The Tactical Athlete's Ultimate Guide to Dietary Supplements
Updated: Aug 29, 2020
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Experts estimate the global Dietary Supplement (DS) market will reach $210.3 billion by the year 2026. Last year, Americans alone spent $42.6 billion on DS. According to a 2013 study, more than half of adults in the United States use DS; their reasons for supplement use range from improving heart, joint, skin, and prostate health to “boosting immunity” and increasing energy. Within the military, where DS use is even more prevalent, service members are more likely to use supplements with purported ergogenic or performance enhancing effects. In fact, among some military sub-groups (looking at you grunts), more than three out of four members use DS.
The prevalence of DS use in the military is no surprise to anyone who frequents the barracks, where shelves, drawers, closets, and bureaus are stuffed full of powders and pills of dubious origin. And herein lies the problem, not all supplements and supplement purveyors are created equal. While some supplements merely fail to fulfill the promises on the label, others can be harmful and even illegal. With all the marketing claims, sensational news stories, and bulked-up supp-store salespeople, how do we cut through the noise? How can engaged leaders help their team make wise choices regarding DS efficacy and safety?
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Let’s start with the good news: According to research, people that use supplements are more likely to report very good or excellent health, use alcohol less, avoid cigarette smoking, and exercise more. Moreover, some supplements that are safe and relatively cheap really do live up to marketing claims.
For those glass-half-empty folks, here’s the bad news: DS are regulated by the FDA like food items, not drugs. According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), products intended to “supplement” the diet are generally not inspected or approved by the FDA before the product is stocked on store shelves. In fact, the FDA does not usually investigate a product or manufacturer’s claims until after report of an adverse event.
And finally… the ugly: Many DS manufacturers and retailers do not conduct or require independent inspection of their manufacturing processes or ingredients. It is not uncommon for a DS to contain unlawful stimulants, steroids, hormones, and/or unapproved drugs. For example, in July of 2019, the Department of the Army issued a criminal alert notice for DoD prohibited substances found in supplements sold by 5 Star Nutrition on a military installation.
To Supp, or Not to Supp - Could you "pop hot" for supplements you bought legally!?
In a perfect world, we would sleep more than eight hours per night, wake up without an alarm clock, and eat a leisurely breakfast composed of the exact nutrients we need for optimal cellular function -- no need for supplements in this peak performance paradise. Unfortunately, this scenario is the opposite of real life in the military, where only five percent of service members sleep more than 8 hours per night, and breakfast is composed of a taquito, an energy drink, and an upper-lip of the “grizz.” Unpredictable schedules, rigorous training, tight timelines, and competitive personalities looking for an edge are all factors that nearly guarantee continued supplement use in the military. We acknowledge this reality and created this guide to support tactical athletes and engaged leaders. So, whether you’re looking to add 20 pounds to your trap-bar deadlift, or just looking out for your team, this resource is intended to give you the tools to navigate the complex world of dietary supplements.
Keep reading to find out:
How to evaluate a supplement label
How to evaluate marketing claims - is it hype or should you be hopeful?
What to look for in safe, legal supplements
Which supplements may be worth your hard earned cash
Which supplements aren’t worth...
Which supplements are safe, legal and absolutely effective?
Evaluating the supplement label.
Does the label have ingredients of which you’ve never heard? Does it have a proprietary blend with an unspecified quantity of particular compounds? Does the manufacturer or seller make claims about the supplement’s effectiveness that sound too good to be true? If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” it may warrant further investigation. Check out this label from a fairly common bodybuilding supplement. It contains several substances often found in products marketed as natural testosterone boosters. Spoiler alert: Don’t waste your money on this supplement or any of its ingredients.
Here’s the process we used to eliminate these ingredients from our list of ergogenic aids:
Use https://www.opss.org to cross-reference the DoD-prohibited DS list. If it’s on this list, you can’t use it! Operation Supplement Safety also has an automated scorecard and an index of common supplement ingredients you can use to help evaluate the label.
Fire up google scholar. Supplements that are well-researched typically have an associated meta-analysis. Search “meta-analysis” + “(insert ingredient)” + “performance.” Here’s what we found when we investigated Tribulus Terrestris: a systematic review concluded that “literature available for the effectiveness of TT on enhancing testosterone concentrations is limited. Evidence to date suggests that TT is ineffective for increasing testosterone levels in humans, thus marketing claims are unsubstantiated.” We obtained similar results when we investigated DHEA, ruling out two of the most common ingredients found in “test-boosters.”
Supplements with “proprietary blends” or an “advanced performance matrix” are difficult to evaluate for a variety of reasons. Most of all, proprietary blends don’t offer the quantity of listed ingredients. It is not uncommon for proprietary blends to list caffeine by another name in massive, untold quantities. For the tactical athlete, the risk of the proprietary blend is likely not worth the reward; avoid blends with unlisted quantities unless you know and trust the source.
Further evaluating supplement labels
Let’s take a look at the label on our favorite whey protein:
Determine the cost per serving by dividing the total cost by the number of servings. This will give you one more way, in addition to source, quality, taste, consistency, and digestibility, to compare supplements. When comparing proteins, you’ll also want to compare the cost per gram of protein. Good protein powder is not synonymous with cheap protein powder.
Percent Daily Value (%DV)
This is usually based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which meets the daily energy needs of a sedentary 165 pound non-athlete. An in-depth discussion of nutrition is beyond the scope of this article, but this is an appropriate time to remind you of the unique resources available to many service members. Anyone with access to an Army Wellness Center (AWC) should absolutely schedule an appointment to measure their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and body fat percentage. Experts at the AWC use this information to provide excellent counseling. With your BMR and other results in hand, make an appointment with your unit’s nutritionist or a Registered Dietician (RD) at the hospital. These folks are the experts and can help you dial in your specific caloric and macronutrient needs; civilians pay thousands of dollars for resources like these, but they’re free to service members.
Don't forget… supplement facts are not actionable information until you put them in the context of your individualized training goals and nutritional strategy.
Look for a third-party certification seal on the product label
Click here to learn more about third-party certifications for dietary supplements.
Developing a Nutritional Strategy (that may or may not include supplements)
A quick reminder: Training For 600 does not employ a nutritionist or a Registered Dietician (RD); our recommendations are based on generally accepted sports nutrition industry standards. In other words, these recommendations are far from controversial.
Gas station hot-dog + monster energy + a can of skoal ≠ the foundation for physical excellence.
Supplementing this nutritional strategy is a waste of money. Before spending your hard-earned cash at GNC, evaluate your current diet by answering these questions: How many calories do you consume on a typical weekday? What about Saturday? The entire 7-day week? What percentage of your caloric intake is from each of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats)? What is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)?
Between now and your appointment with an expert professional, here are some tips to help you can use to evaluate your current diet:
Start a food journal: Simply recording what you eat each day can contribute significantly to improving nutrition habits. MyFitnessPal and Yazio both have smartphone apps that make calculating caloric intake simple.
Download an app and start logging your meals for at least 7 days.
Food journaling will give you an idea of how many calories you consume on average and how many of those calories come from each of the macronutrients. Compare your actual consumption with recommendations from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN):
For low to moderate activity (30-40 minutes, 3 times/week): consume approximately 1800 to 2400 calories per day
For moderate levels of intense training (2-3 hours/day, 5-6 times/week): consume 2,000 to 7,000 calories per day (for athletes ranging from 110 to 220 lbs)
*Since 2,000 to 7,000 calories is a large range based on body weight and activity levels, a calculator like this may help you narrow the range:
Whole foods first, then supplement the delta
According to the ISSN, “the primary component to optimize training and performance through nutrition is to ensure the athlete is consuming enough calories to offset energy expenditure.” Now that you’ve calibrated the most important component of the nutritional strategy, we’re finally ready to address supplementing to meet those needs.
Supplement Recommendations for the Tactical Athlete
Protein - Our Favorite: Ascent Native Fuel Whey Protein
BLUF: According to a 2017 meta-analysis, protein supplementation significantly enhanced muscle strength and size when paired with resistance exercise training. High quality, fast-digesting whey protein is the most effective type of protein supplement.
