyond normal function. Your age, stage and gender also impact how much focus needs to be on supporting the body through athletic performance. There are 7 foundational essentials to optimizing performance above and beyond pills and potions to optimize your performance.

7 Foundational Essentials to Optimizing Performance

  1. Food
  2. Hydration
  3. Quality sleep
  4. Stretching
  5. Rest/recovery cycles
  6. Massage/compression
  7. Correcting underlying health conditions

Once these 7 items are practiced and ingrained, there are plenty of nutrients and potions with all kinds of claims to make a person go faster! Multi Vitamins, B12, Fish oil, Caffeine, Green Tea, Iron, Vitamin D and the list goes on and on! The controversies over what diet is best; Vegan, Paleo, Ketogenic is also a huge area for athletes to stumble around in (see my upcoming blog on diet). However, outside of the details of diet, hydration and other nutritional supplement claims for optimizing sports performance, there are some key nutrients that I have found to be worth their weight in gold.

5 Essential Performance Nutrients For Competitive Athletes

  1. Branched chain amino acids (BCAA)
  2. Beta-Alanine
  3. Bicarbonate
  4. CoQ10
  5. L Arginine

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein. There are essential and non-essential amino acids. There are 20 standard amino acids used in the human body. Nine of these are essential. The branched-chain amino acids are a group of three essential amino acids that have been found to benefits in performance when taken before exercise. These BCAA are:

Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine.

These amino acids cannot be made by the human body and therefore are essential, meaning we need to get them from food. Various foods contain BCAA and some foods are more concentrated in these amino acids than others. For example, 3.4 ounces of cod contains 22 grams of protein and 8.7 grams of BCAA and ½ cup of kidney beans contains 7 grams of protein and just 2.8 grams of BCAA (Paleo Diet for Athletes). Although studies have suggested 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight or even 15 grams of BCAA, there are reasons to be careful about taking in too much. There was a study in 2017 in the J. of Physiology which showed that lower levels of BCAA contributed to leanness in mice.

Studies have shown that these three amino acids are key factors in building muscle tissue, decreasing muscle pain and muscle fatigue. Supplementing with BCAA is very important for the competitive athlete to ensure adequate replenishment and starting at lower doses is best. Explore what works best for you. Ideally, taking in the BCAA immediately after exercise is best for muscle recovery.

I recommend the following to my patients:
Skratch or Hammer Nutrition vegetarian or whey based recovery specific powder immediately following exercise.
Xymobo IX by Xymogen: 1 scoop.

Beta Alanine

So many athletes want to know if this supplement works and how to use it. Let me first start with what it is. Beta alanine + histidine make a nutrient called CARNOSINE. Carnosine is found in large quantities in muscle tissue. Carnosine buffers acid buildup in the muscle when exercising. Because carnosine has been found to be poorly absorbed and beta-alanine is not, beta-alanine is the preferred way to increase carnosine levels in the muscle.

Interestingly enough, Carnosine is also found to be lower in women as well as those who do not eat meat. Thus, females on a vegan or vegetarian diet should consider using beta-alanine supplementation daily. There are many studies demonstrating that exercise performance was improved by using beta-alanine. Most of these studies corroborate that exercise bouts of 1-4 minutes improved the most, moderate improvement occurred with bouts of exercise over 4 minutes. Most studies did use about 179 grams (1,790 mg) of beta-alanine. As a competitive 70.3 Ironman athlete, I had to keep digging for information about how beta-alanine may help me at these longer distances. In the research, there are only studies testing athletes at 20 minute bouts of cycling and 10 K running events.

I found the most helpful study was on cyclists where the dosing of the beta-alanine was 500mg 4 times a day for 28 days. I decided to practice this, and low and behold it has yielded the best results for me. Resulting in better muscle recovery and very minimal flushing from the product, even the timed released options.

My recommendations:
Beta-alanine by Thorne: 800mg (1 tablet) 30 minutes before your exercise with carbohydrate and again at 90 minutes during a long effort. Up to 4 times a day.


Ubiquinone (CoQ10) is a fat soluble vitamin. The heart and liver have high quantities of CoQ10. It is a key factor in generating ATP energy in the mitochondria through the electron transport chain. Ninety five percent of energy in the body is generated through this mechanism! I recommend taking CoQ10 with food because it is fat soluble . CoQ10 levels peak at 2-4 hours after taking it. Many studies on CoQ10 and exercise show that using CoQ10 does decrease inflammation and oxidative stress in athletes. From my experience, using CoQ10 daily helps me recover quickly.

