With so many pills and supplements on the market, it's hard to determine what really works. Sports nutritionist Pip Taylor sorts the why from the chaff and shows us what's best for maximum performance.
Sports nutrition is big business these days and without a doubt there are many quality products on the market that help athletes fuel, hydrate and recover. But there are also some very savvy marketers with the ability to convince tired, sore and timepoor athletes that their particular product is essential to either wellbeing, performance or both. The science of nutrition is constantly evolving with new revelations, discoveries and previous dogma often being turned on its head. With this in mind, it would be naive to think that just because something has not yet been proven or discovered in a lab or verified through rigorous scientific assessment that it is not indeed useful. In regards to sports performance too, it is worth keeping in mind that when races are won and lost by incremental differences, what might not be statistically significant in a scientific paper could make all the difference to an athlete’s result on race day.
Typing sports nutrition into a search engine brings up over 98 million references and many of the top links are for sports supplements – both products, companies and retailers. All of them claim to have the winning formula. And yet in the world of sports nutrition and efficacy claims there are only a few supplements and ingredients that really stack up, scientifically speaking, to the claims of performance enhancement.
So, what are they? According to the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) Sports Supplements Framework – which has classified supplements according to evidence as to effectiveness, safety and legality – there are a limited number that fall under Group A or those that are “supported for use in specific situations in sport using evidence-based protocols”.
These performance supplements are:
• Caffeine: The performance benefits of caffeine are well accepted, boosting performance (especially for endurance athletes), elevating mood and decreasing pain and perceived effort.
• Creatine: The use of creatine monohydrate is again well established, particularly with a view for athletes building lean muscle mass and supporting high-intensity exercise. Creatine is made in the body from amino acids sourced from foods such as fish, poultry and meat and mostly stored in skeletal muscle. Availability of creatine in the muscle influences energy produced during high-intensity workouts. Increasing muscle stores can be achieved through ingesting large amounts of creatine-containing foods, or, more efficiently, through the use of creatine supplements. This storage also increases water weight, however. Thus, for the endurance athlete, the weigh up is whether this increase in body weight is more detrimental to performance than the potential performance gains.
• Buffers B-alanine and bicarbonate: During high-intensity exercise, the body anaerobically produces energy quickly, creating lactate and hydrogen ions as a by-product. More hydrogen ions mean increased blood acidity, which can increase perceptions of fatigue and reduce performance. The brain works to actively reduce acidity and keep blood pH in a tight range, using endogenous bicarbonate in the bloodstream and carnosine and phosphate in the muscle. Supplemental buffers, such as bicarbonate and B-alanine (the precursor to carnosine), can be used to boost the body’s ability to buffer hydrogen ions. Both can have serious side effects (especially gut issues for bicarbonate and flushing or pins and needles for B-alanine) and the potential benefits are likely to be centered around short bursts of activity. So, for endurance athletes, the risks probably outweigh the benefits.
• Beetroot juice: The benefits of beet juice come from the high concentration of nitrates (also found in other vegetables such as leafy greens), which are converted in the body to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide acts as a vasodilator, allowing more blood and oxygen to be delivered to muscles and potentially lowering the energy cost of exercise. Research shows it may also boost contractile force. Endurance athletes and those training at altitude are most likely to benefit from plenty of nitrates in the diet, but some of the performance claims have also been overblown. Some athletes might benefit under certain circumstances, while for others (particularly well-trained or elite athletes) small improvements may only come after diligently consuming larger amounts consistently for a period of time. (The other option of course is to pack your diet with plenty of fresh vegetables, and not just beets.)
In addition to these supplements, under Group A of the AIS Supplement Framework are listed: Medical Supplements “used to treat clinical issues, including diagnosed nutrient deficiencies”. These are: probiotics, iron, calcium, vitamin D, multivitamins; and sports foods such as whey protein, electrolytes, sports drinks, bars and gels.
Some, or all of these, may form a part of your diet at some point during the day, week and season and all can be used to effect depending on training/race and nutrition goals (note: most supplements are best used under direction of a sports dietitian or doctor for both health and performance reasons).
But as always, supplements are just that – an addition to an already healthy diet that provides the platform for health. Even with the best supplementation program in place, both performance and health will be compromised if the basic dietary foundation is not strong.