Bulking up the supplement routine: Ingredients for a well-rounded athlete

Protein may lead the pack when it comes to products for the healthy athlete, but other ingredients can help maximize muscle performance and recovery.

Mariko Hill, Global Innovation Manager

March 3, 2020

8 Min Read
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The sports nutrition marketplace and its growth is unmatched when compared with growth trends of other categories in the health industry. It is reported that from 2004 to 2018, the global sports nutrition market grew by 190% at a CAGR of 7.9%. This is saying something, especially when it comes to today’s consumer and their ever-changing demands. But this also bodes well for the overall industry. It opens doors to the expansion of ingredients, delivery formats and technologies.

The evolution in this category is also bringing a broad spectrum of consumers. It ranges from the consumer who wants to be healthy but isn’t interested in performance goals, to vegans and vegetarians looking to add protein to their diets, to those who are interested in weight management, all the way to the well-trained athlete looking to build muscle and improve performance. This diversity has amplified the number of companies introducing new supplement solutions while others are taking an innovative approach to TCM and Ayurvedic ingredients.

Leading the pack

When it comes to ingredients leading the pack, protein is and has been in first place, coming in at $4.14 billion in the U.S. market in 2018 . And due to the overall expansion and awareness of healthier living, the sports nutrition consumer has put the category and product positioning in direct competition with other sectors including the food and beverage categories, and vice versa. It is no longer just a protein powder. This development has increased protein’s visibility in various categories, and protein launches are becoming more apparent in numerous aisles of the grocery store. However, product differentiation in this sector is becoming increasingly difficult. And, keeping up with consumer buying trends is a challenge all by itself. According to Label Insight, nearly half of consumers say that allergies, intolerances or sensitivities impact the way they shop. So, if you have a product with gluten, added sugars, flavorings, et cetera, people may pass on that product altogether. Label Insight also reported that clean label, transparency, and research from a brand influence their choices when purchasing products.

Gaining on the competition

In addition to protein, and in some cases, in place of protein, there are several ingredients applicable to the sports nutrition category, and according to research and clinical backing, should be taken seriously by a manufacturer as a competitor.

Gynostemma pentaphyllum—A climbing vine

G. pentaphyllum has been used in food and supplement products for hundreds of years in China.1 The plant contains a family of compounds that upregulate alarmins including sestrins, which are produced during exercise.2 The sestrins activate an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPk).3 AMPk is often called the “master metabolic regulator” and switches on the same fat-burning and energy-producing metabolic processes that exercise does.4 By regulating metabolic activity (in the liver, lipids, skeletal muscle and brain), AMPk influences glucose utilization, oxidation and appetite.4 There have been several clinical studies on G. pentaphyllum and its potential effects on obesity. Specifically, a 12-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on 80 overweight participants studied the effects the extract has on body weight, fat loss and other metabolic functions. It was concluded that the active group saw significant decreases in body fat mass, percent of body fat, body weight and BMI, and total abdominal fat.5


Fenugreek is a widely cultivated annual herb. It has been shown to have numerous therapeutic benefits including immunomodulatory effects, antioxidant activity,6 sexual health benefits for both men and women,7,8 increases in free testosterone and muscle mass, and reduced body fat.9 In addition, a recent unpublished double-blind, randomized, dose-response, clinical trial demonstrated a unique extract of fenugreek increased strength, aerobic endurance and lean body mass in healthy, exercising men. Fenugreek is a promising ingredient as a standalone or as a key ingredient within the sports nutrition sector. It can easily be added into a variety of formulations including dietary supplements, powders and beverages.


