Strategies to Get Stronger, Fitter, Energized

The sports nutrition category is more inclusive than ever—and we’ve rounded up the best ways to market to everyone from athletes to weekend warriors to go-go-go customers who simply need an energy edge to get through hectic days.

The sports nutrition market is going strong—and growing stronger. Global sales are expected to reach $44 billion by 2021—up 43% from 2016, according to a report from Allied Market Research (1). “The sports nutrition market has evolved significantly over the last decade,” explains Cliff Barone, head of global ingredient marketing for Lonza Consumer Health & Nutrition. “The category has broadened out from elite athletes and bodybuilders to include everyday gym goers, weekend warriors, and new hyper-segments and niches are also emerging. Active individuals are increasingly looking to dietary supplements to support energy, peak performance, exercise recovery as well as joint comfort and mobility. They see the benefits of nutritional support for their active lifestyle as a whole.”

As interest in the category grows, there’s opportunity for retailers to cross-merchandise and reach new customers. “With a focus on convenience, energy and effective workout support, the industry is positioned to experience continued growth and expand to include other ingredients entering the space,” notes Melanie Bush, director of berry science for Artemis International Inc., Fort Wayne, IN. “Product developers and retailers should be creative with regard to new and innovative ingredients that support health and athletic performance from different angles.”

Two trends making their mark on the sports nutrition category: “Clean labels and plant-based formulas continue to be in popular demand,” notes Sébestien Bornet, VP global sales & marketing for Horphag Research. “Consumers have a greater understanding of the active ingredients in the products they purchase, and manufacturers are shifting to simpler product labels with straight-forward, branded ingredients with proven efficacy.”

Here, science-backed ingredients and innovation to help customers tap into more energy, speedier toning and more.

Energy boosters

“Energy at its most basic is generated by glucose and other food molecules that are broken down to provide chemical energy in the form of ATP,” notes Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, senior director of research & development/national educator for Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation, Sugar Land, TX. “But when we think of ‘energy,’ we’re not really talking about it at the cellular level. We ultimately just want to know how to achieve that feeling of increased endurance and stamina to keep us going in our busy lives, whether it is to command a meeting, drive the kids all over town or fit a workout into our full schedule.”

Caffeine remains a popular energy booster, but as Brian Zapp, director of marketing for Applied Food Sciences (AFS), Austin, TX, explains, the trend toward cleaner, greener ingredients has consumers looking for quality sources. AFS offers PurCaf organic caffeine as an ingredient for natural energy drinks and sport nutrition formulations. This powdered extract from green coffee beans is standardized at 95% pure caffeine, Non-GMO Project Verified, certified organic and GRAS. The company also offers PurTea organic caffeine, a green tea extract that provides an organic source of caffeine and antioxidants for what the company describes as “a more balanced energy feel.”

While caffeine may be the most well-known energizer, it’s not for everyone. Scott Hagerman, CSCS-NSCA, president & CEO of Chemi Nutra, Austin, TX, notes that caffeine acts on the central nervous system; too much can cause jitters, restlessness, irritability, headaches and more in sensitive people.

For such consumers, there are many options. On the branded ingredient side, AFS offers AmaTea, an organic extract of the guayusa plant that can be used in beverages or supplements. Zapp says the Amazonian plant contains a blend of caffeine and polyphenol antioxidants that work to enhance mental and physical energy—without jitters. “Guayusa doesn’t cause the same fight-of-flight side effect,” Zapp explains, adding that it leads to improved focus, alertness, mood and motivation, which can be especially beneficial for athletes. “It’s a premium offering for sports nutrition because performance athletes already have some adrenaline going on, so they don’t need extra,” Zapp adds. “Guayusa can help give them more of a focused workout and mitigate the nervous energy.”

Natural ingredients offer more versatility for brands looking to break into the energy market, notes Alison Pomaville, certified food scientist for BI Nutraceuticals, Rancho Dominguez, CA. “Botanicals like guarana, ginseng, maca root and ashwagandha are showing up in more mainstream products such as beverages, bars and even confections like chocolate. Retailers and brands can leverage greater exposure to acquire new customers and hopefully higher sales.”

