Are Supplements Necessary?
Sports nutrition supplements should never take the place of good-quality foods that provide a range of nutrients. Wholefoods and their nutrients work synergistically within the body to provide a number of benefits that out-weigh those of supplements. E.g. a whey protein shake provides a good source of protein whereas lean beef provides a good source of protein, iron, zinc and Vitamin B12.
For some athletes, supplements can complement a good-quality diet to help them achieve their body composition or performance goals, however they are more like ‘the icing on the cake’ or even the cherry on the very top!
Athletes, especially those that undergo regular testing, need to be aware of the risks of supplement use such as the potential for contamination with banned substances. I always recommend that athletes choose products manufactured by a well-respected company or better yet, choose products that have been deemed safe by Informed Sport and are batch tested. These products will carry the Informed Sport logo on their label. Often athletes are supplied supplements by their sporting body, who will ideally, have systems in place to ensure that these supplements are safe for their athletes to use.
The other thing to be aware of before purchasing or using a specific supplement is whether or not that supplement is known to have research-based benefits. The main supplements that I may recommend to athletes to complement a nutritious diet (depending upon their goals and dietary requirements) are:
- Good-quality whey or casein protein – to support high protein needs and increasing lean muscle mass
- Specially formulated electrolyte beverage – to support hydration in situations where sweat rates and electrolyte losses are high. Sports drinks can also provide carbohydrates for energy during long-distance trainings or events.
- Carbohydrate-containing gels – to provide readily available carbohydrate during long- duration trainings or events
- Creatine Monohydrate – to support an increase in muscle creatine levels for explosive power and energy. This is useful in exercise situations such as those involving intermittent high-intensity work with brief recovery periods
- Vitamin or mineral supplement if there is a proven deficiency (i.e. poor iron, Vitamin D or B12 status) -
Where these supplements can prove useful is in situations where athletes are struggling to eat enough food to provide the required amount of nutrients to meet their daily needs, or if they require a quick recovery due to having multiple trainings in one day. For example, an athlete may undertake a training session in the afternoon (3-5pm) that includes a lot of power/resistance work.
It would then be important for them to eat a recovery snack within 30-45 minutes of finishing this session which would ideally contain some carbohydrate to reload energy stores and 20-25g of protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (i.e. muscle growth, repair and recovery). If a nutritious dinner containing a good protein source along with other foods could be eaten by 5.45pm this would ensure the recovery process is supported.
However as most people don’t eat dinner until later in the evening, a protein shake here would be a convenient source to provide 20-25g of protein before having dinner later in the evening (adding fruit or milk to the shake would provide the carbohydrates). However, if an athlete is heading home straight away, they may choose to make a nutritious recovery smoothie using protein and carbohydrate containing foods such as fruit, milk, yoghurt and nuts to meet their needs. It really just depends on the situation and what is available to the athlete at the time, bearing in mind that preparation and planning is the key to sound nutrition.
Another example may be an athlete training at a high intensity in high heat and humidity with a high sweat rate. They have lost a lot of fluid via sweat and need to re-hydrate quickly before another training session.
The use of an electrolyte-containing beverage immediately after exercise here may be a better choice than water because the electrolytes drive water into the cells and can help an athlete to rehydrate faster and more efficiently. However, for an athlete who has done a shorter training session and has plenty of time to recover, water is the best fluid choice.
In summary, supplements should never replace food, but some supplements can be used to complement a nutritious wholefoods foundation diet. However, athletes do need to choose supplements wisely and consume them in an appropriate manner to gain the benefits.