In 2017, consumers spent more than $32 million on turmeric supplements, an increase of roughly $10.3 million from the prior year. This increase placed turmeric as the fifth top-selling mainstream herbal supplement in 2017.10 The global curcumin market by application segment has been dominated by the pharmaceutical sector leading the market share by revenue and is projected to reach $62.43 million by 2025. Research suggests that curcumin can help in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, pain, metabolic health and more.11 However, one area that we expect to see exponential growth is within the sports nutrition category. There are numerous studies demonstrating curcumin’s ability to help with exercise-induced muscle damage, exercise adaptation and/or recovery, and possibly playing a role in aiding concussed individuals.12  

One recent unpublished double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study evaluated the effect of an orally dosed branded curcumin, HydroCurc, on exercise recovery in healthy men. The results showed a significant decrease in pain associated with post-exercise-induced muscle fatigue. It also demonstrated a lower blood lactate concentration, which may allow exercising individuals to perform at higher thresholds for longer, improving training results. Overall the study suggested that HydroCurc may allow for a quicker return to exercise training or a return to exercise training at higher thresholds when compared to the placebo group.

Catching zzz’s

For an athlete, rest and recovery are just as important as the muscle building blocks. Numerous studies have demonstrated the negative impacts of sleep deprivation on athletic performance. Even mild sleep deprivation can affect reaction time, therefore degrading athletic performance.13 While you sleep, your muscles and central nervous system recover from the activity of the day before. One ingredient to help in sleep and recovery is palmitoylethanolamide, or PEA, an endogenous fatty acid amide produced as a direct response to stress, and the body produces PEA whenever it needs to minimize aches and discomfort.14

Currently, Gencor is working with leading nutritionists to utilize a branded extract of PEA, Levagen+, among professional athletes in rugby and cricket. So far, athletes have reported improvement in sleep, reduction of pain, and a quicker return to play. The link to sleep may be attributed to PEA’s role on reducing pain and inflammation, which is linked to disturbed sleep.

Additionally, Gencor is conducting an ongoing study with Levagen+ to explore its specific effects on sleep with the results expected to be published later this year.

Whether it’s the novice consumer or the trained elite athlete, ingredients for a well-rounded routine are critical. It’s time to take advantage of this expanding consumer base and provide a more holistic regimen.

Mariko Hill is a product development executive at Irvine, California-based Gencor. With knowledge in the field of exercise and nutrition and further experience as a research fellow from the University of Oxford, Hill is responsible for new product development and business development. As an international athlete, she has particular interest in the impact of nutrition on performance and recovery.


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2 Huige L et al. “Sestrin 2 induces autophagy and attenuates insulin resistance by regulating AMPK signaling in C2C12 myotubes.” Exp Cell Res. 2017;354(1):18-24.

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8 Steels E, Rao A, Vitetta L. “Physiological aspects of male libido enhanced by standardized Trigonella foenum-graecum extract and mineral formulation.” Phytother Res. 2011;25(9):1294-1300.

9 Wankhede S, Mohan V, Thakurdesai P. “Beneficial effects of fenugreek glycoside supplementation in male subjects during resistance training: A randomized controlled pilot study.” J Sport Health Sci. 2016;5(2):176-182.

10 Smith T et al. “Herbal Supplement Sales in US Increased 8.5% in 2017, Topping $8 Billion.” HerbalGram. 2018;119:62-71.

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12 Ashbaugh A, McGrew C. “The Role of Nutritional Supplements in Sports Concussion Treatment.” Curr Sports Med Rep. 2016;15(1)16-19.

13 Taheri M, Arabameri E. “The Effect of Sleep Deprivation on Choice Reaction Time and Anaerobic Power of College Student Athletes.” Asian J Sports Med. 2012;3(1):15-20.

14 Hesselink JM, deBoer T, Witkamp RF. “Palmitoylethanolamide: A Natural Body-Own Anti-Inflammatory Agent, Effective and Safe against Influenza and Common Cold.” Int J Inflam. 2013;151028.

About the Author(s)

Mariko Hill

Global Innovation Manager, Gencor

With knowledge in the field of exercise and nutrition and further experience as a research fellow from the University of Oxford, Mariko Hill is responsible for new product and business development at Gencor. As an international athlete, she has particular interest in the impact of nutrition on performance and recovery.

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