Sports Nutrition: Innovative Ingredients for Athletes

Athletes optimize their training and nutrition to increase performance and gain a competitive edge. Ingredients such as probiotics, various forms of protein, amino acids, and more, can help them come that much closer to victory.

Ralf Jäger, Co-founder

September 3, 2015

5 Min Read
Sports Nutrition: Innovative Ingredients for Athletes

Athletes optimize their training and nutrition to increase performance and gain a competitive edge. Only a very small improvement can be the difference between 4th place or winning it all. Athletes are looking for validated ergogenic supplements that have been shown to significantly enhance exercise performance (e.g., helps them run faster or lift more weight), while nutritional practices that help prepare individuals to train and/or enhance recovery from exercise can also be viewed as ergogenic (enhancing performance in the long run). The simplest ergogenic aid is water. Other commonly used nutrients to improve the hydration status of an athlete are electrolytes, betaine or glycerol. Ingredients aimed at increasing lean body mass-strength-power are protein and creatine. Endurance athletes use nitrates, choline or astaxanthin; and caffeine, phosphatidylserine or L-theanine are the most common ingredients to increase mental performance. But there are innovative offerings out there as well.

Gut-Muscle-Axis: Probiotics Offer Benefits for Athletes

Athletes are healthier than the average Joe, right? Unfortunately, that’s completely wrong when it comes to immune health. While light exercise strengthens the immune system, strenuous exercise increases an athlete’s chances of catching an infection to the same risk level as infants or the elderly. Probiotics have been shown to reduce exercise-induced episodes and severity of infections. Recent studies have investigated the impact of gut microbiota modulation on muscle physiology (gut-muscle-axis). Probiotics have been shown to improve gastrointestinal (GI) health and increase protein absorption. Combining probiotics with protein protects muscle from damaging exercise, improving recovery and, subsequently, athletic performance. In addition, probiotics have been shown to modulate inflammation, balance hormonal responses and increase neurotransmitter synthesis, all important aspects of an athlete’s health.

Appropriate Protein Choices

Protein supplementation has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) in response to exercise in a dose-dependent manner and approximately 20 g protein is needed to increase recovery and lean body mass (LBM), and subsequently increase strength and power. Recommended protein intake for sedentary adults ranges from 0.8 to 0.9 g/kg/d; however, recommendations for athletes range from 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg/d of high-quality protein, as athletes want to increase muscle mass rather than simply maintain what they have. Proteins provide 20 amino acids, of which nine are essential amino acids (EAAs), which have to be consumed through the diet, and 11 non-essential amino acids (NEAAs). EAAs alone stimulate as much MPS as a whole protein with the same EAA content. Research shows the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, isoleucine and valine—were able to stimulate MPS to the same degree as all nine EAAs together. When examined further, only leucine was able to stimulate MPS independently. Intake of leucine for optimal MPS ranges from 1.7 to 3.5 g; however, leucine alone does not work.

Most animal-derived protein sources are complete proteins, whereas many proteins from plant sources are incomplete. Plant proteins, with the exception of soy and chia, do not contain the essential amino acids in a ratio to optimally support biological functions in the human body. The shortcomings of the individual protein source might be overcome by combining two different sources to create a protein blend with the characteristics of a complete protein, e.g., a combination of rice (low in lysine) and pea (rich in lysine). Animal and plant proteins differ in their absorption rate (e.g. whey [99 percent], casein [97 percent], rice [87 percent], pea [93.5 percent]); digestion kinetics (fast: used post-exercise, e.g., whey; intermediate, e.g., rice; or slow: used before bedtime: e.g., casein); and, most importantly for athletes, in leucine content, with a minimum target of 1.7 g. While animal proteins have a higher leucine content and are absorbed better, quality differences can be overcome by increasing the protein intake of plant proteins per serving, and at higher doses animal and plant proteins are equally beneficial (e.g., whey and rice).

Specialty Offerings

In a busy world, it’s not surprising that folks want to optimize the results of the time spent at the gym, looking to double, or even triple, the effects of training alone. Combination products could deliver an ingredient that will allow athletes to push harder, one to increase muscle mass, and another ingredient that protects muscle from damage, reduces muscle protein breakdown and speeds up recovery. Early science points at adenosine triphosphate (ATP), HMB-free acid (HMB-FA) and phosphatidic acid to be those three ingredients.

ATP has been shown to increase blood flow and muscular excitability. Taken as a pre-workout supplement, it increases muscle mass, strength and power, while reducing fatigue.

HMB-FA has been shown to protect the muscle from damage and to reduce muscle breakdown. HMB was originally introduced as calcium salt; however, the new form, HMB-FA, shows increased absorption, faster absorption (30 minutes vs. two to three hours for the calcium salt) and increased retention. It also seems to be more effective in increasing muscle mass and performance. HMB-FA shows its full potential during times of overtraining.

The mechanical stimulus of lifting weights in the gym will increase muscle protein synthesis through the mTOR pathway. The molecule that the human body uses to stimulate muscle protein synthesis is phosphatidic acid (PA). Supplementing with the same molecule naturally used during training increases the naturally occurring muscle growth. 

Ralf Jäger is an inventor of functional foods and dietary supplements, and an expert in probiotics and sports nutrition. He has authored numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers, industry publications and mainstream media articles on sports nutrition, brain, joint, heart and gut health. He studied at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Bonn, and began his career developing bio-active ingredients for a leading multi-national billion dollar company. He advanced in his career to vice president of marketing and sales before co-founding Increnovo in 2007.

Looking for more information on Innovative Sports Nutrition Ingredients?

Ralf Jäger will present in the session “Sports Nutrition: Market Trends and Ingredient Opportunities" as part of the Natural Products INSIDER track in the SupplySide West Education Program. His session will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 6, from 3 to 3:50 p.m. at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Visit for more information and to get registered.

About the Author(s)

Ralf Jäger

Co-founder, Increnovo

Ralf Jäger, Ph.D., FISSN, CISSN, MBA, has conducted numerous clinical studies and published peer-reviewed scientific papers, industry publications and mainstream media articles on probiotics and sports nutrition, brain, joint, heart and gut health. He co-founded Increnovo in 2007.

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