The supplement industry is massive. It has also become a major component of the fitness industry. It can also be a very misleading source of information. Much like the food industry it is a business and sometimes the information available is either biased or inaccurate. This article is going to approach the subject of supplements from a physiological perspective. It will discuss the role of supplements in physiological processes and mechanisms which can influence our performance in sport. I will approach things from a mechanistic point of view and not from a dietary perspective. It will cover some of the more popular and well established supplements on the market. There are literally thousands of pills and formulas on the market. If they are not on this list then in our opinion they probably are not worth the money.
Without a doubt these work. They are very simple. They are usually made up of fast acting sugars which enter the bloodstream very rapidly. They are particularly useful in scenarios where there are prolonged bouts of high intensity exercise. They slow the rate of glycogen depletion and can provide energy substrate for glycolysis when glycogen stores are running low. They are very well supported in scientific literature and can be very convenient during exercise to prolong time to exhaustion. Not something that’s required for rest days but can be helpful in recovery.
Another well established supplement. We should all be aware of how essential protein is in the diet of any athlete. While not essesntial, protein supplements are a very convenient way to ensure adequate protein intake without taking in too much fat. Many athletes can get enough from regular foods but strength and power athletes may struggle with the volume of food required. The relatively low volume of protein shakes and bars allow athletes to avoid gastrointestinal distress while achieving desired intakes. It is also a cost effective method. We recommend a high quality whey powder from a reputable brand. There are many blends and types of protein powders but a good whey protein will cover most needs.
Creatine has had a lot of bad press in recent years. It is our opinion that lack of education is to blame. Creatine is naturally stored intramuscularly. It provides rapid energy supply along with intramuscular ATP for sprint type activity and rapid muscle contraction. It is naturally found in many meat products. We consume approximately 3 grams of creatine per day. For many athletes supplementing with creatine allows stores to stay full. This will simply ensure that their capacity for high intensity movements is kept at optimal levels. This requires no more than 3-5grams to be taken per day. It is not uncommon to see young athletes consuming 20g and upwards daily. When used properly there is no evidence of serious side effects. Overconsumption can however, result in gastrointestinal issues and discomfort. As with most substrates in the body it is soluble in water. Like glycogen it will result in modest water retention and slight increases in bodyweight. This is not nearly as drastic as some would suggest but should be considered where body weight is important.
Caffeine is a well established ergogenic aid. It helps muscle contraction, mental alertness and fat utilization. Most athletes would benefit from caffeine supplementation. The major issue is that some individuals are more sensitive to it than others. In some cases people can react badly to caffeine. We recommend that it should be used in training before competition to establish tolerances. Dosage is dependent on individual tolerance. We can build a tolerance to caffeine so generally it is better to use it sparingly and only when needed. In cases of heart conditions or known caffeine allergies it should be avoided, and medical advice obtained.
Nitrates are found in many foods. The most common is Beetroot but they are also found in most vegetables and some commercial supplements are available. Nitrates can help reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and lower blood pressure. They can be beneficial in aerobic type exercise and can improve overall endurance performance. There is no evidence of side effects and there is no established recommendation for required intakes.
Tart cherry juice (Montmorency Cherry juice)
This is a relatively novel supplement. There is relatively little research conducted on its use, but findings so far have been extremely positive. It is claimed that supplementing with this juice has potent anti-inflammatory benefits. It is claimed to have quite a significant reduction of muscle soreness. Some studies also suggest that it acts as an effective pain relief through reduction of inflammation.
Beta Alanine is a relatively new supplement and research is still a little incomplete. It is a limiting amino acid in the resynthesis of Carnosine. Carnosine acts as a lactate buffer in the muscle and helps keep intramuscular pH levels low. It can be beneficial during high intensity exercise where it may improve time to exhaustion. There is no evidence of any major side effects. Overconsumption may however, lead to tingling sensations in extremities. Recommended dosages range from 3-6 grams daily but there is little research completed on the optimal amount.
These are perhaps a more overlooked supplement. They can be extremely beneficial to endurance and female athletes. Oxygen is carried by red blood cells, one of the main building blocks of which is Iron. Iron deficiencies can be common in both sexes and may have a major impact on performance. Tolerances for supplementation vary between individuals. The best natural source for iron is liver and red meat. It is recommended for endurance athletes and female athletes in particular as it can help keep performance levels optimal.
Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish oils)
These are an extremely popular supplement. There are many claims as to their benefits which include mental function, Anti inflammatory properties, joint function and sports performance. Unfortunately there is very little peer reviewed scientific research showing any benefits to their supplementation. While we know fatty acids are essential for cell function, there is little evidence to show that supplementation is beneficial or necessary. A healthy diet would more than likely supply adequate amounts of these fatty acids. However, these fatty acids are predominantly found in fish, which many people dislike. In this case there may be some argument for their use but again they are unlikely to be the miracle drug they are claimed to be.
Zinc and Magnesium
ZMA is the commercial name for Zinc and Magnesium supplements. There is great debate over its effectiveness. There have been many conflicting studies conducted. The general trend is for there to be no performance benefits whatsoever. However, anecdotal evidence suggest it may help with sleep patterns which may help with recovery.
We do not recommend the use of commercial fat burners. They are usually a cocktail of stimulants and substances which have shown a modest increase in metabolism or fat utilization. They will not magically burn away fat. They simply help keep metabolism slightly elevated if at all. They are a risky supplement as some ingredients can potentially be harmful.
Supplements can often be touted as miracle drugs. The reality is that only in some cases do they play a role in natural physiological mechanisms. Most of the time they do not directly improve performance but instead aid the mechanisms which lead to performance. For example Creatine is often associated with hypertrophy. It has no direct influence on muscle growth. It does however, allow muscle contractions to have adequate energy substrate which allows for better muscle function and endurance. This results in better strength and strength endurance. The resulting improvement in training quality can then result in improved rates of hypertrophy.
There are thousands of supplements on the market. Many have solid scientific support and evidence. Others are marketed based on weak or incomplete evidence. Unfortunately athletes and individuals under pressure or desperate to reach their potential may feel that they need every little possibility for progress. As a coach or athlete you must realize that patience is important and one must concentrate on the process rather than the goals. It is also important to note that there are many supplements and substances that are banned and harmful to health. It is essential that athletes choose reputable “drug screened” brands. Often paying a little more for quality can prevent issues later.