9 supplements that provide burnable energy for your fitness routine

Being fit is a wonderful base from which to live an enjoyable and healthy life. However, the process of getting fit can be a stress and strain on your body. You might not even feel you have the energy needed to get fit and, once you start training, keeping your energy levels up can be a challenge. To help your body cope with the impact of regular exercise, there are some powerful yet gentle natural supplements you can use.


Energy to burn

Energy is the fundamental unit that drives your body and your health. You can’t exercise if you lack energy. That’s why things in your cells called mitochondria are so important to your fitness routine.

Mitochondria are present in every cell in your body and they manufacture energy in a series of chemical reactions called the Krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation, which stores energy in the form of the chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The release of ATP creates energy. This process is effective and nearly perfect … but not quite.

Minor imperfections in energy production generate free radicals that leak from the mitochondria and make energy production less efficient. The less efficient the energy production process, the more free radicals are generated. The free radicals eventually damage your DNA, the genetic blueprint that directs energy production and controls all other cell functions. The net result is that inefficient energy production not only leaves you tired, it also ages you.

A big part of lifting your energy levels is providing the nutrients that are needed in the mitochondria to improve the efficiency of energy production and, in doing so, reducing the number of free radicals that are created. The nutrients following are those that are central to cellular energy production and which will help to raise your energy levels.


Energy boosters

Alpha lipoic acid

B vitamins



Co-enzyme Q10




Herbs: ginseng, withania, schisandra


Alpha lipoic acid

Alpha lipoic acid is a powerful biological antioxidant that elevates levels of your body’s antioxidant enzymes. Additionally, alpha lipoic acid has been shown to aid in increasing glucose uptake in skeletal muscles and to improve mitochondrial function.

Dose: 50mg a day for general antioxidant protection.


B vitamins

The B vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins featuring vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), folic acid, B12 (cyanocobalamin) and biotin. These vitamins are grouped together because they come from the same sources and work together in the body. As a group, they are active in providing the body with energy by converting carbohydrates into glucose. They are also necessary for metabolism of fats and protein.


Nutrient RDI*         Suggested daily intake
Vitamin B1 (thiamine)  1.2mg     25–50mg
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)  1.2mg        5–10mg
Vitamin B3 (niacin) 15mg  25–100mg
Vitamin B5 (panthothenate)     5mg    10–100mg
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)  1.3mg        25–50mg
Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)  2.4micrograms (mcg) 10–100mcg
Biotin                        30mcg       50–300mcg
Folic acid               400mcg       400mcg

*Recommended daily intakes are a minimum required to avoid disease and are not necessarily the optimal level required for people living an active modern lifestyle.



For the mitochondria to create the energy needed to sustain cellular function, fatty acids (which serve as the mitochondria’s fuel) must be transported through the cell membrane and into the mitochondria. The amino acid L-carnitine boosts mitochondrial energy production by facilitating fatty acid transport and oxidation within the cell. Supplemental L-carnitine may protect your heart and support general cardiovascular function. It may have a triglyceride-lowering effect in some as well as help to elevate good HDL cholesterol levels. L-carnitine may also have antioxidant properties.

Dose: 1000–2000mg daily; take on empty stomach.



Carnosine is made up of a chemical combination of the amino acids beta-alanine and l-histidine. Long-lived cells such as nerve cells and muscle cells contain high levels of carnosine. Carnosine levels decline with age, which is a shame because it’s an important nutrient for an exercising body. Carnosine is a pH buffer and so can protect muscle cell membranes from oxidation under the acidic conditions of muscular exertion. It also enables the heart muscle to contract more efficiently through enhancement of the calcium response in heart cells.

Dose: Carnosine oral supplementation is relatively new and there is no recommended dietary intake (RDI) for this substance. The normal dose is 100–200mg each day. Up to 1000mg a day can be taken, although there have been some reports of muscle twitching with dosages of over 1g a day.


Co-enzyme Q10 (ubiquinone)

Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is incorporated into the mitochondria of cells throughout your body where it facilitates and regulates the transformation of fats and sugars into energy. The heart and liver contain the greatest amount of CoQ10. CoQ10 is essential for youthful mitochondrial energy function, is a potent antioxidant and there are links between deficiency of CoQ10 and age-related mitochondrial disorders. Natural production of CoQ10 declines precipitously with increasing age and ageing humans have been found to have 57 per cent less, on average, compared to that of young adults. Supplementing should improve energy levels for most people.

Dose: Adult levels of supplementation are usually 30–90mg a day, although people with specific health conditions may supplement with higher levels (with the involvement of a health practitioner).