More science-backed ingredients that deliver results:

French oak extract. Horphag’s proprietary antioxidant ingredient Robuvit can “enhance cellular functions to combat the aging process, increase energy and fend off fatigue,” notes Bornet. Citing a 2015 study published in Phytotherapy Research, he notes that the plant compound is so effective that even people with chronic fatigue syndrome see results. Sufferers who supplemented with Robuvit daily reported feeling more energized and less tired in as little as four weeks (2). The ingredient also supports muscle growth and repair—an effect that helped athletes in another study improve their triathlon time by 11% (2). For a deep dive into the science and benefits of French oak extract, read Dr. Richard Passwater’s Vitamin Connection interview with biochemist Frank Schönlau, Ph.D., director of scientific communications at Horphag Research, here.

L-Carnitine. “It plays a role in transporting long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria,” says Barone. These fatty acids are converted to ATP to provide “a longer lasting source of energy” during exercise or to fuel on-the-go people through their to-dos.

Astaxanthin. This antioxidant derived from algae improves cells’ ability to burn fat for fuel and is thought to give salmon the energy to swim upstream. “Astaxanthin from algae is the very best supplement I’ve seen in 30 years in this industry for boosting strength, energy, endurance and improving recovery from exercise and muscle repair,” asserts Bob Capelli, executive VP of global marketing for Algae Health Sciences in Irvine, CA. “In one study, the athletes taking Astaxanthin got 5% faster in a 20 KM time trial and their power output increased by 15%.”

Ashwaganda. Enthobotanist and “Medicine Hunter” Chris Kilham swears by this adaptogen for energy and improved physical performance. “It really helps with lowering the main stress hormone cortisol and freeing up energy,” he says. “It actually causes the body to produce more cellular gasoline or ATP.” Kilham recommends a supplement with 600mg of
KSM-66 ashwaganda—a standardized dose that he says is shown to be most efficacious in clinical studies.

Beet sugar. Palatinose, a slowly digested carbohydrate derived from the sugar beet, delivers energy at a steady rate that curbs blood sugar fluctuations and slows insulin release, says Kyle Krause, product manager, North America, at BENEO. “This results in an improved metabolism, which helps the body burn more fat for energy while conserving much-needed glycogen in muscles to avoid hitting the wall.” Even better: “An increased fat burning rate means that active consumers can draw on their carbohydrate reserves for longer, and at the same time, burn fat more effectively.”

D-Ribose. An essential building block of ATP, this compound is critical to cellular energy, recovery and performance. “Supplemental ribose helps the weekend warrior, busy worker and yoga enthusiast get the energy they need to power through their friendly scrummage, tough day or serious yoga session,” says Michael Crabtree, director of scientific affairs for Bioenergy Life Science (BLS), Ham Lake, MN, who recommends products that feature the company’s patented and branded ingredients. The company also has been conducting research on synergies and now offers RiaGev, a proprietary compound combining Bioenergy Ribose and vitamin B3. Marianne McDonagh, VP of sales, tells WholeFoods that RiaGev enhances mitochondrial health by boosting levels of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) in the body. In addition to increasing energy and a sense of vitality, it helps enhance mental clarity and immunity.

Choline. AlphaSize, a patented form of choline from Chemi Nutra, helps fuel the production of energizing brain chemicals to spur greater focus and mental energy, notes Hagerman, who calls it a “remarkable” specialty ingredient for benefiting performance.

Quercetin. Research has shown that this flavonoid helps support energy and endurance. A recent controlled human study conducted on amateur athletes practicing a “sprint” triathlon looked at the effect of a twice-daily intake of 250mg Quercefit, a Phytosome formulation of quercetin from Indena (2). The researchers concluded that supplementation with quercetin phytosome was associated with improved performance and endurance compared with lack of supplementation. They noted that “the advantage was particularly evident in terms of reduction of the time necessary to complete a validated model of triathlon race. More specifically, subjects on quercetin were able to reduce their time to complete the race by about 10%, with respect to baseline, after a 2-week intensive training.”

