When people are new to working out, one of the most common things they’ll do is look for ways to make things easier & faster. After all, who wouldn’t want instant results or to decrease their recovery by an extra day or two. As we advance in whatever our performance pursuit may be, we often realize that a militaristic approach to recovery and performance works best and that the real key to diet, training, and supplement protocols is consistency. When approaching supplements for any training regimen, it’s important to assess your diet first. The supplements you choose should always revolve around what’s being eaten on a daily & weekly basis and in many cases, what’s not being eaten. For example, if you’re a performance athlete following a diet plan that requires 400g of carbohydrates daily, but you’re usually only eating 50g of carbohydrates, then a carbohydrate powder before, during, or after your workout may be in your best interest. The same can be said for greens, fish oil, and protein powders. The second goal of this article is to help you understand the different qualities that are available and tips for being able to do this quickly when you’re purchasing supplements. When crossfit came to the mainstream market, many companies jumped on the opportunity to create a cheap product with a fancy label and mark it up to those who can afford to pay $150+ for a monthly gym membership. It was a golden opportunity for supplement sharks but as time goes on people learn and you’re about to be one of those people.
Protein is a challenging category and before you make your first purchase you should figure out if it’s something you even need. Whey protein is not a product you need if you’re eating enough protein throughout your day. Protein consumption is often measured in grams and if you’re eating the desired amount, adding more protein in a powder form may not actually help you with your goals. Depending on your sport, your existing physique, your performance level, and your future goals paired with a timeline will address how much protein you specifically need.
There are many different protein powder categories (let alone sources) out there. We will talk about the following categories in this article: Whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, casein protein, egg protein, vegan protein, beef protein, and collagen protein. Within these categories we’ll have sub categories so make sure you’re keeping notes.
Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein powder is divided into two main categories. Whey isolate & whey concentrate. Whey isolate is easily defined as a 90% pure whey protein. That means for every scoop for protein (for this purpose, lets not think of any additives like sweetener right now) you’re getting 90% protein and 10% carbohydrates & fats. Typically protein carbs come in the form of lactose (milk sugar) which is often the cause of digestion issues in adults consuming protein powders. That is also why whey isolates are often easier to digest for those with sensitive stomachs to lactose. Whey concentrate is a little more difficult to understand. Whey concentrate is a more generic term and can be used for any protein that is from 34% purity to 80% purity. If you’re double taking, you didn’t read that wrong - 34% purity can be whey concentrate. The more interesting part about whey concentrate is that very rarely do brands disclose the purity of the whey concentrate that they’re using. If you see whey concentrate on a label, you have very little idea of the purity you’re getting. We do have one trick though and we’ll discuss that shortly. Before we move on, it’s important to understand that just because a whey protein is an isolate, doesn’t necessarily make it better than a concentrate. The amount of processing, the source, and a few other factors go into deciding if a protein is quality. Some will argue that the refining of a whey isolate protein actually makes it worse than concentrate but that argument is for another day.
Casein protein is very common and continues to build momentum in the supplement industry. Whey protein has a superior amino acid content to casein protein, but that doesn’t mean that casein protein doesn’t have its place within your supplement (and diet) regimen (1). Casein is often thought of as the overnight protein powder and there is some truth to that. Casein has a slower absorption rate into the bloodstream and digests (what we believe) to be more like a real food. This is ideal for long periods of time (like sleeping) where you’re unable to eat or consume a protein meal. Casein protein can help continue to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and prevent the body from entering a catabolic phase (2). When you’re trying to decide whether you should purchase a casein protein, also keep in mind that food can be sufficient too. Protein foods paired with fat tend to digest at a slower rate. Casein is a great alternative to when a proper meal is not an option and you’ll be going without a meal for a long period of time. Casein can also be more macro conscious for those following tight macro plans. Casein has a richer, thicker consistency that tends to be satiating. If you’re purchasing a casein protein, be sure to grab the micellar casein version instead of the inferior calcium caseinate.
Now that you know the difference between casein, whey isolates and whey concentrates, we’re going to introduce you to the infamous blend. A whey blend is when more than one type of whey protein is used to create the total protein value of the powder. Whey blends are created and marketed for many reasons, but the main reason always is… cost. When you take a whey isolate and mix it with a whey concentrate, you get a more cost effective product and therefore can reduce the amount of “issues” a purchaser may have with digestion when doing so. As you read this you may wonder why anyone would sacrifice for a second tier product, but that may not be the truth. For those who digest concentrates & blends without issue, a blended protein may be a great option for them. The additional calories may prolong digestion slightly more than an isolate and still give them the amino acid count of a good quality protein. A blend can also save the purchaser a lot of money if they’re relying on powders daily to help fulfill their protein goals.
