Patent and trademark activity indicate increased new product development in the sports performance category, which can encompass many ingredients that directly or indirectly impact performance. From a research perspective, performance is defined by strength, power, endurance and speed, although there is growing importance placed on cognitive metrics such as focus, concentration, processing and reaction time.
Balancing energy and fatigue: Endurance is key performance metric, and marquee here is a quest to prolong energy vs. looming fatigue. Many substances support the production of ATP, the energy molecule. Creatine, carnitine, ketones and carbs all play important roles in restoring and maintaining ATP stores. On the fatigue side, beta-alanine helps delay muscle fatigue, and caffeine outcompetes fatigue signaling adenosine for receptors in the brain. Caffeine has a mixed reputation, though, and alternative alkaloids such as theanine and teacrine from tea can offer the fatigue-busting benefits without the cardiovascular and tolerance risks of caffeine.
Mind games: Several newer ingredients on the sports nutrition market target cognitive performance that directly impacts athletes. Ingredients like Futureceutical’s neuroFactor and Kemin’s Neumentix increase neurotropins, including BDNF, which are responsible for the survival, function and development of neurons. This can lead to performance benefits like improved reaction times. In addition, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine impacts neuromuscular function in addition to promoting blood flow to the muscles by increasing synthesis of the vasodilator nitric oxide (NO). Hence, choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, has become a popular performance ingredient.
Blood flow: Ingredients that promote increased NO and, thus, improved blood flow, are popular in the current market. More blood flow means the muscles become more gorged with nutrients (called “pump”), which helps them perform better and become stronger (muscle stretch to accommodate the excess fluid). The amino acid arginine is a precursor to NO, so many sports formulas include arginine. Nitrates and nitrites can also prompt NO production; these nutrients are found in the soil and make their way into root vegetables like beets and leafy greens such as spinach.
Looking ahead, protein in its many forms will continue to loom large. For products aiming to impact muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the crux of muscle growth, the essential amino acid (EAA) leucine is theorized as the limiting factor or trigger. Protein formulas will increasingly see blends, such as fast-acting whey with slow-acting casein, and vegetarian formulas will increasingly see different types of plant proteins combined to boost levels of certain deficient or beneficial EAAs, like leucine. Despite being a protein source, collagen has not been hugely popular in many areas of sports nutrition, but there has been much more interest in its ability to support connective tissue and joints.
In the coming years, more stress-related products are expected, as consumers see an intuitive connection between stress and performance, and research shows the detrimental potential effect of increased cortisol (stress hormone) over longer periods of time. Here, adaptogens like ashwagandha may lead the charge, as this Ayurvedic botanical also may address physical performance by increasing endurance and strength, and mental performance by improving metrics like reaction time.
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