Consumers are investing in their physical fitness more than ever—just look at the meteoric rise in the popularity of wearable fitness trackers, boutique fitness studios like SoulCyle, and in-home streaming fitness systems like Peloton. And data from the Global Wellness Institute confirms it: In a 2020 report, the nonprofit revealed that Americans spend $105 billion per year on recreational activities, including gym memberships and mindful movement classes—and the group anticipates that the market will grow 5.2% annually over the next 5 years (1).

“Today’s consumers are more informed than ever about the importance of exercise, proper nutrition and supplementation,” says Lara Niemann, GELITA Global Marketing. “They strive to optimize mobility, health and appearance—at any and every age—and, they also recognize that what they do today affects their quality of life today and tomorrow.”

This increased interest in wellness reaches across all ages and fitness levels, expanding the market in a major way, notes Bryan Morin, NOW Sports Brand Manager. “Consumers are no longer strictly taking sports nutrition products just for building mass in the weight room. The sports nutrition consumers now all have different fitness goals. There is everything from a weekend warrior, to a Cross Fitter, to a marathoner, to a Tough Mudder, to just your average person trying to fit in a daily 30-minute workout. They all have one thing in common: They want to know exactly what to take before, during and after workouts to achieve their individual fitness goal.”

Newcomers to the category have different supplement needs than body-builders and elite athletes, which has led to demand for more personalized/targeted formulations. Other trends dominating the category: “Clean label is still big, and there’s a higher demand for hybrid products,” adds Andrew Wheeler, VP of Marketing for Van Drunen Farms and FutureCeuticals. “Modern sports nutrition users appreciate the relationships between different parts of their body and want to target multiple areas with hybrid supplements. For example, we predict there will be more products targeting brain and gut health; protein and energy; and muscle building and hydration.”

To make it easier to navigate this densely populated category, we asked the experts to weigh in on emerging trends and the study-proven ingredients that will help your customers get the most out of their workout no matter where they are on their fitness journey.

Bringing Y­­­­­our A Game: Energizing the mind & body Pre-workout supplements have expanded beyond just delivering fuel for a workout, notes Morin. “Consumers are looking for more than just a caffeine boost when it comes to this category. They want sustained energy along with enhanced memory and other cognitive benefits. The other area driving this category is e-gaming as a sport. Serious gamers are looking for something that will keep them alert and focused during their long hours of screen time.”

For sustained energy, consumers are increasingly steering away from quick-burning carb sources like glucose and turning toward low-glycemic carb sources. “For casual fitness adherents looking to tone their bodies and reduce fat, a low-glycemic carbohydrate that has a lower impact on blood sugar levels is preferable, as it doesn’t just sustain energy, but also promotes fat burning, supporting weight loss goals,” explains Kyle Krause, BENEO Regional Product Manager, North America. He points to palatinose, a slowly digested carbohydrate derived from the sugar beet, as an ideal ingredient to upgrade drinks, gels and bars, and even fermented drinks and yogurts with a dose of slow-burning carbs for sustained energy. “Being fully yet slowly released, palatinose provides full carbohydrate energy in a balanced and sustained manner. Plus, studies show it increases the proportion of energy derived from fat in overall energy consumption by increasing the fat burning rate.”

Stimulating the production of the cellular fuel molecule ATP is another way to energize naturally, and options like Bioenergy Ribose and FutureCeuticals ElevATP can deliver. “Athletes seek the benefits of increased ATP levels to produce sustained cellular energy for power, endurance and/or strength,” notes Michael Crabtree, N.D., Director of Scientific Affairs for Bioenergy Life Science, Inc. “For non-athletic individuals, sports nutrition products that increase ATP will be accepted as a way to enable them to better adapt to physical activities or exercise.”

Boosting ATP is especially helpful to older exercisers, adds Wheeler. “ATP naturally declines as we age. However, ElevATP helps improve the efficiency of our body’s mitochondria, increasing energy levels and giving aging athletes the extra boost they need.” Wheeler notes that the company also offers the ingredient S7, a combination of seven phytonutrient-rich botanicals clinically shown to boost the body’s nitric oxide (NO) production by up to 230%. “Increasing NO is appealing to active consumers and performance athletes because it causes blood vessels to expand, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles,” he explains. “This improved circulation is also extremely important to aging athletes as NO production declines as we age, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure.”