Keys to Building Consumer Trust in the Sports Nutrition Category

“As the sports nutrition category grows, there is greater awareness that not all sports nutrition products are created equal,” asserts Trisha Sugarek Macdonald of Bluebonnet, noting that some can contain fillers, contaminants and even downright dangerous ingredients such as amphetamine-like stimulants.

Highlighting brands that focus on transparency can help ensure your customers will get results that will make them repeat buyers. “Consumers want to know exactly what they are putting in their body, so it is important for retailers to work with companies that are transparent about everything from ingredient dosage to product purity testing,” notes Corey Friese of Vital Proteins. He suggests that retailers work with companies that can show that their products are made according to cGMP practices and that ingredients used are in compliance with FDA regulations.

Spotlighting manufacturers that opt for high quality, standardized ingredients can help as well, adds Bornet. “There has been greater demand in recent years for branded ingredients backed by science,” he says. “We’re seeing an increased emphasis on sourcing of ingredients as well as transparency in labeling to provide consumers with honest efficacious products.”

Protein Power

“Muscle is primarily protein and water,” says Sugarek MacDonald. “Therefore, in order to maintain or build muscle mass, adequate protein is required.” Protein powder is many consumers’ preferred delivery method—but choices abound, with hemp protein and bone broth-based products and infused coffee joining the market.

How to help customers find the best option for them? “Choosing a protein is about more than simply muscle building. It is all very individual,” notes Crabtree. “Often, consumers will select based on a variety of factors ranging from personal ethics to digestibility and allergies to certain amino acids.”

For Corey Friese, VP product development and compliance for Vital Proteins in Franklin Park, IL, the most important factor to consider is the goal of the consumer. “Each protein source—whether in food or powder form—has a unique amino acid profile,” he explains. “If the goal is muscle-building or recovery, a protein high in leucine is ideal, as this amino acid is a main driver in a protein’s ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Dairy-based proteins will be higher in leucine and overall BCAA content compared to plant-based proteins. If the goal is connective tissue support and recovery, collagen protein is ideal as its amino acid profile is uniquely high in glycine, proline and hydroxyproline, the main components of all connective tissues including our joints and skin. In the case where someone prefers not to use dairy/animal products and/or may not be able to digest dairy as easily, a plant-based protein can be a great alternative.”

Performance Nutrition offers Amino Science BCAA Powder Endurance Fuel based a BCAA powder that delivers 5g of protein in the balanced ratio of 2:1:1 (2000mg of Leucine to 1000mg of Isoleucine to 1000mg of Valine). The company says the combination allows a reduction in recovery time and muscle recovery. And for coffee lovers, there’s Gourmet Coffee Whey, combining a protein supplement with a traditional coffee formula.

Another option is to get an energizing hit of protein from a sports drink. ProBalance Protein Water delivers BCAAs in a naturally occurring protein blend for 15 grams of protein along with vitamins B12, B6, C and D, plus five electrolytes and specialty ingredients like ginseng, cayenne and royal jelly. And fitness enthusiasts who want clean energy will appreciate that the sip is naturally sweetened with stevia and monk fruit and is free of preservatives, gluten and lactose.

In terms of collagen, research featuring Gelita BodyBalance shows the specialized collagen peptides decrease fat mass, increase lean body mass and provide more muscle strength in combination with resistance training.

Josh Axe, N.D., co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, suggests steering customers to product that offers double-duty benefits, so they get more bang for their buck. “Besides the amount of protein and type of amino acids that a protein powder contains, it’s also important to look at other compounds it may provide,” Axe explains. “For instance, some formulations, such as Bone Broth Protein, contain added ingredients like collagen, glucosamine and chondroitin, which can help support joint health, in addition to providing a dose of protein.”

No matter what protein source consumers choose, Dr. Axe adds, “products should be free of fillers and artificial sweeteners, plus made from non-GMO, cruelty-free sources.”

