Ultimate Guide for Sports Nutrition Performance

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about sports nutrition ingredient categories that dominate the dietary supplement & nutraceutical industry.

Table of Contents:

  • What is Sports Nutrition?
  • The Need for Product Differentiation
  • Sourcing Ingredients
  • Endurance
  • Adaptogens
  • Recovery
  • Amino Acids
  • Carbohydrates

What is Sports Nutrition?

Sports nutrition is the study and practice of the diet and how it relates to athletic performance. Although proper nutrition is important to the health and wellness of the entire population, athletes have slightly different nutritional needs due to their enhanced physical output.

For athletes, it is not just a one-shot fix, nutritional needs vary pre, inter, and post-workout. This means the specific sports nutrition supplement needs will also vary. An athlete may have prepared well with their pre-workout game and had a great workout, but if the proper nutrients are not taken in the post, development could suffer.

The body is by some standards a machine, and it needs the right kind of fuel and care to stay at top optimal performance. You could use the right performance gasoline and all the tricks you know to increase performance, but if you forget to change the oil you’re going to run into trouble.

Fitness and nutrition are very closely correlated, which means proper nutrition is vital to sports performance. Without carbohydrates and fluids, an athlete will get tired very easily and quickly. Protein and amino acids are needed to rebuild muscle.

Without these, and all of those essential vitamins and minerals, an athlete will not be able to perform to their maximum potential. Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health and strength, adequate iron is needed to prevent fatigue, and antioxidants to support the immune system, the list goes on.

The simple understanding that what you put into your body could affect your physical performance and athletic ability has driven this field into existence. Sports nutrition is meant to support the training program, which means as an athlete’s routine changes, so will their nutritional needs.

Poor nutrition can lead to injury, fatigue, and poor recovery, which is what makes this field so important to the success of the athlete. Muscles cannot build, repair and become stronger without access to essential amino acids from complete proteins. Endurance will not last without available glycogen stores for energy.

In the beginning, sports nutrition was most commonly used for bodybuilders looking to meet these nutritional needs in the most convenient and practical way. Now, sports nutrition has expanded rapidly to all forms of people looking to increase or improve their athletic ability.

Sports nutrition products are not only for serious athletes but anyone who enjoys hitting the gym or taking a daily morning run. With the rise of wellness culture and the idealized “healthy lifestyle,” the average person began seeking out sports nutrition solutions for themselves. Though they are not professional athletes or bodybuilders, they are still in need of assistance with energy, recovery, and endurance so that they can increase their fitness level in their own ways.

The expansion of sports nutrition has made meeting your nutritional goals and energy needs far more accessible. Marathon runners can get a quick burst of energy with a quick and lightweight gel, boxers can increase their recovery post-fight with a simple supplement, and bodybuilders can carefully control their protein and carb intake to fit their unique needs. Sports nutrition is a rapidly expanding field, and with the growing popularity of health and fitness culture, it can only continue.

The Need for Product Differentiation

The sports nutrition market is big. In the US, sports protein supplements alone are predicted to have a market value of $7.55 billion by 2020. Health-conscious consumers are a highly engaged population, and many are eager to try new sports nutrition products to see how they could impact their performance.

With each new shake, bar, or tablet they try, achieving that “personal best” is always on the consumer’s mind. If you’re representing a sports nutrition brand and you want a generous slice of the pie, then you will need to stand out. In a crowded world of protein shakes, hydration sachets, and energy supplements, your product will have to be more enticing than the numerous competitors. Your brand must have a unique product angle.

Whether you are a startup founder, a research and development formulator/scientist, a brand marketing director for a large sports nutrition brand, or somewhere in between, you believe in your product. You have put more energy into it that would take you to run 10,000 marathons, but what does the everyday consumer think about it? They won’t know until you tell them. Whatever your USP (Unique Selling Proposition), find it, be proud of it, and most importantly, tell your target market all about it.

If you have cutting-edge science steeped in your product, tell them. If your protein bar contains the latest trending superfood or most intriguing ingredient, shout it from the rooftops. If you’ve found the most bioavailability-enhancing ingredient, don’t keep that a secret! Maybe you stand out by using innovative packaging. In today’s environment, climate change is top of the agenda.

Putting a more common product such as creatine powder in an eco-friendly packet, made from recycled materials that are easily recyclable, will make you stand out to the green crowd. Or perhaps your protein powders are vegan and will attract the plant-based market looking for a high protein content shake, without the dairy-derived whey powder. Consumers are looking for products relevant to them and their lifestyles. Be that convenience, planet-friendliness, cost-effectiveness, or a product that simply works.