The king of blends isn’t just a whey blend. It’s the milk protein blend. Milk protein is before the protein source is divided up into whey and casein and it’s one, together source of protein. Milk protein isn’t as common as it should be. Since whey protein and casein protein offer advantages, those looking to simply boost protein values throughout the day may see great benefits from this cost effective source. Milk protein also comes in an isolate form, which is refined to mostly protein with limited amounts of carbohydrates and fats included.
Now that you understand the forms of dairy protein, it’s important that we understand the buzzwords you may see on containers to decipher if they mean anything or if they’re simply just an attention grabber. We now know that when we see 100% whey protein, that is all it means - that 100% of the protein is coming from whey. We don’t know what type or types of whey and we don’t know the ratio if there are multiple sources. It’s very important to understand this as 100% whey could mean a product having 200 calories per 25g of protein or having 110 calories per 25g of protein. Both would technically be correct.
One common word you’ll see on a protein container is hydrolyzed. Hydrolyzed, like “whey”, is a vague term used to describe a process protein powder goes through. Hydrolyzation is the breaking down of protein into di & tri peptides to increase the speed of absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream. While many companies claim hydrolyzation, very few will disclose the degree of hydrolyzation which determines whether it actually matters or not. The more hydrolyzed a product is, the more bitter it becomes and most brands don’t want to deal with the repercussions of customer feedback with having a bitter tasting protein. Since hydrolyzation is a process, it can be done with isolate, concentrate, and even casein protein. Since most brands are discussing the degree of hydrolyzation, it’s important for you to understand that it may not be adding much value. For those not looking to time their protein (pre or post workout) it may be adding no value to you, no matter how hydrolyzed the protein is.
Another more recent trend is native whey. Native whey, similar to hydrolyzed whey, can be either whey concentrate or whey isolate. Native whey is when the source of whey comes from milk instead of a by-product of making cheese, where most whey protein comes from. Native whey is richer in leucine, which is the main amino acid in BCAAs and protein powder. Although native whey can cause higher blood-leucine levels it is not determined that it’s actually superior in muscle protein synthesis and more studies need to be done (3).
Egg White Protein Powder
Egg protein is often considered one of the most bioavailable sources of protein that we can eat. Egg white protein powder offers a bonded amino acid protein (like whey), that may be a good alternative for those that have dairy allergies or would like to try a different type of protein source. Since egg white powders have the yolks removed, most of the micro nutrients of an egg do not carry over. There aren’t many egg protein powders on the market so deciphering them isn’t nearly as complex as whey and vegan protein powders.
Plant Protein Powder
Vegan protein powders are often made up of plant based protein sources. While none of these plant sources can replicate the amino acid content of whey or egg, plant protein is still far superior to no protein which can be the case for many. Plant protein also digests better for those with sensitive guts. The main determining factor on the sources of protein used with plant protein is leucine, but oftentimes a blend of proteins will be used in an attempt to replicate the amino acid content of whey. Pea protein & rice protein are most common, but the leucine content is still much lower than whey (per gram) and more of this protein is needed to stimulate a similar muscle protein stimulation (4). If you’re going to substitute plant protein for whey protein, it’s important to factor in the additional calories needed to reach the similar muscle protein synthesis effect. For example, it may take about 1.5 scoops or 30g of plant protein to have the effect that 20g of whey protein has (4).
Now that we’ve covered protein to the point where most people should understand it, let’s dive into the other things that a crossfit athlete can utilize. With performance sports, especially crossfit, if we’re going to be effective at supplementation we need to target recovery, not solely performance supplementation as oftentimes enhanced recovery will lead to better performance.
Outside of protein, there are many ways to target recovery. We find that products with a caloric value tend to be most beneficial and since we already covered protein, that means carbs. If you’re afraid of carbs, you’re probably still in the intro-level of your performance pursuit and that’s okay too. Carbohydrate powders when added pre, intra, or post workout can enhance recovery and may even increase performance with the right type of carbohydrate. Powdered carbs come in many different types so let’s discuss them.
Maltodextrin is the cheap, common carbohydrate. You can often find this as the main carbohydrate in mass gainers due to it’s low cost. When buying a supplement mass gainer, cost per calorie is a big predictor on whether a customer will buy the product as they’re typically marketed towards budget minded younger men. When it comes to performance, maltodextrin probably shouldn’t be used, but if you’re on a budget it can be utilized post training (5). You’ll see most carbohydrate studies comparing the other carbs to maltodextrin.
Dextrose is another common carbohydrate in the supplement world. It used to be very popular, but has dwindled a little since. From our experience many people who use dextrose find it to cause bloating and gastric discomfort. If used, post workout would again be ideal.
Waxy Maize is the last of the old school carbohydrates. Waxy maize is far superior to dextrose and maltodextrin for endurance and crossfit athletes. It’s going to provide a more prolonged release of energy to the athlete, which is great for 1hr+ workouts (5). Still, there are better carbohydrates.