Creatine was discovered in the 1830s when it was identified in meat. A decade or so later, it was found that wild foxes had more creatine in their muscles than domesticated foxes, suggesting that physical exercise influences how much creatine accumulates in muscle. We now know that it’s used by your body in the production of phosphocreatine, which is broken down into phosphate and creatine during high-intensity exercise that lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. That breaking-down process releases energy and is used to generate ATP, your muscle’s primary source of energy.

Taking creatine supplements has been shown to increase phosphocreatine levels in muscle and so is regarded as “fuelling up” your natural stores of energy. The more creatine you have stored, the faster ATP is generated and that means more energy immediately available to your exercising muscles. Supplementing with creatine should also decrease the recovery time required between episodes of intense exercise.

One study conducted at Victoria University, Melbourne, found that supplementing with creatine before extreme exercise reduced muscle damage and led to faster recovery of muscle strength.

Dose: To “load”, take 3g daily for a month or, alternately, take 5g four times a day for five to seven days and then revert to between 2g and 10g daily for one week to six months. After six months, a four-week break can be taken before resuming the process.



Your body contains about 4–5g of iron and 60–70 per cent of this is in the bloodstream. Red blood cells contain a protein called haemoglobin and each haemoglobin molecule contains four iron atoms. It is the job of iron to grab onto oxygen as blood passes through your lungs and then later release that oxygen into body tissues where it is needed. The iron in these red blood cells is replaced every 120 days. Iron is also needed for storing oxygen in cells and in production of energy in cells. No wonder, then, that if you are low in iron you become lethargic and low in energy. Since iron also has a role in immunity, you would probably get frequent colds. There are also indications that you may not function well mentally.

Dose: The best absorbed forms of iron are the chelated forms, such as ferrous succinate and ferrous fumarate. Men require about 7mg of elemental iron a day and women need 12–16mg. To maximise your iron absorption, take the supplement between meals and with a supplement of at least 250mg of vitamin C, as this vitamin greatly enhances iron absorption.



Quercetin belongs to a class of water-soluble plant pigments called flavonoids. It acts as an antihistamine and has anti-inflammatory properties and plays an important role in the mitochondria. To test whether quercetin supplements benefit energy production in humans, researchers measured study participants’ maximum oxygen uptake and the number of minutes they could ride a stationary bike. Then, for seven days, the participants followed their regular routines and diet but drank an orange drink plus placebo, twice daily. For another seven-day period, the participants drank an orange drink containing 500mg of quercetin. The investigators again measured the subjects’ maximum oxygen uptake and exercise endurance. Compared with days of no supplementation, the quercetin supplement periods were associated with a nearly 4 per cent increase in maximum oxygen uptake. Quercetin was also associated with a 13 per cent increase in “ride time” before the volunteers were too fatigued to continue.

Dose: 200–500mg taken two to three times a day.


Herbal adaptogens

Adaptogenic herbs are found across cultures. These plants are regarded as tonics that will regenerate a depleted system and protect it against the ravages of stress. In so doing, they all lift energy levels.


There is more than one species of the plants known as ginseng available on the market. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) both boost general energy levels. They also improve energy metabolism during prolonged exercise and have the capacity to reduce mental fatigue.

Dose: Siberian ginseng — dried root equivalent to 2000mg three times daily. Asian ginseng — dried root standardised to contain 10mg of ginsenosides, once daily in the morning.

Ginseng should not be taken for more than three months continuously. It is best to take it for two months as needed (eg at a time of stress such as when moving house) followed by one month off. The stimulating effects of Asian ginseng can be too much for the elderly and Siberian ginseng could be a gentler option.


The botanical name for this plant is Withania somnifera but it is also known as ashwagandha from its Sanskrit name, meanin “horse-like smell”. Apparently, the horse reference is not only to the smell of the herb but the fact that it reputedly provides the sexual vitality of a horse. Whether or not it boosts your sexuality to equine levels remains a moot point but a boost to sexual performance is all part of the adaptogenic quality of the herb. Studies have shown it does reduce the impact of stress, such as high-level exercise, on your body, plus it is also antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety in its effects.

Dose: Dried root 3–6g daily.


An ounce of protection

Although being fit is a good thing for your health, “getting” fit can put a strain on your body. So it’s worth thinking about taking supplements on a long-term basis that will help protect your body against the damage that regular physical activity can cause.