In addition, to keep a product relevant it needs to stay ahead of the trends. Nothing excites the health-conscious consumer more than new and innovative products.

Although, if the product is caught up in a fad, doesn’t work, or makes false claims, you’ll soon be outed on social media and lose footing. It is crucial to get it right. When it comes to sports nutrition, science and research are key so that you can back your product up and instill authenticity and trust. Not everyone can be the first to bring a new product to market, but at least keep an eye on market trends to keep up with the competition.

CBD is a great example. A year or two ago, the idea of using a cannabis-derived supplement in sports was unthinkable. Now, genuine CBD oil is used by many non-professional athletes and gym-goers to help with recovery and the dreaded Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.

Product differentiation is vital in the sports nutrition market. How does your pre-or post-workout line differ from all the other formulations on the market? Whatever your product, standing out as being different (for all the right reasons) is crucial to your success. Look for those unique ingredients, real research, and keep a close eye on the competition.


If you are trying to make your brand stand out and gain a following, sourcing the right ingredients is crucial. It might be tempting to focus exclusively on keeping the cost of producing your product low. But cheap low-quality raw materials generally do not equal bigger and better profits or repeat customers.

As a developer of supplement ingredients, we understand the importance of high quality, trustworthy ingredients, and provenance. Low-quality ingredients can lead to disaster. Ingredients should be verified either through third-party testing or by sourcing from a supplier with a long and proven track record, although we still recommend additional third-party testing. Using unvetted, and unverified ingredients leads to a high potential for batch compromises or product recall.

One great example of the need for testing is Green Tea. Green tea extract is a common ingredient in sports nutrition supplements. It provides antioxidant support to the immune system, and energy to help power workouts and burn fat. It is also a plant that naturally absorbs a fair amount of heavy metals as it grows. Heavy metals such as cadmium and lead are therefore a potential contaminants of green tea. Therefore, proper and reliable heavy metal testing is vital when sourcing this ingredient.

While it could be nationally compliant with FDA rules, these heavy metals often surpass the limits set by the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 or CA Prop 65. How much would it cost you to recall every single green tea extract-containing product you’d manufactured to relabel them with CA Prop 65 warnings? Not to mention the damage to your brand’s reputation.

A simple heavy metals test on your batches of raw product with a certification lab such as SGS or Eurofins, or sourcing your green tea extract from a company that tests each batch, would eliminate that risk.

The same can be applied to pesticide testing on other plant-derived ingredients such as ginseng, a natural energy booster. Or DNA testing to confirm the authenticity of, for example, cordyceps which is a functional mushroom ingredient used to help improve performance and endurance.

Could your brand cope with the fallout of high pesticide levels post-production or being accused of using fake ingredients, intentionally or otherwise?

It all comes down to three factors: Quality, Efficacy, and Repeat Customers.

Using higher quality ingredients will not only mean fewer recall scenarios, but it will also increase the efficacy of your product. The more it does what it promises, the better the user experience, and the higher your chance of naturally achieving the Holy Grail of consumer product marketing – a loyal, repeat customer with large lifetime value. Think heavily about where your ingredients are produced, and what measures you can take to ensure they are safe, clean and effective.

Before creating a product and sourcing the right ingredients you must also ask yourself: What do you want your product to do, and who is your audience? Do you want to target the savvy sports supplement user with extra dollars to spend on a high quality, targeted product they’ll likely buy again? Or the new gym user who wants a cheap, quick energy booster with questionable benefits that probably won’t be purchased a second time?

When brands focus all their efforts on the short term and spend valuable dollars marketing a poor functioning product, there’s a very high chance they’ll lose out on those repeat customers.

We find the tried and tested ‘1% formula’ (sports nutrition formulated for the 1% – the die-hard, experienced and knowledgeable supplement user) works best. Invest in formulating for the 1%, and it will spill over to the average supplement user, while at the same time retaining the 1%.

Caring about the origin and quality of each and every ingredient will pay dividends for your reputation and earn a loyal customer base. In the long run, creating the right formula and using the right ingredients that you can back firmly and proudly will lower your costs and improve your profits.


Endurance is the ability of an organism to exert itself and remain active, as well as resist, withstand, and recover from trauma, wounds, or fatigue.

In the world of sports nutrition, this trauma relates to the microscopic muscle tears that come from high levels of activity and fatigue from inadequate energy availability to those working muscles. Our muscles receive energy in four main steps: the first few seconds use stored ATP within the cell, then the next few use creatine phosphate stores to provide ATP, once that has been used glycogen stores in the muscle can be utilized (your non-oxygen energy stores), and lastly, aerobic respiration (ATP produced using oxygen) takes over.

