The supplement market is a multi-billion dollar industry, selling us promises of enhanced performance, mental function or even in some cases, a better version of ourselves. Supplement usage in the sport of athletics is as common as running shoes, with a vast majority of athletes taking part, at any level, taking some form of supplement.
It is estimated that 50% of the athletes engaging with their services use supplements. It is worth noting in advance however, that not all supplements are actually helpful, with some only having use in specific circumstances, and others possibly even harming you or getting you banned from sport. What is curious is that much of the research on the topic of supplements show that athletes of all levels score about a C- when quizzed on the topic.
It might be helpful to delineate a key difference here between nutritional supplements and ergogenic aids, the former being the supplements we all know and use daily such as vitamin C, Iron and vitamin D, with the latter being compounds specifically beneficial to sport, such as caffeine or creatine. For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the key supplements that athletes tend to engage with.
1. Iron: This is a mineral we get from our diets, that has a major role to play on oxygen transport during sports, which is the basis of aerobic performance. It is very important to be aware that taking iron with the intention to enhance performance of prevent deficiency comes with a good degree of medical risk, and that the only instance in which someone should take iron, is if they are actually iron deficient or anaemic. This means you need to do a blood test before supplementing here. Using iron supplements if your iron levels are normal will not do anything for your performance.
2. Creatine: This is a supplement that gets a lot of media frenzy, with many having pretty polarised viewpoints on its usage. The reality is that creatine monohydrate is one of the most widely research compounds on earth, it is perfectly safe to take in 3-5g doses daily provided you have no underlying kidney disease or renal abnormalities. Creatine basically enhances speed & strength by enabling you to work harder for longer (by recycling ATP quicker), it can also enhance immunity and the muscle’s capacity to store glycogen.
3. Caffeine: This is everybody’s favourite ergogenic aid, caffeine has a number of cool effects upon ingestion, it decreases our perception of fatigue (as opposed to actually giving us energy) and it can spare some glycogen during exercise. Mostly caffeine gels are a waste of time, when we bear in mind the fact that caffeine is only really helpful for performance in doses between 3-6mg/kg. For an 80kg person this is the equivalent of a triple espresso, most caffeine gels have about 40mg caffeine. Coffee, caffeine gum or caffeine pills work well in this respect.
4. Beetroot juice: Beetroot juice (alongside things like spinach) has sizeable amounts of a compound known as nitrates, which has the ability to cause our arteries to expand. This results in more oxygen and glucose to reach working muscles, resulting in superior sports performance via enhanced VO2max and decreased lactate production. A shot of beet-it or glass of beetroot will do the trick. Well trained athletes derive less benefit from using the supplements. This may be a poor choice of supplement if you have low blood pressure.
It is really important to bear in mind, this is just a snapshot of the supplement industry and the range available on hand to us. Proceed with caution when using supplements, especially if you are someone taking part in sport competitively or internationally. Just under 1 in 10 of positive doping cases are a result of contaminated nutritional supplements, with NGO’s and WADA not taking a forgiving stance on accidental consumption. Due diligence is our individual responsibility. It is also important to note that approximately 10-25% of the supplements commercially available to you and I are likely to be contaminate with prohibited substances.
So how do we proceed with caution?
Good question, here’s the deal:
a) If you are going to use a supplement, make sure the brand or the supplement itself is batch tested, or is in the informed sports list of approved products. This is an app you can download on your phone; this is a no brainer.
b) Get a professional opinion from a GP, sports medicine physician or sports dietitian, you may require a nutritional supplement, and will be directed towards a trusted pharmaceutical grade option, to address your issue. That’s a brief snapshot on supplements, some of the more common ones and brief rundown on how to supplement safely, if you have a specific supplement question feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @elynchfitnut or email me at email@example.com
Evan Lynch – The Aid Station dietitian & performance nutritionist