When you exercise, you boost your body’s metabolism and this means you produce more molecules known as “free radicals”. These free radicals are highly reactive oxygen fragments and are incredibly damaging. In fact, the actions of free radicals lead to many chronic diseases and can accelerate the ageing process. Research today is telling us that free radicals also serve some useful functions in your body but excess levels of free radicals are an issue. Your body has control mechanisms to deal with the excess free radicals that are created, but if you are exercising regularly, your body’s ability to cope may be overloaded.

To deal with free radicals head-on, you do have neutralising weapons known as “antioxidants”. Antioxidants give up electrons to the free radicals, thus neutralising them. Vitamin C is a well-known antioxidant that works with another antioxidant, vitamin E. When a vitamin E molecule is damaged, a vitamin C molecule will repair vitamin E and return it to its antioxidant state.

There are also many herbal remedies that have powerful antioxidant effects to support your body. The herb Ginkgo biloba is a potent antioxidant that particularly protects blood vessels. Garlic exerts antioxidant actions and has been shown to stop the damage to LDL cholesterol that free radicals can cause. All red and blue fruits and berries contain flavonoids that block free radicals. Tea is an excellent source of antioxidant flavonoids. Betacarotene from vegetables is another antioxidant that has a proven capacity to prevent disease generated by free radicals.


Glucosamine and chondroitin

Many exercise routines put a strain on your joints, which can lead to arthritis. To support your joints, you can do no better than a combination of the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin.

Glucosamine occurs naturally in the body and is required for the production of proteoglycans, mucopolysaccharides and hyaluronic acid, which make up the cartilage and synovial fluid found in joints. As a supplement, glucosamine is well absorbed with about 90 per cent being absorbed from an oral dose. It both stops the breakdown of joint tissue and promotes regeneration of joints. It is also an anti-inflammatory. Studies show it can slow the progression of osteoarthritis and that its most useful form is probably glucosamine sulphate.

Chondroitin sulphate, on the other hand, is an amino sugar polymer that forms part of the flexible infrastructure of joint cartilage. It seems to act by providing the raw material for cartilage repair and blocking enzymes that will break down joint tissue.

Despite glucosamine and chondroitin relieving osteoarthritis in quite different ways, it seems there might be some synergy between them when used together. The GAIT trial in the United States involved 1583 human patients supplementing glucosamine and chondroitin over 24 weeks. The results of the trial showed that, for moderate to severe (but not mild) arthritis, a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin was more effective than either alone and was also more effective than a COX-2 inhibitor drug.

Dose: Glucosamine sulphate — 500mg three times a day.

Chondroitin — 800–1200mg a day in one dose or divided.


Muscle mania

Once adults reach 40, they start to lose between 0.5 and 2 per cent of their muscle each year. Your muscles are, of course, essential to your fitness routine. You want to protect them and also help them to grow. Even without wanting to enter a body sculpting competition, strong muscles provide lots of metabolic stability and postural advantages, so looking after them is important.


Amino acids

Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins in the body. Twenty different amino acids are used for the growth, repair and maintenance of tissues and some of these are also used as an energy source for skeletal muscle. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) can help maintain muscle or build muscle for those who want to bulk up.

The three BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine are unlike other amino acids. While most amino acids are metabolised in the liver, BCAAs are metabolised in muscle and they contribute to the anabolism, build-up, of muscle tissue. During exercise, muscle stores of BCAAs may be used as an energy source. Arginine, another amino acid, promotes the release of hormones such as insulin and growth hormone, helps support immune function and is involved in wound healing. Glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in the body, provides glucose for energy and enhances immune function. Glutamine is especially helpful for preventing immune system suppression that may occur after bouts of intense physical exercise.

The results of many studies suggest that taking between 6–11g a day of an amino acid mixture may enhance aerobic fitness, reduce muscle injury and shorten recovery time after exercise.



Magnesium is an extremely important mineral that is vital to good health.  It is involved in several hundred different enzyme reactions in the body that relate to production of energy and cardiovascular function. Magnesium is also essential for the proper function of muscles. Without magnesium, muscles cannot relax and cramping can result. Despite its importance, many people today are magnesium deficient since things like alcohol and coffee can lower magnesium levels.

Dose: 350–500mg daily.



Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect muscles from oxidative damage, one of the factors that contribute to the loss of strength that generally occurs with age. One study found that people with the highest levels of selenium in their blood have the greatest upper and lower body strength, performing better on hip, knee and hand strength tests. Unfortunately, since soils are notoriously depleted of this mineral, it’s hard to get in food.

Dose: Adults 60-70mcg daily.



