The use of supplements by athletes is almost universal, and used correctly and appropriately, can help to achieve optimum performance.
However, clever marketing by supplement companies often exaggerates or invents nutrition claims. The use of pseudo science is common, using seemingly impressive words and phrases.
Unfortunately, many professional and recreational athletes rely on information from unreliable websites, or are advised by unqualified and inexperienced nutritionists (there are some fabulous nutritionists out there, however, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist as it is an unregulated title). Without the correct training, it is easy to misinterpret and misquote published scientific evidence and come to the wrong conclusions.
It is common for athletes to be motivated by celebrity endorsements, a big selling point for a product, “If x uses it it then it must work!”. Additionally, there is the fear that colleagues or competitors are taking a supplement, and if they do not, then they will be losing out on having ‘the edge’.
All this results in money being wasted on products that simply do not work, and at worst can cause physical harm. Importantly, supplements are a distraction from the factors that can really enhance health, recovery and performance.
It may not seem exciting or cutting edge, but the sound foundations of good nutrition need to be
firmly in place (focusing on real food and getting quality nutrients from carbs, protein and healthy fats). These, coupled with optimum timings of nutrient intake is the basis for ultimately achieving the best performance in training and competition.
There are a select few supplements, however, that have a good amount of evidence behind their effectiveness:
- Recovery shakes – Carbohydrate & Protein powders for use after exercise. Carbs allow glycogen replenishment of the muscles and help to shuttle protein in to the muscle for repair and growth. Although carbs and protein can be sourced from food or milk, sometimes it is more convenient to take as a supplement (20-30g protein, approx 60-90g carbs). For higher protein needs of resistance training, whey protein is quickly absorbed and can be a more convenient and often cheaper way to achieve requirements than from solely high protein food (up to a total of 1.7g/kg/day of protein from food and supplements)
- Caffeine – Sound evidence exists that caffeine enhances endurance and provides a small but worthwhile enhancement of performance over a range of exercise protocols. Caffeine also improves mental sharpness. Avoid if it gives you the jitters, and for many people it acts as a gut stimulant causing diarrhoea (70-200mg taken before and during exercise. A cup of instant coffee has approx 70mg, one ProPlus tablet 50mg)
- Creatine – for about 80% of people, creatine can increase muscle mass, strength and high intensity exercise performance. Effective for sports involving short periods of maximal intensity and repeated bouts with intermittent rest periods. The quickest way to “creatine load” is to take large doses (20-30 g per day) for around 5-7 days. Typically, these doses are split over the day e.g. 5g, four to five times each day. Eating a large amount of carbohydrate (about 70-100 g) with each dose increases creatine uptake via the stimulatory effects of insulin.
- Nitrates – Dietary nitrate has become increasingly popular as an ergogenic aid, with a number of recent studies finding benefits to sports performance. Nitrates increase blood flow by causing blood vessels to dilate. High nitrate foods include beetroot, beetroot juice, celery, spinach, lettuce, rocket, leeks and parsley (preferably non-organic).
- Vitamin D – there is a direct relationship between vitamin D levels in the body and muscle power, force and velocity. Vitamin D deficiency increases risk of muscle injury. In a recent study (2014) one third of American college athletes were deficient in vitamin D. There aren’t many good food sources of vitamin D, therefore for those who are deficient, supplementing with 1000IU is advisable. Severely deficiencies may require higher doses.
- Omega 3s – anti-inflammatory, also protects against heart attacks and strokes, may also benefit memory and general mental performance. If no oily fish is eaten, then 500-1000mg daily of EPA & DHA is a good amount to take.
- Probiotics – maintains gut function and health, preventing the immunosuppressive effects of intense exercise, and reducing susceptibility to illness. Also appropriate to take if travelling abroad for competition to avoid traveller’s diarrhoea. The specific strain of probiotic supplement needs to be carefully selected.
- Multivitamins – when you can’t guarantee that your diet is always a healthy and balanced one.
A dietitian can carry out an assessment and advise on the most appropriate supplements to take (if any), dose and timings*. Advice is tailored to take in to account factors such as specific sport, training goals and food intake.
*Dietitians do not sell nutritional supplements and do not have a commercial interest in promoting them.