On the mental performance side, Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, Senior Director of Research & Development and National Educator at Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation, notes that herbal extracts and nootropic ingredients like bacopa, citicoline, and phosphatidylserine, found in Bluebonnet’s Targeted Choice BrainPower Vegetable Capsules, help reduce oxidative stress and support neural communication in the brain. “These neuroprotective ingredients have been shown to help boost mental alertness, promote the ability to concentrate, increase attention span, reduce mental fatigue, and enhance overall cognitive performance, allowing athletes to perform their best.”

Phosphatidylserine, alpha-GPC and Gingko are also well established smart supplements for athletes, adds Ralf Jäger, Ph.D., Managing Member of Increnovo LLC. “Ingredients like L-theanine help athletes to feel calm and confident, and also increase recovery of the brain after exercise, allowing athletes to get restful sleep quicker.”

Adaptogens like ashwagandha and ginseng also improve performance. Ashwagandha works to reduce stress and improving focus, says ethnobotanist and “Medicine Hunter” Chris Kilham. “Adding ashwagandha can make a big difference in energy, stamina and endurance. We see significant improvement in cardio-respiratory response and improvement in muscle strength, which is the holy grail in improved athletic performance.” Kilham recommends a supplement with 600mg of KSM-66 ashwagandha—a standardized dose that he says is shown to be most efficacious in clinical studies.

Ginseng, which is available from Korea Ginseng Corporation (KGC) and EuroPharma, Inc., maker of the Terry Naturally brand, has been shown to help preserve mental and physical energy.

Another option: BioPQQ, an ingredient from Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Co. in Japan. In an eight-week study, 17 adult female subjects were given 20mg of BioPQQ daily, according to the company. Subjects showed significant improvements in measurements for vigor, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. BioPQQ also activates mitochondrial biogenesis, which helps the body produce energy, increasing physical performance.
Probiotics Show Big Potential in Sports Performance
The gut microbiota composition of athletes is more diverse and consists of more metabolically active bacteria than sedentary people, reports Ralf Jäger, Ph.D. What’s more, emerging science has identified key probiotic strains that seem to increase immune and digestive health in athletes, as well as improve recovery and performance.

According to Sam Michini, the unique spore-forming probiotic Bacillus subtilis DE111 produced statistically significant improvements in the reduction of body fat percentage, and a strong trend indicating improved performance of the deadlift exercise in a study involving female collegiate athletes during off-season training. He also cites another study involving male collegiate athletes during off-season training, which found that DE111 (1 billion CFU), in conjunction with adequate post-workout nutrition, can promote tissue recovery and reduce likelihood of injury.

Dr. Jager adds that the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium breve BR03, in combination with Streptococcus thermophilus FP4, has been shown to reduce exercise-induced damage and speeds up recovery in athletes, making it the ideal sports probiotic, especially for more mature athletes and active people.
Getting strong: Healthy ways to build muscle When it comes to muscle, protein is just one piece of the puzzle, especially as we get older, notes Dr. Jäger. “Total muscle mass is always in flux with new muscle being built, while at the same time parts of the muscle breaks down. Total muscle mass is the sum of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and breakdown (MPB), and if MPS is greater than MPB, we are gaining muscle mass.”

Dr. Jäger cautions that the rate of MPB naturally increases every decade starting at age 30, and nutrition ingredients that stimulate MPS (like protein) become less effective. “While young athletes get optimal MPS activation from 20-25g of protein, more mature athletes need larger amounts of protein to achieve the same benefit,” he explains. “Proteins, especially for more mature athletes, should be fortified with digestive enzymes or specific probiotic strains, allowing for a more efficient absorption of key amino acids for muscle health from protein. That’s especially true for plant protein sources, which contain less leucine and essential amino acids than animal-derived proteins.” Dr. Jager maintains that rice and pea protein powder have the best amino acid profiles and are most easily digested of the plant proteins.

For customers who prefer whey protein powder, the enzyme ProHydrolase can make a difference in digestion and absorbability, plus help reduce GI sensitivity that can be caused by whey, notes Sam Michini, Vice President of Marketing & Strategy, Deerland Probiotics & Enzymes. “A human clinical study showed that a dose of 10 mg of ProHydrolase increased total amino acids in the blood by 20%, and reduced C-reactive protein levels over the 270 minutes after ingestion of whey protein isolate with ProHydrolase when compared to taking whey protein isolate alone.”

Other ingredients that help support muscle-building:

β-Hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB). A naturally occurring metabolite of the essential amino acid leucine, this compound has been shown to increase MPS by 70%, while reducing MPB by 57%, says Dr. Jäger, who recommends supplementing with 3g daily for maximum benefit. “HMB also reduces muscle damage and inflammation after exercise, and increases recovery.”

Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Comprised of valine, leucine and isoleucine, these essential essential amino acids are present in high levels in muscle tissue, says Morin. “Providing the body with these nutrients during exercise helps ensure that the body is synthesizing more protein than it’s actually taking from your muscles; this is how to gain lean muscle mass instead of losing it.”

Specialized collagen peptides. Gelita BodyBalance’s unique proteins have been shown to help decrease fat mass, increase lean body mass and provide more muscle strength in combination with resistance training, notes Niemann. She says BodyBalance stimulates the mTOR pathway to ensure the balance between protein synthesis and protein degradation. More synthesis than breakdown indicates an anabolic state that builds lean tissues.

Tongkat ali. LJ100 is a patented water extract from this Southeast Asian herb. It stimulates the production of testosterone. “Testosterone in both men and women is the hormone that helps the body gain lean muscle mass; lean muscle mass and less fat promote overall health over the long-term,” explains Annie Eng, CEO, HP Ingredients. In one clinical study, she cites, researchers found that LJ100 supplementation resulted in significant increases in total and free testosterone concentrations and muscular force in physically active senior men and women. “In this study, the total testosterone increased 15.1% in men and 48.6% in women; free testosterone increased 61.1% in men and 122% in women; and muscular force increased 16.6% in men and 20.8% in women.”

Another option comes from Lonza, which is offering a new vegan formulation of Carnipure tartrate, creatine, leucine and vitamin D to support muscle building, called MuscleGuard. “Clinical research on older people without exercise intervention showed it supports significant muscle health benefits, including a 63% increase in muscle strength, mass and activity,” says Juliana Erickson, Senior Marketing Manager, Consumer Health & Nutrition, Lonza. “It is proposed to trigger the mTOR pathway to drive new muscle protein synthesis–clinical research has shown a two-fold increase in mTOR protein and insulin growth factor 1.”

Recovery & injury prevention “There will be substantially more focus on ingredients that optimize post-exercise recovery and the body’s ability to adapt to stress,” asserts Crabtree. “With each decade, energy recovery and tissue repair are slower in heart and muscle cells, especially after overwork or exercise.” He notes that RiaGev, a proprietary compound combining Bioenergy Ribose and vitamin B3, works to improve energy recovery by boosting levels of ATP and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) in the body. RiaGev also aids DNA repair and increases activation of sirtuins, the so-called ‘longevity enzymes.’”

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, can help to mediate the inflammatory effects of exercise, notes Kilman. “Curcumin is study-proven to block the COX-2 pain pathways, reducing joint pain and muscle soreness.”

Lonza’s new marine plankton extract Oceanix also works to fight off oxidative stress to aid recovery and physical performance in a small, concentrated dose of 25 mg/day, says Erickson. Credit goes to its high concentration of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase.

Joint health is key here, too. “Today athletes and consumers are more proactive than ever when it comes to safeguarding their recovery and improving performance,” notes Eric Withee, Bergstrom Nutrition’s Director of Sales. “The benefits of joint maintenance and active recovery are especially significant for those who want to maintain an active lifestyle throughout their lifetime.” The brand’s OptiMSM (methylsulfonylmethane) provides nutritional support for lifelong mobility by keeping joints and connective tissue healthy, he says. “MSM also enhances recovery by accelerating muscle repair and mitigating the pain, muscle damage, and soreness following intense training. Plus, MSM bolsters the immune system following exhaustive training.”

For joint support, FutureCeuticals has FruiteX-B, a patented vegan mineral complex that has been clinically shown to deliver fast-acting joint and flex support in as little as 7 days and long-lasting joint comfort over 90 days.

On the collagen-front, Lonza’s UC-II undenatured type II collagen offers support for joint mobility and comfort to help keep active consumers training for longer. Gelita’s Fortigel also offers optimized collagen peptides to activate the growth of new cartilage, helping to make the joints smooth and mobile.

For additional support, Joint Vibrance combines collagen with cartilage-building cells called chondrocytes and nutrients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid to support healthy joint function nutritionally. “Two types of collagen in Joint Vibrance serve as the backbone of the formula, supporting cartilage formation, tendon, and bone health,” note Paige and Ted Parker, Co-Presidents of Vibrant Health. “Further support for regaining cartilage, enhancing flexibility, providing antioxidants, and pain management is provided by glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronic acid, MSM, boron, Boswellia serrata, turmeric, bromelain, and grapeseed.”
Clean Label & Transparency: Keys to Building Trust
“The clean label movement has left its mark on sports nutrition, and consumers now expect products made from natural, whole food ingredients that complement their active lifestyles,” notes Wheeler. “Even without synthetic ingredients, customers have continued to demand substantiated claims.” Highlighting manufacturers that prioritize transparency in their sourcing and labeling and use branded ingredients that can deliver on clinically proven benefits can help ensure satisfied customers that are repeat buyers. Other key factors to consider:

Avoid fillers. “Consumers are starting to avoid products containing excessive excipients,” says Crabtree. “These range from those that are relatively harmless and not terribly toxic, like Gelatin, Cellulose and Magnesium Stearate, to those that contain allergens that may offset the product’s benefit such as Silica, Silicon, Dioxide, Titanium Dioxide, Microcrystalline Cellulose, and Hypromellose. Dietary supplements which use liposomal delivery systems can be valuable due to their lowered risk of contamination and higher bioavailability/absorption.”

The materials used to create gel capsules have also become a concern. That’s why Lonza’s vegetarian V-Caps are Non-GMO Project Verified, gluten-free and preservative-free.

Spotlight third-party testing. Crabtree recommends looking for products that are at minimum FDA certified as GRAS. “Other valuable considerations include Non-GMO Project Verified, Halal, Kosher, gluten-free and keto-friendly.” For products marketed toward serious athletes, it’s a good idea to look for additional third-party testing to ensure products aren’t contaminated by any of the 200 substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, adds Morin. “Informed-Sport is one of the highest levels of quality assurance for athletes. This program tests every single lot of a product and you can look up the test date by searching the lot number on the package of the product at”

Be on alert with proprietary blends. Some protein powders and other sports supplements hide ingredients and ingredient sourcing behind “proprietary blends” on their labels, but that is no longer acceptable to consumers, notes Morin. “For example, the leucine in BCAA can be derived from duck feathers or human hair. If you were a vegan this would be a product you would want to avoid. Sports nutrition consumers want a higher level of transparency when it comes to products. They not only want to know the amount of each individual amino acid but they also want to know what that amino acid was derived from.”
Winning at the sales game “If retailers do a good job on catering to personalized nutrition and education on what to take before, during, and after workouts in order to meet individual fitness goals, they will have a real opportunity to increase their sports nutrition sales,” asserts Morin. One way to start developing personal recommendations is doing in-store demos showcasing different ways to use sports nutrition products. For instance, offer smoothie recipes featuring protein powder, adaptogens and other boosters that deliver different benefits, like energy, muscle-building and recovery support. ­­

Social media is another a great starting point to educate customers and draw them to your store with promotional sales or events, notes Sugarek-MacDonald. “Promote functional food snacks, protein powders, pre-workouts, probiotics, and brain support formulas, and other trendy items like water bottles, yoga mats or clothing.”

Michini suggests getting involved in your community’s fitness scene to tap into a bigger customer base. “Create relationships with local yoga and martial arts studios where you each promote one another,” he suggests. “Or seek to sponsor local charity runs/walks. Ensure you have a table to hand out samples of sports beverages or chewables, along with a flyer and introductory coupon to the runners and walkers.” WF


  1. US Leads Overall Spend in $828 Billion Physical Activity Market, But Ranks 20th in Participation, Indicating a Sharp Divide in Wellness “Haves and Have-Nots”