Your bones support you and you need to support your bones. Exercising will help keep bones strong but it is worth reminding yourself that there are a couple of nutrients you need to give to your bones as you exercise.



Everyone knows a lack of calcium leads to weakened bones and, eventually, osteoporosis. What is less commonly known is that calcium is necessary for nervous system function and for muscle contraction. There is considerable evidence that low calcium levels can lead to high blood pressure. You may also be slightly unsure as to what form of calcium you should take.

Studies have shown that people tend to absorb calcium best from calcium citrate, although it does not carry as much calcium as other forms. Calcium citrate also seems to bypass the concerns relating to kidney stones with calcium supplementation. Another good calcium source is calcium hydroxyapatite, which offers nutrients such as phosphorous, which can aid in calcium absorption. Hydroxyapatite also contains residues of substances known as glycosaminoglycans, which can have some benefit in strengthening bone structure.

A key co-factor in calcium absorption is vitamin D. Taking vitamin D orally with calcium increases calcium absorption and vitamin D has other fitness benefits as well.


Daily calcium requirement (mg)

8–11 yrs     900mg
12–15yrs     1000mg

16–18 yrs   


19–54 yrs  



Lactating    1400mg
54+ yrs      1000mg
8–11 yrs     800mg
12–15 yrs    1200mg
16–18 yrs    1000mg
19+ yrs      800mg


Vitamin D

Vitamin D’s most important role is maintaining levels of calcium but it does more. Lack of vitamin D weakens not only your bones but your muscles as well. In one study, researchers found that among girls aged 12 to 14, those with lower vitamin D levels in their blood performed more poorly in tests of jump height and leg-muscle power. Due to its effect on muscles and bones, vitamin D supplements have also been shown to reduce the incidence of falls in the elderly.

Dose: Children and adults to 50 yrs 200IU daily; adults 51–70 yrs 400IU daily; adults over 70 yrs 600IU daily.

These figures are based on what is needed in the presence of minimal sun exposure.



It is well established that many elite athletes have to deal with more colds and flu because high levels of training and regular exercise can suppress immune function. It’s true that some exercises, like yoga and tai chi, can actually support immune function but, if you are getting into some of the more extreme physical endeavours such as marathons or adventure sports, you might want to think of adding yoga or tai chi to your exercise and using some supplements that will help with your immunity.



Echinacea is also known as purple coneflower and is native to the United States west of Ohio but has been cultivated in Europe and now Australia. Echinacea has been shown to decrease your chances of catching a cold and also to have the effect of making any symptoms less severe and shorter in duration. One study found that echinacea shortened cold duration by 33 per cent.

Echinacea boosts immunity by stimulating the release of certain chemicals, such as interferon, that get your immune system going. So effective is echinacea at doing this, it has even been shown to reduce the incidence of leukaemia in mice. Echinacea also stimulates various cells of your immune system. In net effect, echinacea gets your body as ready as it can be to defend against infection but it also goes a step further.

Echinacea has the valuable capacity to restrict the activity of viruses. This is an unusual quality, which echinacea achieves by blocking the release of a substance known as hyaluronidase. It is this hyaluronidase that viruses use to lay down the highways and byways by which they move about your body and spread their infection. One particular species of echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) also appears to have a mild antibiotic effect.

Dose: Dosage with echinacea is not a simple issue. It varies widely with the species and plant part being used. There are three main species of echinacea we will deal with here: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida.

E. angustifolia dried root — 1–3g daily

E. purpurea dried root — 1.5–4.5g daily

E. purpurea dried aerial parts — 2.5–6g daily

E. purpurea expressed juice of fresh plant — 6–9ml daily

E. pallida ethanolic extract of root — 2–4ml daily


Vitamin C

As well as being a useful general antioxidant, vitamin C is particularly important for immunity. It plays a role in many functions of the immune system and, when an infection occurs, the normally high concentration of the vitamin in white blood cells is dramatically depleted. A review of 30 clinical trials done on vitamin C found that high-dose vitamin C does reduce severity and duration of symptoms of cold and flu. Vitamin C has also been identified as relieving sore throat.

Dose: A supplement dose of 500mg a day is probably adequate for most people as a maintenance dose. Levels significantly beyond this, however, can be taken when infection occurs. At such a time, 2–5g a day can be taken.


Of course, you don’t need to take all of the supplements outlined here but judiciously choosing those which are most appropriate for you will help ensure that your fitness routine is sustainable for a lifetime.


Terry Robson is editor of WellBeing magazine, a broadcaster, journalist and author. His latest book is Failure IS an Option published by ABC Books.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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