From collagen shots to chaga coffee, discover the top trending sports supplements and best workout aids to boost your health as well as your performance…
When GB heptathlete Holly Mills prepares to hit the track for a tough training session or competition, she always swallows a couple of blackcurrant supplements. ‘I need my muscles to perform well and, by taking blackcurrant extract, I’m able to run harder and faster for longer,’ she says.
At Nottingham Forest Women FC, players routinely pop a probiotic to ensure they stay match fit. Meanwhile, GB marathon runner Becky Briggs starts her mornings with a herbal nootropic. More and more athletes are embracing the power of natural sports supplements to stay on top of their game.
‘It’s not just about improving race times but enhancing recovery and supporting overall health and wellness,’ says Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan Elite. ‘Immunity is a big concern post pandemic, so probiotics are proving popular. Also trending is collagen, which can support recovery from bone and joint injury. Brain health and improved cognition are a growing interest too, with nootropics falling within this category.’
Whether you’re an elite athlete or regular exerciser, a food-first approach is key to peak performance and health, stress nutritionists. ‘For those who have a high-quality, balanced diet supporting their goals, micronutrient and herbal supplementation can then be useful,’ says Dr Adam Carey, sports nutritionist and chief medical officer for Indi Supplements.
So, should you ditch your caffeinated sports drink for the latest brain-boosting supplement or switch your protein shake for a collagen gel? Here’s what you need to know.
Best for: Preventing and healing sports injuries
How it works: Got niggling knee pain or recovering from injury? Try drinking a collagen shot before you exercise. Best known for
its beauty benefits, collagen (the body’s main structural protein) protects and repairs your joints, tendons and cartilage. The supplement is a favourite with athletes, including Andy Murray and Premiership football teams.
‘Collagen is important for athletes who place stress on ligaments and tendons,’ says Graeme Close, professor of human physiology at Liverpool John Moore’s University and scientific advisor for Nutrition X. ‘Research shows supplementing with collagen, 30 minutes to one hour prior to exercise, can help repair injuries by supplying tissue with proteins, plus reduces aches and pains in these areas.’
Wonder if you should trade in your usual whey protein? ‘Regular protein powders are still best for growing and repairing muscle,’ says Professor Close. ‘Collagen is best for repairing bones, tendons and ligaments. Research suggests 15-20g of collagen a day is the most effective dose.’
‘Taking collagen helps protect my body’
GB Para Taekwondo athlete, Amy Truesdale, regularly uses collagen shots, including during the Paralympics 2020.
‘As an older athlete, I’m aware that the production of collagen in my body has reduced. The collagen shots I take [Nutrition X Repair Collagen Shots, below] are essential in reducing pain and strengthening my ligaments, which is vital in a contact sport such as taekwondo.’
Best collagen supplements to try:
- Nutrition X Repair collagen shot (£27.49 for 12) 20g bovine collagen, vitamins, glucosamine and chondroitin.
- Myvitamins Collagen Powder (£29.99 for 600g) 20g bovine collagen peptides.
- Ingenious Active (£65 for 25 days) 627mg marine collagen, vitamins C and E, and ActiGin.
Best for: Maintaining performance
How it works: You may have tried probiotics to boost your health, but did you know they can support performance, too? First off, these gut-loving supplements help prevent the exercise-induced stomach cramps and bloating every endurance runner and cyclist dreads. ‘Our research shows that because probiotics can help reduce GI discomfort during exercise, athletes can maintain performance towards the end of competition better,’ says Professor Close.
A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found runners taking probiotics for four weeks before a marathon suffered less GI symptoms. And you know those annoying colds you get when training hard? Probiotics are also proven to reduce upper-respiratory tract infections in athletes. ‘Probiotics are good if you train intensively, to support immunity,’ confirms Hobson. Excitingly, research on cyclists now suggests probiotics may improve carbohydrate metabolism during exercise and aid protein absorption, too.
Want to give them a go? Ensure you buy the right blend and dose. ‘The lactobacillus and bifidobacterium blend of probiotics is shown to help gastrointestinal issues in athletes,’ says Professor Close. ‘Research shows we need greater than 20 billion colony forming units (CFU) in a tablet to be effective.’
Avoid taking probiotics with hot drinks, they can destroy the bacteria.
Best probiotics to try:
- Healthspan Elite Pro20 Biotic (£35.99 for 120 capsules). 20 billion CFU, including lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.
Best for: Reducing fatigue, aiding recovery
How it works: Reishi mushroom smoothies, turmeric and ginseng shots…if you’re feeling burnt out, it could be worth trading your regular juice for one of the latest post-workout tonics. Along with ashwagandha, rhodiola and holy basil, these adaptogenic plant ingredients regulate the body’s response to stress and restore equilibrium, potentially helping athletes withstand intense training.
While clinical research is limited, herbalists have used nootropics for centuries. ‘There’s a long historic use of such preparations in Chinese and ayurvedic medicine,’ says Dr Carey. ‘Studies on isolated nerve cells show they may aid better stress management and resistance to fatigue.’
A review study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that athletes taking the adaptogen curcumin (from turmeric) had faster recovery and better muscle performance, thanks to its anti-inflammatory powers. You may need to take adaptogens for several weeks to get full benefits.