CoQ10 is what I call a ‘designer’ nutrient, which means it is not cheap. It is important to get a product that is suspended in oil as an emulsified product or the chewables. Although doses of 100mg are most typical, studies suggest that the higher the better.

I personally use 300mg daily in a capsule as QPro available at NatureMed.


Active man and woman having snack at break between workouts and watching online videos in tabletIn 1922, physiologist, Archibald Hill won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in Medicine for discoveries concerning the production of heat in muscles. He discovered that hydrogen ions accumulate inside muscle cells during strenuous exercise. When you exercise, glucose breaks down into lactate and hydrogen ions! He theorized that muscle cells must have buffers that soak up these excess acids which may be important in determining one’s exercise tolerance.

How does the body naturally buffer the acid in a cell? Oxygen, blood flow, hemoglobin concentrations (because hemoglobin carries oxygen!) and bicarbonate. Bicarbonate comes from the pancreas and when you exercise, this signal gets stimulated. Some athletes are very sensitive to this and will have gastrointestinal symptoms with intense or prolonged exercise.

“So doctor, do I just drink baking soda?” Well, that is one way to do it, however the main side effect of bicarbonate loading is stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and even vomiting. Of course, you can drink some baking soda at night before bed and this won’t give you the gastrointestinal symptoms during exercise, however the best way to have bicarbonate improve performance is to use it shortly before your training sessions. As always, experiment BEFORE your competition! Because there are so many nuances to using bicarbonate for buffering during exercise, such as the GI side effects and also fluid retention, I always recommend people to use the lowest effective dose.

My suggestion is to start with using sodium bicarb or other bicarbonate product loading over a 5 day period before a performance session and increasing the dose gradually over that 5 days as follows:

  • Day 1: Single dose
  • Day 2: One dose twice a day
  • Day 3: and 4: One dose three times a day
  • Day 5: One dose up to four times a day
  • Event day: No bicarbonate

You can use baking soda and start with ⅛ tsp in a glass of water or you can buy sodium bicarbonate tablets which are about 650mg of sodium bicarb. I like Hammer Nutrition products and use the Race Caps for convenience. Always take the product with water a little bit of carbohydrate, which could be in the form of fruit or a grain.

Remember, with the popularity of IV treatments these days, you can get a nutritional IV treatment with sodium bicarb added before and after competition! Check out our Drip Room IV options for more information!

L Arginine

This amino acid is excellent for everyone especially athletes. It helps to increase growth hormone production, enhance insulin sensitivity and glucose control as well as to increase nitric oxide in vessels. Nitric oxide is a substance that relaxes blood vessels. When blood vessels relax, more blood can flow! There are foods high in Nitric oxide such as Beets and tart Cherries which are popular for athletes because of this effect on the blood vessels. L arginine also enhances cellular sensitivity to insulin and improves glucose control. This is also very important for athletes. I have been using L arginine for years and feel its effects on my performance in being able to have more stamina in long bouts of training.

One thing to be aware of is that many athletes have low blood pressure. When a blood vessel relaxes blood pressure goes down. What I notice is that when I take more than 1200mg of L arginine daily I get heart palpitations as my blood pressure is too low. So, be careful with the dose and use what works, again, the lowest effective dose is best. I love to use NOPro (available at NatureMed) and take 2 tablets before a workout.

Yes You Can! written on notepad with a cup of coffee and plant by it's side

As an aging female competitive athlete, I must supplement my 7 Foundational essentials with nutritional supplements if I want to perform well. There are so many options out there and so many claims made about supplements enhancing performance. Everyone is unique and certain supplements work well for one person and not for others. We all go in cycles as well and my supplement regime will change based upon those cycles of intensity, types of exercise or overall health.

For the purpose of this post, my 5 go to supplements and personal dosing for improving recovery and performance are:

  • Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) in the form of Xymbio IX: 1 scoop immediately after exercise.
  • Beta-Alanine by Thorne: 1 tablet up to 3 times a day prior to workouts with food.
  • Bicarbonate in the form of Hammer Nutrition Race Caps: 1 capsule 2 times daily with applesauce.
  • CoQ10: QPro capsules: 3 daily with breakfast.
  • L Arginine: NOPro: 2 tablets before exercise

For a personalized touch to performance enhancement consult with your Naturopathic Doctor who can check your blood work and know your health history in order to optimize your overall performance naturally!