Beyond protein, Hagerman notes that his company’s branded and patented compound Mediator Phosphatidic Acid (PA) increases the duration of muscle protein synthesis to spur speedier toning. “Mediator PA has been demonstrated to help build and preserve muscle strength and help reduce fat mass,” he says, noting that compound can be used successfully in everything from capsules to liquids to energy bars. “So, a person can achieve that ideal body composition, gain or preserve muscle strength, lose fat or prevent fat gain and even reduce muscle loss during dieting.”

Optimal Immunity: Tips for Active People

Intense physical activity can take a toll on the body, but recent research published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements points to a strategy that shows promise for reducing the severity and impact of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) symptoms associated with intense exercise stress. In the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled parallel study, healthy marathon runners consumed either a dairy-based beverage containing Wellmune baker’s yeast beta glucan or a macronutrient- and calorie-matched control for the 45 days prior to, day of, and 45 days after running the Austin marathon. The finding: Marathon runners in the Wellmune group saw a 19% reduction in the severity of URTIs compared to runners in the placebo group. The Wellmune group also missed fewer post-marathon workouts because of URTI and had a 10% decrease in total symptomatic days compared to the placebo group.

“The encouraging results of this new study provide us a greater understanding of Wellmune’s ability to help strengthen the immune system when consuming the ingredient through a beverage product,” Donald Cox, Ph.D., Director of R&D for Wellmune at Kerry, said. “The robust body of research around Wellmune expands across various life stages, lifestyles and product formats, and this study builds upon Wellmune’s proven immune health benefits.”

Previous clinical research in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine has shown that marathon runners taking Wellmune experienced a 22% increase in vigor and a 48% reduction in fatigue.


Supplying muscles with the building blocks for growth is just one piece of the recovery puzzle: Antioxidant support, nutrient replenishment and bone and joint nourishment are just as essential, notes Chris D. Meletis, N.D., director of science and research for Trace Minerals, Ogden, UT. “If you are going to put the time and effort into refining, reshaping and reclaiming your desired body through fitness, it is important to stack the deck in your favor. The Standard American Diet falls far short of providing the nutrients to optimally support muscle recovery, growth and antioxidant protection. Input helps yield greater output.” An overview of the natural options that can help:

Antioxidant support. “Exercise generates free radicals, also known as oxidative burden,” notes Dr. Meletis. “Thus, it makes sense to consider adding a supplement to a health-promoting diet and lifestyle that quenches free radicals.” Bornet points to Horphag’s proprietary pine bark extract Pycnogenol as an ingredient that does just that. This potent antioxidant source “helps reduce oxidative stress, which can effectively decrease muscle cramping post-workout,” notes Bornet. “Pycnogenol also boosts nitric oxide. This increases blood flow to muscles, which allows athletes to move faster and exercise more by satisfying oxygen demand to muscles.”

Berry polyphenols also show potential for reducing exercise-induced inflammation and other pitfalls that can come with exercise. “Exertion can suppress the immune system and exercise-induced viral illness is a very real concern for anyone who has pushed themselves to the limit,” says Bush. “Fortunately, berry polyphenols not only contain potent antioxidant capacity and anti-inflammatory properties, they’ve been shown to have potential to significantly delay an exercise induced increase in virus replication and therefore protect athletes from virus infections.”

Curcumin. This extract from turmeric is another player in the recovery market, notes Kilham, “thanks to its study-proven ability to mitigate inflammation and dial down joint and muscle soreness.”

Marine phytoplankton. Lonza’s new marine phytoplankton extract Oceanix has also been shown to reduce inflammation and speed recovery thanks to its high concentration of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase, notes Barone. He points to a pilot study that showed 25 mg of Oceanix significantly improved exercise recovery biomarkers compared to a placebo.

Nutrient replenishment. “People think of sodium and potassium as the minerals that are lost when exercising, but trace minerals are impacted too,” says Dr. Meletis, noting that these minerals play a role in maintaining cellular function including thyroid regulation, stress support and immune function. “Thus, replacing trace minerals, such as zinc, manganese, copper and selenium, is vitally important.” He recommends pointing consumers toward products that contain all the nutrients in one easy delivery methods to help simplify their routine. “Keeping a patient’s supplement routine easy is essential to helping them succeed. This is why I choose synergistic blends for my athletes and non-athletes alike that include trace minerals, branch chain amino acids, antioxidants and mitochondria support.”

