Performance is all that matters when you’re an athlete. If you can generate more power while you cycle, improve your breathing while you sprint, and delay muscle fatigue during your lifts, you’ll accumulate minor improvements, that will enhance your performance in a major way. Optimizing your diet and nutrition, is one of the key foundational principles, to enhance your performance. Studies show that Spirulina, a blue algae, may be the secret ingredient, to improving your endurance and training adaptations, to give you the athletic edge you need to outperform your competition.
What Is Spirulina
Spirulina is defined as a microscopic and filamentous cyanobacterium. It derives its name from the helical or spiral nature of its filaments. First used by the ancient Aztecs as a supplemental source of protein, sourced from Lake Texcoco in central Mexico Spirulina grows in microscopic spirals, which bind making it easy to harvest. [R] Spirulina’s claim to fame, however came when it was introduced and used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts. Today the superfood algae from the sea has gained massive popularity status due to its highly rich nutritional profile. Spirulina is packed with protein, making up nearly 70% of its nutritional content. It’s one of the few plants that’s considered a “complete protein” meaning that it contains all of the amino acids, your body needs that it can’t make on it’s own. Spirulina also contains a plethora of vitamins and nutrients, including b-vitamins, vitamin e, beta-carotene, as well as antioxidants, minerals, and chlorophyll.
Spirulina, a seaweed contains the following nutrition profile, per 1 tablespoon (7g). An interesting fact about Spirulina, is that it lacks cellulose walls, making it easy to digest
- Calories: 20
- Fat: 0.5g
- Cholesterol: 0mg
- Sodium 73mg
- Potassium: 95mg
- Carbohydrates: 1.7g
- Dietary fiber: 0.3g
- Sugar: 0.2g
- Protein: 4g
- Vitamin C: 1% DV
- Iron: 11% DV
- Magnesium: 3% DV
Spirulina Benefits For Athletes
Dietary antioxidants, like beetroot, spirulina, pomegranate, quercetin, and resveratrol, have gained massive popularity regarding their effect on exercise performance, due to their rich antioxidant, vitamin, and nutrient content.
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Spirulina Helps Decrease Chronic Fatigue
Besides having more protein gram for gram than the steak you ate last night for dinner, Spirulina contains polysaccharides (Rhamnose and Glycogen) and the essential fat (GLA), which are easily absorbed and help in naturally promoting energy. Spirulina also increases healthy gut bacteria lactobacillus in the intestine, enabling the production of Vitamin B6, which also helps in energy production.
In a randomized, double-blind controlled study, conducted by the Ohio State University Department of Human Nutrition, a group of men were administered 3g of Spirulina per day before performing 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on a cross trainer machine. The study showed a statistically significant improvement in physical and mental fatigue within the first four hours after ingestion, thus giving some significant clinical evidence that Spirulina can benefit individuals with chronic fatigue symptoms. [R]
Spirulina Increases Power Output
Power is the rate of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) used over a single or multiple maximal effort during different execise bouts.
Peak power is the greatest output or production of work over a given amount of time and is able to account for a combination of strength, velocity, force and neuromuscular adaptations. More peak power, results in more max effort over the course of your training.
A study conducted at Kingston University in London, investigated the effects of Spirulina supplementation for twenty one days on completive cyclists. The study showed that at 55% of peak power output, and repeated sprint performances, spirulina significantly reduced lactate levels and heart rate, while increasing hemoglobin, peak power output, and and average power [R].
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Spirulina Increases Oxygen Uptake
Oxygen is crucial to efficiently push blood from your heart and veins to your muscle tissue. Better use of oxygen and beter oxygen transport will result in improved endurance capacity. Spirulina has been shown to improve high intensity exercise performance, through mechanisms of improving VO2 max. In a study published in the European Journal Of Applied Physiology, eleven untrained individuals, participated in a double blind randomized crossover study. Each study participant supplemented with 6g of Spirulina or placebo for seven days and performed a baseline VO2 test, and after supplementation, followed by an incremental test to failure on an arm crank ergometer. The results showed that spirulina significantly increased oxygen uptake [R]
One reason for the increased performance perks of spirulina is that it increases levels of hemoglobin, which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood.
Spirulina May Optimize Body Composition
One impressive benefit of Spirulina is body recomp. Cutting body fat and putting on more lean muscle mass, can provide a significant benefit, in terms of time trials, power, and endurance capacity. Studies have shown that spirulina, may improve fat metabolism, and fat oxidation.