In addition to pure energy availability, there is also the worry that the key nutrients lost in sweat, sugars, and sodium, could affect endurance (also known as electrolytes). These electrolytes and available energy stores are key factors for endurance. Amino acids, specifically branched-chain amino acids, are also often looked to, as they are well-known building blocks of muscle tissue and can help repair damage caused by intense exercise.

Due to this understanding, this category of sports nutrition has historically focused on electrolytes, glutamine (an essential amino acid), and creatine. However,  there has been a recent expansion of ingredients that could show great benefit for an “endurance” product such as Rhodiola, Cordyceps, and proprietary herbal blends such as Senactiv®.

Blood glucose is stored as glycogen in the muscle. It is the preferred fuel for muscle function during intense or anaerobic exercise. Glycogen is a chain of glucose molecules that your muscles and liver use to store energy. Yet, exercise induces inflammation in the muscle membrane which disrupts the supply of glucose into the muscle to replenish the used glycogen.

The body generally holds a glycogen reserve of between 450 and 550 grams, but with intense exercise, it may require more than 500 grams of carbs to restore those glycogen reserves in addition to proper rest and recovery practices. Due to this, endurance products should consider lowering muscle inflammation and take glycogen stores into consideration when designing their formulas.

A continuous supply of glucose into the muscle is necessary for the muscle to function at its maximum level.

In order to perform an anaerobic exercise (intense cycling, sprinting, weight lifting, etc) glycogen needs to be available in the muscle. A person can have higher aerobic endurance but still lack anaerobic endurance. Since anaerobic training does not burn as many calories as aerobic exercise not as many people train for anaerobic endurance.

The unfortunate thing is that anaerobic endurance training is what helps the body develop its ability to store more glycogen and replenish those stores more quickly. Thankfully there are ingredients that can be added to a workout regimen to help increase glycogen recovery and storage such as ActiGin® and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and complex carbs.


The rise of natural plant-based herbal blends comes from the study of adaptogens. Although many have now heard this word there is still the lingering question of what really are adaptogens? These plants have been long used in Eastern medicine to protect against stress damage and maintain homeostasis within the body.

Both Eastern and Western medicine now use adaptogens to assist with stress relief, immune system support, and energy balance to avoid the use of potentially harmful synthetic ingredients. These natural substances are thought to help the body adapt to stress and to provide a normalizing effect on bodily processes. A few well-known examples are ginseng, Rhodiola and Cordyceps.

Therefore, if using an adaptogen-based performance supplement, while you are exerting energy it will help to provide you with more energy, but if you are sitting on the couch it will see there is no need to pull more energy and work to maintain homeostasis instead. An adaptogen does not hold one single targeted purpose, it instead adapts to whatever your body specifically needs at a given time, which is what makes it such a powerful option for performance supplements.


Proper recovery is vital to any exercise training program, both for the effectiveness of the program and the improvement of the athlete. Because of this, it is important to understand the real physiological markers of recovery. Athletic training by nature creates microscopic tears in the muscle tissue.

Although tearing in the muscle sounds horrible and detrimental, it is actually an important part of building strength and progressing in a training program.

The problem with these tears is that this damage and inflammation impairs the ability to transport blood glucose into the skeletal muscle cell. When glucose cannot move into the muscle, glycogen stores cannot be replenished, and energy and endurance suffer.

This damage also leads to the soreness and pain often associated with a good hard workout. In order to recover and continue to improve physically,  muscle inflammation must be lowered, and glycogen stores must be restored. If these two things are not cared for prior to the next workout session, progress and performance could be compromised.

Achieving the proper level of recovery is possible through sports nutrition principles as well as proper exercise techniques. One of the most common methods of recovery training is FITT (Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type) which looks at how often workouts should occur, the intensity of the workout session, the length of time between sessions, and whether active or passive recovery is best. This can be done in addition to supplementation, or on its own, but there has been a rise in recovery supplement demand in recent years.

The most popular forms sought out by athletes include proteins, BCAAs, arginine, Beta-alanine, or even natural solutions including beetroot and antioxidants. Many supplement brands look to branded ingredients to make their formula stand out such as Senactiv®, which are specifically formulated to lower that muscle inflammation and replenish glycogen stores. All have the same goal to increase recovery time and get the most benefit out of a workout as possible while keeping the body healthy and functioning at its top level of performance.


The pre-workout market is arguably the most popular category in all of sports nutrition. Pre-workout products, whether it be a powder, capsule, or shot, are an essential aspect to many workout routines.

The main reason people take pre-workout supplements is to give them an extra boost in the gym. Pre-workouts often have an added stimulant component as people want to “feel” the energy right before their workout.