Joint & bone support. “Regular or intense physical exercise of any kind can exert significant pressure on bones and joints, which may result in longer periods of recovery and an increased risk of injury,” says Barone. He points to Lonza’s UC-II collagen as a smart solution for casual exercise, baby boomers and athletes alike. “This innovative ingredient has a unique mode of action that is clinically proven to support joint comfort, flexibility and mobility.” (For more on bone and joint, go here.)

Respiratory support. Herbal Solutions can also support athletes by helping them breathe easier. Ridgecrest Herbals offers ClearLungs Sport with dong quai root to help support open airways and encourage circulation to the lungs and respiratory system, along with Cordyceps, Rhodiola, Eleuthero root and other herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Regarding recovery, timing is important. “Recovery nutrition is best thought of as a window of opportunity,” says Sugarek MacDonald. “Within 30 minutes after intense exercise, the body optimizes its ability to replenish energy stores—basically the body becomes like a sponge. This is a critical time because the body instigates muscle protein synthesis for muscle tissue recovery and repair, replenishes fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat and adapts to stresses encountered in the workout.”

CBD: Energy, Recovery and Pain Management

The most buzzed-about offering in the natural health market has room to grow in the sports nutrition category, thanks to the ability of cannabidiol (CBD) to aid performance and recovery though three distinct pathways. “The endocannabinoid system is a complex biochemical system that plays a major role in maintaining homeostasis and ensuring that the body has a well-function internal environment,” explains Dr. Axe of Ancient Nutrition, which is launching CBD products. “CBD oil may help to balance an overactive or underactive endocannabinoid system, thereby possible improving stamina, focus and performance.”

Kilham agrees. “CBD feeds the endocannabinoid system. And when it’s actually getting fed, inflammation goes down, immune function improves, nervous system function improves. It satisfies all these master regulatory functions and that’s going to improve physical performance in many different ways.” He sees potential for CBD in the sport nutrition market—especially when paired with other synergistic ingredients. “Brands can build on CBD with targeted formulas,” he explains. “If the goal is reducing inflammation, maybe you add turmeric, papain and bromelain. If the goal is energy, maybe you add guarana.”

Mike Kolb, founder of the CBD brand XWERKS, points out that CBD can also be beneficial to recovery. “CBD has been shown to improve sleep quality and reduce inflammation which are major factors in recovering from training,” he says. “And the faster you can recover from training, the faster your performance will improve.”

And in perhaps the most exciting potential application, CBD has been shown to mediate pain and inflammation when used in lotions or oils. Dr. Axe notes, “CBD has also been shown to have positive effects when used topically to relieve muscle and joint

Options abound for topical CBD products. Green Roads offers Muscle & Joint Relief Cream and Muscle & Joint Heat Relief; CV Sciences notes on the company website that CBD Oil Balm is a good fit for people with achy feet.

Winning at Selling Sports & Fitness

“The perks that active consumers can obtain from the sports nutrition category are limitless,” says Sugarek MacDonald. She suggests freshening up the nutrition department to make it more attractive, interactive, informative and accessible to consumers looking to make fitness gains as well as those looking for a little extra oomph to power them through their busy lives. Also consider highlighting convenience and ready-to-eat products, notes Pomaville. “The compact portability of protein and energy bars used by athletes on long runs or bike rides are also providing convenience to busy parents and students who also want great tasting, nutritious options on-the-go. So, it may make sense for retailers to place on-the-go products like ready-to-drink shakes, bars and other convenient items on end-caps or near registers to introduce customers to new products or brands and make them more appealing to a wider audience.” WF


  1. “Sports Nutrition Market.” Allied Market Research.
  2. Riva A. et al. “Quercetin phytosome®in triathlon athletes: a pilot registry study” Minerva Medica 2018 August;109(4):285-9.