Being a triathlete requires a lot of training, a lot of heart and a lot of endurance. Being an Olympic-level elite triathlete requires lots and lots of training, lots and lots of heart and, yes, lots and lots and lots of endurance. Hunter Kemper has all the above. He’s a three-time Olympic competitor in triathlon, and he lives and trains in the lofty climes of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“When you talk about building endurance, it happens over time, over years of training,” he says. “I’m 33 years old, and I’ve been doing triathlon as a professional since 24, since 1998. But while endurance comes over time, you can also build it up within months and within a particular season.”
But endurance isn’t only for triathletes and marathoners. It’s actually vital for any athletic pursuit, be it lifting weights or taking a stroll in the park. Endurance translates as the length of time that your body can withstand a certain effort, and there are several factors involved in its production. One, as Kemper points out, is fitness. Muscular and aerobic endurance come with training — the more trained you are, the fitter you are, the longer you can work out before tiring.
Another is nutrition. “For me, the biggest thing is getting the proper amount of protein and carbohydrates for energy to get me through those long rides,” Kemper says. “A proper amount of chicken and fish and red meat and turkey; having those natural types of protein in your diet helps with recovery.” Bottom line: Keep your body topped off with protein and carbs and maintain proper hydration, and you’ll be fueled for more work than if you’re hungry and thirsty.
Lastly, there’s supplementation. Certain compounds have been shown to improve the body’s ability to make energy. Obviously, the more energy you have, the longer you can work. The supplements on our Endurance Ladder, below, are not only considered endurance supplements, but they are all multi-taskers. Bodybuilders will recognize many of these ingredients from their own recovery regimens, and that’s because how well your body recovers from exercise can heavily influence your endurance in future bouts of exertion.
“You need to help your muscles recover so that they can accept the trauma of that hard workout you’ve just done to them, so the muscles can repair and therefore build back up and reach higher levels throughout your training throughout the year,” Kemper explains.
Start with the first rung, then add the successive supplements in order to level up your endurance.
First Rung: Immediate Energy Boost
You’re on the road, midrun, and it’s time to top off your energy. What do you reach for? Certainly not a chicken breast and a baked potato. These products are designed to provide easily digestible carbs, which supply fast energy to get you back on the road. They’re also ideal for replenishing carbs after workouts.
WHAT: 24-ounce sports drink (like Accelerade)
WHEN: As needed during long workouts or, for recovery, after workouts
In 1965, medical researchers at the University of Florida supplied their football players with a secret weapon. The combination of water, sugar, salt and assorted minerals now known as Gatorade was credited with helping the Gators win the Orange Bowl two years later. The reason? Endurance. Gatorade and the sports drinks it engendered contain everything the body needs — water, carbs and electrolytes — to return to a replenished state and hit the field (or the track, the treadmill, the weights, etc.) again.
WHAT: one energy gel packet
WHEN: As needed during long workouts
In a sentence, energy gels are sports drinks without the water. That means that they’re a more concentrated source of carbs — and also that they’re easy to carry. Energy gels are ideal for planned long workouts outdoors (think: long runs, bike rides or even hikes), but they’re also good in a pinch — keep one in the glove compartment, in your gym bag, in your desk for times when you’re undernourished. Some energy gels have added elements, from caffeine to electrolytes, that make them even better at boosting energy.
WHAT: one serving of dextrose
WHEN: As needed during long workouts; 40 to 100 grams after workouts for recovery
We all know that table sugar digests very quickly, but what digests faster than that? Dextrose, for one. Table sugar is a combination of two sugar molecules: fructose and glucose. Glucose is digested way, way faster than fructose, and dextrose is just another name for glucose. That speed is a plus when you’re talking about supplying the body a burst of immediate energy.
Second Rung: Direct Energy Alternatives
Without question, carbs are the body’s preferred fuel, mainly because they’re the easiest to burn. But that doesn’t mean you should automatically give your body exactly what it wants. In fact, consuming energy sources other than carbs spares the carbs stored in your body, resulting in further increased endurance. Here’s how it works: Feed your body protein, and it will first use that for fuel before then turning to the energy stored in your muscles and liver, allowing you to work out longer.
