Performance in sports goes beyond competition to include training or regular exercise. By definition, performance is the execution of an action or the ability or manner used in completing a task. Sports nutrition researchers define performance in terms of strength, power and endurance, as well as sport skills including speed, agility and reaction time. Recently, cognitive function—focus, processing and memory—has drawn rising interest in the market for its impact on overall sports performance.
It could be confidently said that all sports nutrition ingredients have an ultimate effect on performance, even if their primary benefit is in weight management or recovery. However, many ingredients are researched for an influence on specific performance metrics used by sports nutrition researchers and, thus, have a more direct impact on performance.
Strength and power metrics are tied to the muscles, which are built and driven by protein/amino acids and energy. Each protein source, from dairy to plants and algae, has a unique profile of essential amino acids (EAAs) and specific rates of action. Whey is fast acting, while casein is slower. Each protein can play a role in muscle development and function, and blending different protein types is sometimes advantageous. The branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically leucine, are EAAs singled out for muscle building. Leucine is considered a limiting factor in muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the process of building new muscle mass.
Also involved in muscle building is mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), a regulatory pathway for MPS. Leucine and ingredients such as HMB (beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate) may signal mTOR-activated muscle growth.
Protein boosters, which help increase MPS, and testosterone boosters are other popular categories of ingredients for strength and power.
On the energy side, which also plays into endurance, ingredients that support production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cellular energy molecule, can support performance gains. Creatine helps energize short bursts of activity, such as resistance training and sprinting, while carnitine helps shuttle fatty acids into the mitochondria for use in later stage energy production.
On the flip side, compounds that inhibit fatigue can also improve performance. Beta alanine and carnosine help buffer fatigue-causing ions in the muscles, whereas caffeine disrupts fatigue signaling in the brain and stimulates the central nervous system.
Blood flow enhancers, which trigger vasodilation vis nitric oxide (NO), can help with both energy and muscle nutrition. Nitrates and arginine trigger NO production, as do a number of plants containing nitrites and nitrates, most notably beets and spinach. Citrulline malate is another ingredient that targets both energy and blood flow, as citrulline lifts NO levels and malate plays a role in ATP production.
The burgeoning cognitive performance component of sports nutrition focuses on direct performance measures such as reaction time and cognitive processing. One target is neurotrophins or growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which regulates neuron (brain cell) development and survival with an end effect on learning and memory. Whole coffee fruit is among a list of ingredients found to increase BDNF levels.
A newer spearmint leaf extract has been studied for improvements to reaction time, as well as working memory and memory accuracy. Reacting in sports also involves processing information through the eyes to the brain. Retinal protector carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin can improve visual processing speed.
Mood, concentration and stress also factor into the cognitive part of sports performance. An extract of the South African plant Sceletium tortuosum can help address these metrics, as can adaptogen plants such as ashwagandha.
For more information on all these different approaches to and ingredients for improved sports performance, download INSIDER’s "Nutrition to Power Sports Performance" digital magazine.