Why is protein so effective? “An acute exercise stimulus, particularly resistance exercise, and protein ingestion both stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and are synergistic when protein consumption occurs before or after resistance exercise.” Muscle growth occurs when MPS is greater than muscle protein degradation (MPD); supplementing with protein increases the likelihood that the raw materials for MPS (essential amino acids) are readily available.
Who should supplement with protein? Anyone that is not meeting daily requirements for protein by consuming whole foods may benefit from protein supplementation. Tactical athletes looking to build or maintain muscle mass may choose to supplement with protein to ensure a positive muscle protein balance. Endurance focused tactical athletes should prioritize carbohydrate intake, but may offset muscle damage and promote recovery by supplementing with protein.
How much protein do I need? 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (g/kg bw/day). So a 185 pound athlete needs between 136 and 168 grams of protein every day. If you prefer to just “eyeball it,” about a gram per pound of bodyweight should do the trick. Experts do not recommend acute doses of more than 40 grams of protein, but your favorite NCO might put it like this: “more is not better… better is better.”
What are the best sources of protein? Proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids are termed “complete proteins.” These proteins include: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. High quality whey protein, derived from milk, also contains all nine essential amino acids, and most importantly, it contains the highest concentration of the essential amino acid leucine. Experts recommend consuming a combination of higher quality protein sources (dairy, eggs, meat) and fast-digesting whey proteins when supplementing. Whey > Casein > Soy.
What about nutrient timing? It appears that the “anabolic window,” that magic time frame when whey protein goes straight from the shaker bottle to your muscles, may not work like bro-science suggests. Real science suggests meeting daily requirements for protein with high quality sources and consuming protein every three to four hours. On the other hand, if downing some caffeine before working out, sipping some protein during your workout, and slamming a shake after your workout helps you get the job done in the gym, please keep on keeping on.
Anything else you’d like to know about protein choices? Let us know in the comments and we’ll keep adding to this content based on your recommendations.
Creatine - Our Favorite: Universal Creapure Creatine
BLUF: As one of the most studied sports supplements, researchers have repeatedly concluded that creatine is both safe and effective. Primarily used by strength athletes to optimize strength and muscle mass gains, creatine supplementation may also enhance post-exercise recovery, injury prevention, thermoregulation, rehabilitation, and recovery from concussion.
Why is creatine so effective? Creatine occurs naturally in the human body, is found mostly in skeletal muscle, and can be obtained from the diet via red meat and seafood. Creatine not obtained from the diet (about half of all creatine) is synthesized in the liver and kidneys. Creatine plays a critical role in metabolism by combining with inorganic phosphate (Pi) to create phosphocreatine (PCr). PCr contributes to the production of the body’s energy currency, adenosine triphosphate (ATP); creatine’s role in maintaining ATP availability, and thus cellular energy, helps explain the ergogenic effects of creatine supplementation.
Who should supplement with creatine? From the ISSN: “Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes with the intent of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.” In other words, any tactical athlete conducting worthwhile training would likely benefit from creatine supplementation. In addition to performance enhancing effects, it appears that creatine supplementation may also mitigate injury risk and enhance recovery.
How much creatine do I need? Creatine supplementation serves to ensure 100% saturation of muscle creatine stores, which are generally 60-80% saturated by the average diet. Normal protocol for creatine supplementation calls for a 5-day loading period of 20 grams of creatine per day (spread out over 4 servings) to ensure full saturation of muscle creatine stores. After loading, athletes can maintain creatine stores by supplementing with 3 to 5 grams per day.
What’s the best creatine? Creatine supplements are sold in various forms: creatine monohydrate, creatine citrate, creatine serum, creatine ethyl ester, and creatine nitrate. Most of the creatine research focuses on creatine monohydrate, and research has not proven any other form of creatine more effective. Look for the Creapure® logo when selecting a creatine; much of the creatine used in research came from this manufacturer.
Protein and Creatine stand in a class of their own above all other supplements. Both are relatively cheap, safe, and proven effective in hundreds of studies. Most tactical athletes will benefit by supplementing with both protein and creatine.