WHAT: 5 to 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids
WHEN: With food five times a day, with breakfast; before, during and after workouts; immediately before bed
When a three-time Olympic triathlete tells you that a certain suite of amino acids are what he relies on for endurance, you might want to listen. “If I go for a ride or a run, I try to time it where I’m getting some kind of protein supplement,” Kemper says. “My biggest thing [during workouts] would be an Amino Vital product called Amino Vital Endurance. It’s about 2,400 milligrams of BCAAs, as opposed to Amino Vital Pro, which is recovery, which is 3,600 milligrams of BCAAs.”
Kemper’s right to be excited about BCAAs. Unique among amino acids, isoleucine, leucine and valine are sent directly to muscles to be used, which means that they can be used as fuel, saving the carbs that your body normally turns to to fuel itself for later. But valine also limits uptake of another amino acid, tryptophan — yes, the one that’s in turkey and is linked to making you feel lethargic on Thanksgiving. Tryptophan levels are linked to feelings of fatigue, so having less tryptophan hitting the brain means you’ll feel more energetic.
WHAT: 5 to 10 grams of ribose
WHEN: With food before and after workouts
Ribose is technically a sugar, but rather than giving you an instant burst of energy followed by a precipitous drop (like table sugar), it can actually increase energy production after intense exercise. That’s because ribose helps create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that provides energy to cells. The more ribose available in your body, the more ATP the body can make, and therefore the more energy it will have.
WHAT: 3 to 5 grams of creatine
WHEN: With food before and after workouts
One of the most trusted and popular supplements on the market, creatine is created naturally in the body, where it also plays a role in the creation of ATP. Instead of making up part of the structure of the molecule, it essentially energizes it. Taking creatine actually gives your body more energy. And it acts immediately.
Top Rung: Improving Energy Production
In addition to increasing endurance by taking supplements to provide energy to the body, it’s possible to optimize the way the body creates energy. That’s the role of these supplements.
WHAT: 100 to 200 milligrams of coenzyme Q10
WHEN: Twice a day with food
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that’s required by nearly every organ in the body, and while it’s most often linked to reducing the risk of cancer or improving cardiac health, it also catalyzes energy production. In one study, published in the journal Nutrition, subjects who supplemented with CoQ10 could cycle longer before reaching fatigue and recovered better after the exercise than those who didn’t.
WHAT: 100 to 500 milligrams of resveratrol
WHEN: On an empty stomach, first thing in the morning and before workouts
Resveratrol is one of the many reasons why drinking wine is so good for you. A potent antioxidant, resveratrol appears to work on mitochondria, the energy-producing engines in cells, to increase endurance. In a study published in the journal Cell, rats that were given resveratrol could run twice as far before hitting exhaustion than those that weren’t. Sadly, you’d need to pound hardcore alcoholic amounts of wine to get enough resveratrol to make a difference, which is why we recommend supplementing.
WHAT: 200 to 800 milligrams of caffeine anhydrous or caffeine citrate
WHEN: With food, about an hour before workouts
Yes, it’s in the coffee you drink to wake yourself up every morning, but caffeine is also incredibly effective at increasing endurance. For one thing, it has been shown to blunt the pain that results from exercise, which can often help one work out longer. But its primary endurance-boosting action is that it increases lipolysis, which is the process by which fat is released from fat cells, and thermogenesis, which is fat burning. That means that your body will be burning fat, and while you’re burning fat, you’re not burning glycogen. Coffee, however, is not the best way to get caffeine — most of the research is done on the supplements, not coffee, and taking it in pill form allows you to better control the dosage.
YOUR ENDURANCE SUPPLEMENT LADDER
These are samples of products that you could use to create your own endurance supplement ladder, as outlined in this article.
The Vitamin Shoppe CoQ-10
Nature’s Way Resveratrol Synergistic Formula
Prolab Nutrition Caffeine
Optimum Nutrition Superior Amino 2222
NOW Sports Chewable D-Ribose
MRI CE2 Ester Creatine Platinum
Accelerade Advanced Sports Drink Powder
Gu Energy Gel Tri Berry