Pre-workouts can go from 80mg caffeine per serving all the way to 400 mg as some heavy supplement users have been caffeine conditioned. Much of this credit goes to Sal Abraham and his NO-Xplode as one of the first mainstream pre-workouts targeted for all gym-goers.

Many pre-workout supplements contain specialized ingredients, geared toward increasing athletic performance, endurance, muscle building, weight loss, and much more depending on the formulation. The most common ingredients used in the pre-workout category are citrulline, amino acids, beta-alanine, and caffeine.

These ingredients help to both increase energy and increase athletic output. This industry has recently begun seeing a rise in “specialized” ingredients added to the pre-workout sector with recent formulations. These “specialized” ingredients focus on specific areas of sports nutrition that pre-workouts had not been concerned with in the past. They could increase the functionality of the product by boosting the absorption of many essential amino acids and vitamins with ingredients like AstraGin® or black pepper extract. Or they could increase muscle endurance and recovery with ingredients such as Senactiv® or Cordyceps.

These two categories are just examples of the industry moving in the right direction, creating a much higher quality product for their consumer base. As the pre-workout sector continues to grow, so will the quality of the products being released to the marketplace.


The function of amino acids in the human body is extensive. Amino acids are an essential aspect of any sports nutrition regimen as they serve a variety of purposes within the body. Many people know that amino acids are the “building blocks to protein” and while an important role, that is not their only function.

Amino acids make up a large portion of our cells, muscles, and tissues. They play a key role in both transporting and storing the nutrients inside the body as well as providing the structure needed for our cells to function.

Amino acids also help with the repair and healing of wounds, organs, tendons, muscle tissue, skin, and hair.

These important building blocks are also necessary for vital processes including the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters.

There are almost two dozen recognized amino acids in the human body, divided into essential and non-essential categories. Non-essential amino acids are those that our bodies can produce on their own, and essential amino acids must be consumed through our diet as the body cannot produce them on its own. This makes it very common to supplement with essential amino acids.

There are nine essential amino acids (Lysine, Tryptophan, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Histidine, Valine, Leucine, Isoleucine). The sports nutrition marketplace, in particular, has seen a great trend in essential amino acid products entering the marketplace this past year. One of the most popular is branched-chain amino acids, commonly known as BCAAs. “Branched-chain” refers to the chemical structure of the amino acid and includes leucine, isoleucine, and valine: three of the nine essentials.

Traditionally, amino acids were utilized for sports nutrition in these BCAA supplements, pre-workouts, and protein powders due to its relationship with the synthesis of protein. Many companies utilize an ingredient such as AstraGin® to increase the absorption rate of their particular amino acid product, seeing as the amino acid intake is critical to the health and structure of the human body.


Carbs, a word many people wishing to stay fit fear. But with what rationality? Carbohydrates are the fuel for our bodies! They provide us with energy and are a vital nutrient that we need to survive! This is not talking about donuts and wonder bread, but good complex carbohydrates (whole grains, oats, beans, quinoa, etc), fruits, and vegetables. If really taking into consideration the needs of an athlete, carbohydrates may be the most important nutrient to their diet!

Carbohydrates are needed to both create energy and to replenish those vital glycogen stores in the muscle and liver. They are also the main source of energy for the brain, and break down to sugar molecules called glucose that fuels our cells so they can function properly. In this way, carbohydrates help to improve athletic performance by delaying fatigue and allowing an athlete to compete at higher levels longer.

Additionally, without access to circulating glucose and glycogen stores, the body will eventually begin breaking down muscle tissue for energy, which for an athlete is detrimental. Proper amounts of carbohydrates in the diet allow the body to use proteins for their actual role, repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue.

Therefore, consuming proper amounts of carbohydrates with your workout routine could lead to muscle gain and improved athletic performance.

Carbohydrate power is not only for fueling up before a workout and maintaining stamina throughout but is also an important aspect of recovery. While exercising, glycogen stores, or the stored energy in the muscle, get depleted. Part of the recovery process is to replenish these stores so that the next time they are needed, energy will be readily available. In order to replenish these stores, glucose must be available in the body, and as glucose comes from carbohydrates, it is necessary to include it in an athlete’s diet.


With so much information and ingredients to consider, you may have questions about approaching your formulation.

NuLiv Science develops a number of specialty ingredients focused around sports nutrition that include AstraGin® for enhanced absorption of key nutrients, Senactiv® for energy and recovery, and InnoSlim® for weight management.

Fill out the form below to get more information and one of our business development reps will get in touch with you to answer any questions.