Before diving deeper, reconsider your training goals. What is the most important habit you could form or step you could take to help you achieve those goals? If you haven’t already dialed in your sleep, nutrition, and recovery, we strongly recommend you work in those areas before experimenting with the following conditionally effective supplements.
Supplements that work… with some stipulations.
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) - Our Favorite: Optimum Nutrition HMB
BLUF: HMB is an emerging supplement that has demonstrated some promise in a number of studies. A metabolite of the amino acid leucine, when combined with resistance exercise training, HMB may contribute to increases in lean body mass and decreases in fat mass, especially for tactical athletes just starting a strength program.
Significantly lower volume of research
Short-term supplementation (4 weeks) only effective for untrained populations
Long-term supplementation (12 weeks) may be required for highly trained populations
Dosing may be a hassle: recommended dose of 1 gram 3 times per day.
Beta-alanine - Our Favorite: Optimum Nutrition Beta-Alanine
BLUF: One of the factors that limits the rate at which one can perform high intensity exercise is a drop in blood pH. When the acidity in the working muscle increases, the muscle’s effectiveness decreases. Carnosine, a naturally occurring dipeptide stored mostly in skeletal muscle, acts to buffer the pH, theoretically increasing the amount of time a muscle can perform high intensity work. Beta-alanine is the rate-limiting precursor to muscle carnosine synthesis, and research indicates indicates beta-alanine supplementation reliably increases muscle carnosine. In theory, beta-alanine supplementation might improve exercise performance by way of buffering pH and increasing the amount of time one can perform high intensity work.
Beta-alanine causes paraesthesia (tingling). Many supplements, especially pre-workout supplements, simply include enough beta-alanine to make you tingle, not enough to increase performance
It takes about 4 weeks of supplementing with 4-6 grams of beta-alanine per day to reach muscle carnosine concentrations that increase performance
Current research supports beta-alanine’s effectiveness during high-intensity exercise lasting 1 to 4 minutes; more research is necessary to determine its effectiveness in other time and modal domains. It might help you on the Spring-Drag-Carry event of the ACFT, but not necessarily the 2-mile run.
BLUF: According to the ISSN, “caffeine is an effective ergogenic aid for sustained maximal endurance activity, and has demonstrated effectiveness in enhancing time trial performance.” It is currently unclear whether caffeine increases performance in other domains like strength and power.
Effective Dose: 3-6 mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight up to 60 minutes prior to performance. For reference, 6 mg/kg for a 184 pound person is 500mg of caffeine; a “venti” coffee from Starbucks contains 415 mg of caffeine. Individual tolerance matters and not everyone responds well to high doses of caffeine
Higher doses have not proved more effective
Caffeine in capsule or powder form appears more effective than coffee
What about glutamine, arginine, BCAAs, taurine, quercetin, fenugreek, and other vitamins and minerals? Unless lab tests have determined you have a deficiency in a certain area, current research does not support the effectiveness of other potential ergogenic aids.
Two exceptions for the Tactical Athlete
Vitamin D and Omega 3
Healthy levels of vitamin D promote optimal muscle function, exercise performance, and strength for all athletes, but recent research indicates a special need for the tactical athlete. Studies have indicated between 16 and 30 percent of Soldiers are vitamin D deficient; this is of particular concern because vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased risk for depression and suicide.
Like vitamin D, appropriate levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) generally support positive health outcomes. The American Heart Association recommends the general public supplement to meet daily recommendations, but omega-3 supplementation may prove even more critical for the tactical athlete. Research indicates that low DHA “is a significant risk factor for suicide death among active duty US military.” Additionally, omega-3 supplementation has the potential to provide a degree of “neuroprotection” for those at risk of concussion. Here's one great recommendation for both Omega 3's and Vitamin D:
A growing body of research implicates an improper omega-6 to omega-3 ratio as an underlying factor causing numerous chronic diseases. Watch this video to nerd-out on omega-3’s and learn why some people believe this ratio is so important:
Question: What supplements should I use?
Answer: Have you “maxed out” the gains available to you via proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep? What are your goals? Are they specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely? Answer these questions first. Then find a supplement that supports your well-defined strategy.