The British Journal of Nutrition published a study investigating the effects of spirulina supplementation on wrestlers, who wanted to lose weight. The study found that spirulina, helped the test subjects significantly reduce body mass, body fat percentage, and fat mass compared to the placebo group [R].
Another study published in the Journal Of Medicine and Science In Sports And Exercise, examined the effects of spirulina supplementation on exercise performance and substrate metabolism. Nine subjects ran on a treadmill, at 70-75% of their VO2 Max, and then at 95% to exhaustion. Time to exhaustion significantly increased with spirulina supplementation, showing an improvement in endurance capacity. Results also showed that Ingestion of spirulina significantly decreased carbohydrate oxidation rate by 10.3% and increased fat oxidation rate by 10.9% during the 2-h run compared with the placebo [R].
Spirulina May Reduce Muscle Damage
One of the most well-known benefits of Spirulina, are the powerful antioxidant properties. It’s thought that Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are one component of the stress response that may contribute to muscle damage after eccentric exercise. Antioxidants may in turn scavenge ROS, thereby preventing or attenuating muscle damage.
Some studies have shown that spirulina, may in fact reduce muscle damage and help optimize the recovery process. However other research has shown conflicting results.
Research published in the International Journal Of Molecular Science, examined the effects of spirulina supplementation on redox status, muscle performance, and muscle damage. 24 study participants were randomly separated into two groups: a spirulina supplementation (6 g per day) and a placebo group. Both groups performed 5 sets of 15 reps of an eccentric exercise. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) was assessed, as well as peak torque. No significant differences however were reported between groups [R].
A three-week study published in the European Journal Of Applied Physiology however showed conflicting results, and concluded that spirulina showed preventive effects of the skeletal muscle damage and improved time to exhaustion [R].
More well-established comprehensive studies, with increased study participants and duration need to be conducted, to further examine the effects of spirulina on exercise induced muscle damage.
Spirulina Dosage For Athletes
All cited studies used a clinical dose of 6g per day for up to three weeks, to incite an ergogenic or performance benefit on cardiorespiratory performance, muscle damage, and peak power output.
Spirulina Benefits For Athletes: Takeaway
Research shows that spirulina can provide positive benefits for athlete on exercise and sports performance. It’s believed that the transport of hemoglobin, as well as high levels of beta-carotene, attribute to its associated health benefits and ergogenic effects. If you’re an endurance athlete, adding a scoop of greens or spirulina as a stand-alone supplement, can improve oxygen transport, improve VO2 max, while enhancing muscular endurance and peak power.
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Bagheri R, Negaresh R, Motevalli MS, Wong A, Ashtary-Larky D, Kargarfard M, Rashidlamir A. Spirulina supplementation during gradual weight loss in competitive wrestlers. Br J Nutr. 2021 Mar 15:1-9. doi: 10.1017/S000711452100091X. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33715648.
Kalafati M, Jamurtas AZ, Nikolaidis MG, Paschalis V, Theodorou AA, Sakellariou GK, Koutedakis Y, Kouretas D. Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jan;42(1):142-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45. PMID: 20010119.
Gurney, Tom, and Owen Spendiff. “Spirulina supplementation improves oxygen uptake in arm cycling exercise.” European journal of applied physiology vol. 120,12 (2020): 2657-2664. doi:10.1007/s00421-020-04487-2
Pappas A, Tsiokanos A, Fatouros IG, Poulios A, Kouretas D, Goutzourelas N, Giakas G, Jamurtas AZ. The Effects of Spirulina Supplementation on Redox Status and Performance Following a Muscle Damaging Protocol. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Mar 30;22(7):3559. doi: 10.3390/ijms22073559. PMID: 33808079; PMCID: PMC8037525.
Lu HK, Hsieh CC, Hsu JJ, Yang YK, Chou HN. Preventive effects of Spirulina platensis on skeletal muscle damage under exercise-induced oxidative stress. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Sep;98(2):220-6. doi: 10.1007/s00421-006-0263-0. Epub 2006 Aug 30. PMID: 16944194.
Gurney T, Brouner J, Spendiff O. Twenty-one days of spirulina supplementation lowers heart rate during submaximal cycling and augments power output during repeated sprints in trained cyclists. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2021 Aug 16. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2021-0344. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34399066.
Karkos, P D et al. “Spirulina in clinical practice: evidence-based human applications.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2011 (2011): 531053. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen058