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What Everyday Athletes Need to Know About Supplements

The future of supplements continues to expand, but what should you actually take?


Matt Johnson has been the president of the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling team for more than a decade. A former competitive cyclist on the European circuit, Johnson uses the feedback from his elite athletes to inform The Feed, a retail site that curates the best performance products on the market and explores cutting-edge topics from holistic training modalities to hardcore nutrition hacking on its blog.

Joe Holder (left) and Matt Johnson.

Joe Holder holds many titles: Nike Master Trainer, creative director of wellness for SmartWater and founder of Ocho System, a company he created to treat athletes holistically through a range of modalities. As a former college football player whose career was cut short due to injury, Holder believes strongly in athlete wellness.

We asked Johnson and Holder to discuss their own nutrition routines, the best way to fuel athletic performance right now, and what the future holds for performance-based nutrition.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Matt Johnson: Joe, coffee or tea?

Joe Holder: Tea. Ginger tea.

MJ: Oh, ginger tea. I don’t drink coffee, I focus on green tea. Caffeinated or uncaffeinated?

JH: Uncaffeinated.

MJ: Do you have any caffeine in the morning?

JH: I like to cycle caffeine, but if I do have it, I’ll have an espresso.

MJ: How much water per day?

JH: I try to get a gallon.

MJ: I’m Canadian, so I’m doing the conversion in my head. I don’t know what a gallon is. I sort of hate drinking water, so I always use low-calorie Nuun tablets in the water. I go from barely drinking 32 ounces of water in a day to 64 or 96 ounces. Do you add anything to it, or just straight-up water?

JH: No, I just try to do straight-up water. Room temperature if possible.

MJ: Are you plant-based or a carnivore?

JH: Plant-based gang life.

MJ: Morning vitamin routine?

JH: I take some sublingual B12, zinc. I have turmeric, spirulina, chlorella added to my smoothie. I have some Cordyceps and then I probably have some vitamin C.

MJ: And anything specific in that [supplement] regimen because of the plant-based diet?

JH: The B12 for sure. The zinc, as well. The other stuff is mainly for general stamina. I’m just super into adaptogens right now, experimenting with them, so I do the mushrooms — ashwagandha, rhodiola. I mean, ginger is the OGS of adaptogens.

MJ: And on the ginger front, can you just do raw ginger? Like, is that effective, or is it not concentrated enough?

JH: It’s not, for me. I just try to have four to six cups of ginger tea a day, so I make a mix. I slow boil lemon peels and raw ginger. But if I’m really trying to level up, like in harder training sessions, I will take capsules.

MJ: I should try that. If I’m in a real endurance training day or a high-intensity training phase, I’ll use Sur AltRed, which is this sort of super-concentrated beta alanine beet extract product. I use HVMN Kado — it’s like their daily Omega-3 supplement, which I really like. I use Tart Cherry from VitalFit, just as a daily inflammation reducer. And I just started the Mack Daddy of anti-aging supplements, Eternus, from Neurohacker Collective.

JH: I’ve never taken the powders. The powders often don’t sit well with me. I’m interested to try the Sur AltRed after this. The beet juice supplementation and nitrous oxide supplementation is about figuring out the best ways to utilize the strategic diet, utilizing proper breathing strategies and then bringing in the supplements when need be.

MJ: When do you stop eating before bed?

JH: Three hours.

MJ: I totally agree with that. If I focus on the eating window, I try to stop eating at six-thirty or seven, because I’m all about the early dinner and relatively early bed. Now, setting an eight-hour eating window is trending. We’re seeing the keto crowd look at it and say, Let’s combine these and start the eating window with a higher-protein, lower-carb diet for the first meal or two.

“People want simplistic, easy answers, even though nutrition and the human body are the hardest things to figure out.”

Traditionally, the keto guys were terrible endurance athletes over the long term. Now they’re doing the carb-refueling window, taking in a bunch of carbs at the last meal to restock glycogen levels overnight. That seems to me to be the most efficacious of all the trends that we see out there. I’d love your thoughts on that, Joe.

JH: I’m a big fan. What I’ve seen best results with is doing a brief period of the ketosis diet or something similar during low-intensity states in which you’re really trying to base-build for endurance-oriented sports, even marathons. What you’re hinting at is just strategic carb-cycling built around the training schedule to produce best results.

MJ: Do you have any other sort of pre-bed nighttime routines, from a supplement standpoint?

JH: Probably about an hour before bed I’ll have magnesium. I tried valerian root for a bit, which worked really well but it put me in a dark place, like wild mood swings, so I had to stop. Maybe some ashwagandha and CBD.

MJ: From our experience with CBD, a sublingual is probably the best way to go because of the increased bioavailability versus a gel cap. What’s interesting is the dosage you need; there’s this minimum threshold that’s different for every person. And if you’re taking it on an empty stomach, you can reduce that dosage. My favorite CBD is a mid-afternoon tea with some CBD honey. Have you done any honey before bed? Has that been effective?

JH: No, actually, I’ve never tried honey.

MJ: A lot of the biohackers talk about that, right? Refiling liver stores and things like that.

JH: The only thing I’ve experimented with are grape juice and arginine, and I’ve noticed some benefits with that.

MJ: Yeah, we realized that we had access to all this information [at The Feed], what worked or what didn’t work, but the everyday athlete didn’t even know how to hydrate or use energy gel.

JH: The first issue is most people don’t understand what science is. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People want simplistic, easy answers, even though nutrition and the human body are the hardest things to figure out. They’ll try to extrapolate one small thing, and then they’ll just try to make that a blanket [statement]. “Eggs are bad” — eggs may be bad for some people, but for certain individuals, there may be a benefit. You see these hyperbole moments that try to demonize certain foods, but everything needs to be looked at in a continuum.

MJ: I believe the same thing. We brought in a team chef for the cycling team that would cook [a low-inflammation diet] for all the athletes at events like the Tour de France. Other teams were still pounding pasta. And we saw huge improvements by focusing on the diet. What do you think the future of supplements looks like?

JH: There’s a difference between supplements for performance and for health. A lot of times people either mess up the dosage or the frequency; they’re not going to see any performance benefits. Caffeine is the easiest example. Most people don’t use caffeine correctly during their races to have any true performance benefits — just a little bit more cognitive clarity.

“The future of supplements is going to involve reconceptualizing what actual supplements are. It doesn’t have to be pills and powders.”

For my marathons, I’ve seen how to use caffeine appropriately. It typically needs fifteen to thirty minutes to kick in, and then you’ve got to get a pretty high dosage, depending upon your body. A lot of people don’t get nearly as much caffeine as they need per kilogram of body weight.

MJ: When I look at supplements, I start with safety. We don’t want anything that’s not well researched and efficacious. The problem with CBD is there’s so much hype and noise. Before we started selling CBD, we said, We can’t rely on what the vendor’s telling us, even the most reputable vendors — we need to test all of them. The results are shocking. Of a hundred products we tested in the CBD space, less than ten percent were within five percent of what they said was in the product. And some were no more than olive oil or MCT oil.

JH: I have a buddy whose brand made me customized [CBD] blends. All his stuff is small-batch, he would test it and send me the actual numbers and what was in it. I noticed a difference using it. For me, it was all about sleep, anxiety and travel. Some topical delivery systems seemed to make a difference, especially around marathon training. But it does go back to what you were talking about earlier, when you send some of that stuff out to get tested and there’s nothing in it. It’s not that the active ingredient doesn’t work, it’s that the company isn’t giving you the supplement with the ingredient in it! It’s crazy.

In the past two years, you’ve seen changes in delivery systems, like with Amp lotions and Maurten hydrogel, but the core components of each have been around. Carbohydrates have been known to increase exercise performance since the Fifties. It’s not that this stuff has to be exceedingly new; the main issue is that nobody’s taking it right. The next big step in the industry is going to be increasing consumer knowledge about how to utilize them to maximum results.

MJ: Yeah, fifteen years ago sports drinks had tons of carbs in them and it was impeding people’s ability to hydrate, making them sick. They were falling apart. Maurten comes along, creates a product that starts out as a liquid and converts to a hydrogel as you drink it. The carbs — glucose, maltodextrin — are encapsulated into this gel that doesn’t digest in your stomach, it’s primarily digested in your small intestine. You don’t get sick to your stomach, you still get your hydration and you can take four to five times the amount of carbs than before. It’s like starting the second hour almost as fresh as you were in the first hour.

JH: The future of supplements is going to involve reconceptualizing what actual supplements are. It doesn’t have to be pills and powders. There’s a very interesting research study about female athletes eating a Mediterranean diet versus a Western standardized diet [for] four days leading up to a competition — the diet acted as a supplement, like a true ergogenic aid, to improve their 5K times.

MJ: I think the biggest thing with diet is reducing inflammation. I’m not surprised that a Mediterranean diet would lower inflammation markers.

JH: If everybody cut out the sugar and understood how to properly carb-cycle — that at the proper moment, especially for athletes, sugar and carbs are your best friend — it’s just about knowing how to use them properly. I think that that’s kind of right on trend.

A version of this story originally appeared in a print issue of Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today.

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