Best adaptogens to try:
- Nourished The Inner Peace Stack (£28 for one month’s supply). Includes ashwagandha and HydroCurc (turmeric) to calm.
- Aminoscience Fatigue (£24 for three weeks’ supply). Siberian ginseng and rhodiola root with amino acids and nutrients to regulate energy.
- Indi Rest (£40 for 30 doses). Includes ashwagandha, L-theanine, chamomile, valerian root to prepare you for sleep.
Best for: Getting in the zone
How it works: Do you swear by a pre-workout espresso? Then you’ve already experienced the benefits of nootropics. Sometimes called ‘smart drugs’ or ‘brain supplements’, these mind-boosting compounds (including caffeine and taurine) not only improve focus and concentration but reduce perceived exertion, allowing you to exercise harder.
While too much caffeine can lead to reduced hand-eye co-ordination or a post-workout ‘crash’, natural nootropic ingredients (such as the herbs lion’s mane, gotu kola and bacopa monnieri, and amino acids l-theanine and tyrosine) get you in the zone while enhancing wellbeing.
‘Traditional stimulant-based, pre-workout supplements focus on raising heart rate and can cause physical anxiety,’ says Dr Rosie Tarbuck GP and advisor to Puresport. ‘Herbal compounds provide mental focus, clarity and tolerance to stress without side effects.’ Early studies on athletes suggest nootropics improve mental resilience and recovery. ‘Whether you’re looking to perform in a competition or recover well from a hard week of training, nootropics can help,’ says Dr Tarbuck.
Take a nootropic supplement 20-40 minutes before you perform.
‘Taking a nootropic has improved my energy levels’
A herbal supplement helps Winter Olympian and shotputter, Adele Nicoll, overcome the side effects of a debilitating condition.
‘I take Puresport Boost capsules every morning. I suffer from chronic fatigue due to a condition called ulcerative colitis and I find using Boost helps with this. I’ve trialled supplementing Boost capsules versus not using them, and I definitely feel more energised when I takethem consistently’.
Best nootropic supplements to try:
- Puresport Boost (£30 for 60 capsules). Caffeine-free blend of lion’s mane, ginkgo biloba and ginseng, plus vitamin C.
- Indi Mind (£45, 30 servings). Organic, plant-based blend, including bacopa monnieri and l-tyrosine with guarana and cacao.
- Bulk Daily Nootropic Capsules (£36.99 for 150 caps). Caffeine-free blend, including lion’s mane, gotu kola and AstraGin.
Best for: Endurance
How it works: Whether you want to beat your PB, train for a marathon, prevent DOMS or speed recovery, the humble blackcurrant could help you reach your goals. This small but mighty fruit is packed with anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant that dilates blood vessels, increasing transport of oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells, in turn improving energy, reducing lactate build-up and minimising post-exercise fatigue and muscle damage.
More than 30 clinical studies on runners, cyclists and climbers show that a New Zealand blackcurrant extract called CurraNZ (particularly rich in anthocyanins) helps athletes go faster, last longer and recover quicker. Indeed, a 2020 science review hailed it as one of the most potent, legal sports aids available.
‘Studies suggest taking blackcurrant extract may also increase utilisation of fat as a fuel during prolonged exercise,’ says Hobson. ‘This could be useful for endurance athletes.’ So impressive is its record, CurraNZ is used by many elite and professional athletes, including Tottenham Hotspur FC and the All Blacks. But it’s not just athletes who can benefit – recent research found CurraNZ accelerated muscle recovery threefold and reduced soreness by up to 49 per cent in novice exercisers.
For performance, take one to three supplements a couple of hours before exercising.
‘Blackcurrants help me train harder’
UK heptathlete Holly Mills takes blackcurrant extract supplements to optimise her performance.
‘It’s all about the extra one per cent, and CurraNZ gives me that. I find it really useful for training – I can push myself further, meaning I’m getting the biggest possible gains. I feel less fatigued and more ready to go for the next session. I’ve used CurraNZ for five years and it’s safe to say it will be staying in my kit bag for the rest of my career!’
Best blackcurrant supplements to try:
- CurraNZ (£12.99 for 15 capsules). 300mg CurraNZ per capsule.
- Healthspan All Blacks CurraNZ Blackcurrant Extract (£24.99, 30 capsules). 300mg CurraNZ per capsule.
Best sports supplements to try
Keep these handy helpers in your gym bag to stay on top form
- Ancient and Brave Naked Collagyn (£37 for 25 servings). A vegan collagen alternative with collagen-specific amino acids and vitamin C.
- Kollo 10 (£29.87 for 14 servings). Get 10g of high-quality marine collagen on-the-go with this mango-flavoured shot.
- Turmeric Zooki (£26.24 for 14 servings). Handy turmeric shots with 750mg of anti-inflammatory curcumin.
- DuelFuel Flapjack and Cake Slice (£20.40 for 6). A pre- and post-workout bar in one pack, approved by Informed Sport.
- Resilient Nutrition Switch On (£15 for 5). With l-tyrosine, l-theanine and creatine to boost alertness and brain function.