Carb10 is a popular carbohydrate supplement that is a form of pea starch. Carb 10 has a lower osmolality, with a lower blood sugar / insulin response, which results in quicker gastric emptying than carbohydrates like maltodextrin. For athletes, this is important because when you’re drinking it is when you’ll be using it. Fast gastric emptying means you don’t have to wait hours to utilize the energy. This can be extremely important for long days of competition or those doing multiple workouts per day.
Highly branched cyclic dextrin which is often seen as Cluster Dextrin™ is a common carbohydrate for athletes. Cluster dextrin comes from corn and also has a fast gastric emptying time and is very easy on the stomach for digestion. Both Carb10 and Cluster Dextrin have low insulin spikes.
Vitargo is the last of the modern day carbohydrates. This is a modified form of waxy maize with a high molecular weight for what is believed to be the fastest gastric emptying time. Many athletes around the world use Vitargo as it digests 2.3x faster than maltodextrin.
The Carb10™, Cluster Dextrin™, and Vitargo™ can all be used pre, intra, or post workout. Due to the fast gastric emptying time, cramping is typically avoided. When to use a carbohydrate powder and how much to use largely depends on how your diet is structured as well as your training. There is no blanket answer to that question.
Hydration is boring to talk about and if you’ve been an athlete your whole life, you’ve been told to drink water or a sports drink so many times that you’ve become numb to the idea, the words, and unfortunately the action. Still today, many crossfit athletes neglect daily hydration which matters on days off almost as much as training days. Athletes with hydration plans have higher attention, awareness, and faster heart rate recovery (8). Not only is it important to understand water intake, but electrolytes and when to take them. Electrolytes are made up of salt, potassium, magnesium, and occasionally calcium. Electrolyte use can be throughout the day, pre, during, or post workout.
ZMA™ is a patented ratio and patented type of zinc and magnesium. These two ingredients are simple minerals, but athletes are shown to decrease levels of these minerals during intense training. Supplementing with ZMA can help increase sleep efficiency and we all know better sleep helps the body repair for future intense training sessions. Sleep quality is often overlooked in today’s society, but can be one of the easiest ways to increase performance & recovery (6).
Gut health is a very complex thing to talk about as almost every person walking this earth has a different experience with food tolerance, digestion, and foods they actually enjoy or want to eat. It is important to know however that intense athletes often create high stress on their bodies and gut health can be sacrificed during this time. Proper digestion is important to bring in the nutrients you’re supposed to be eating. While not eating things that destroy your gut is a good start, there are a lot of supplement options to help with gut health. Quality greens supplements can supply micro nutrients if you’re not eating enough vegetables. Different digestive enzymes can target certain food types (proteins, types of carbs, etc) to help your body break them down quickly and effectively. This takes a little bit of studying, but can have tremendous payoff at a low cost. Lastly, probiotics can be incorporated. There are many different strains of probiotics and they come in a variety of different doses, so from a scientific standpoint, it may be best to try one at a time to see what works for you.
Beta Alanine is a non-essential amino acid and when taken properly, can help with muscle Carnosine levels in skeletal muscle. This means it can help prolong muscle fatigue during intense exercise. When purchasing beta alanine, it’s important to dose it 2-3x a day so you don’t get the symptoms of paresthesia (skin tingles) and that it’s consumed daily, even when not training.
Peak02™ may be a better option for increasing work capacity during crossfit workouts but could be used in conjunction with beta alanine as well. Peak02™ helps improve oxygen utilization and work capacity while decreasing lactate. This is another ingredient that’s taken daily and on workout days should be taken before or during the workout. PeakO2™ is also being studied on whether or not it also increases ATP production.
With ATP production on our minds, creatine is an excellent choice for crossfit athletes. Creatine specializes in short length performance output like strength training. Creatine has been shown to increase strength in athletes and while it does have a few cases of possible side effects, has been ruled generally safe. There are many types of creatine available today such as, creatine monohydrate, creatine hcl, Kre-alkalyn - the PH correct creatine, creatine ethyl ester, and more. Most studies have been done on creatine monohydrate, which seems to be the most cost effective creatine. Although some experience water retention, the cost-to-value analysis severely decreases when purchasing products like creatine hcl and kre-alkalyn. We also don’t think the dosing is appropriate either.
D-Ribose is an old school ingredient that seems to have lost it’s appeal in modern day supplements. Technically it’s a sugar that can help increase total work capacity and power output, while decreasing the rate of perceived exertion (7). This is extremely important for crossfit athletes and is the exact thing most are looking for.
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Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019 Aug;40(8):535-543. doi: 10.1055/a-0905-3103. Epub 2019 Jul 9. PMID: 31288293; PMCID: PMC6988893.
Seifert JG, Brumet A, St Cyr JA. The influence of D-ribose ingestion and fitness level on performance and recovery. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Dec 20;14:47. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0205-8. PMID: 29296106; PMCID: PMC5738882.