Nutritional supplements are an enormous industry. Not only related to sport performance, but weight loss, naturopathy and medical. So how do we cut through all the marketing and sales copy to 'sort the wheat from the chaff' so to speak? This article will offer you a few tips on how to evaluate a supplement and the marketing claims that accompany it. Then we'll touch on a couple of the classic, tried and tested supplements that, unlike most of the stuff out there these days, are almost guaranteed to improve performance.
When supplement companies state that you can expect amazing results when their products are used, you should be immediately suspicious. Most of the claims made are simply physiologically impossible. You can't gain 10 kg of muscle in 1 month unless your name is Daisy; you eat grass and are milked twice a day. The fancy graphs showing a 236% increase in fat loss, performance or muscle gain due to a certain supplement are simply manipulation of statistics to look impressive.
Before you take a supplement it is important to do a little of your own research. Listening to your friend who 'just like, had so much energy' when he took Nitroboost 2000™ (all rights reserved, "NB2G gives you NRG, yeah!!" slogan is protected and not to be used without permission) does not constitute research. You need to be reading scientific journals for the original published data. It's amazing how many supplements offer references that actually show little or no effect to back up their claims. Because how many people actually take the time to check that reference? Many highly regarded journals have a free on-line presence, so why not use them to find out a little more about the substance you're thinking of ingesting.
Now if you aren't involved with the sports science and nutrition industry then you are not going to know which journals are the most reputable. But if you are reading an article about the supplement Ribose for example, and you see a reference titled:
Ribose: Howzit work? Muscle Monthly, I'm hoping that may make you a little suspicious; whereas something like:
Effects of Oral Ribose Supplementation on repeated maximal exercise + de novo ATP resynthesis. Journal of Applied Physiology, would I hope give you more faith in the information.
(FYI, no matter who did the research in this case, don't bother with ribose ok?)
Some journals to get you started:
- International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- Nutrition Journal
- Journal of Nutrition
- And don't forget Google Scholar. A good place for the research rookie.
Once you get the hang of the journals you can really start to critically evaluate potential supplements. Ask and answer for yourself these questions:
- How many people were tested?
- If four out of five people improved performance on the supplement, that doesn't mean that the supplement will work for 80% of all people. The next 50 people tested may have had no results. The larger the sample size, the larger the credibility.
- Was the study even on humans?
- If the results state that 1/3 of subjects saw a positive effect, 1/3 had no change, and the rest of the rats escaped from the cage should we be applying this data to humans? Some supplement companies do.
- Who paid for the study?
- This information is usually printed in small letters at the end of the journal article. Studies on the health benefits of red meat are usually sponsored by The American Cattlemen Association or a similar organization. If the Dairy industry backed a study saying that double cream contained healthy antioxidants, do you maybe take this info with a grain of salt?
- Were the dosages used in the research higher than that found in the product?
- Quite often the dose necessary to elicit an effect is prohibitively expensive, so the product is produced with an affordable (but useless) amount of the active substance.
- On some occasions the experiment involved intravenous administration of the substance, and the manufactured pill/liquid form is often inactive or woefully inadequate.
- How many studies could you find?
- One positive experiment means little in the big picture, but if you find numerous trials, from different lab groups, in different countries, all saying the same, then you might be on to something.
So let's talk about supplements that fulfill the criteria mentioned above. The two I'm going to mention have a significant effect on performance, and there is still only a select few products that can show that. Study after study has shown promising data on these supplements and little if any side effects, enhancing their credibility greatly.
One of the most researched supplements on the planet, this supplement has had a huge growth in popularity over the last few years. It was first investigated in a performance context in the early 1980's; and by the time the 1996 Atlanta Games rolled around almost 80% of athletes were using it, with over 3 million kg consumed each year.
Creatine is obtained naturally in the diet through meat and fish, supplying about 1g/day to most people. Almost 95% is stored in muscle and it's most basic function is to buffer our ATP energy system. Simply put, our creatine store acts as a back up fuel tank to our main fuel tank of ATP, thus allowing us to do a little more work than we could normally do. With more creatine in our muscle, ATP is buffered for longer, allowing more work, leading to greater adaptation.
Supplementation of creatine increases normal storage levels significantly (Harris, Hultman), with the greatest response coming from individuals who have a naturally low level, or are vegetarian and thus consume little creatine in their diet.
Creatine uptake is enhanced when consumed with carbohydrate (Green, Preen), so is often an added component to recovery drinks. Creatine is a favourite of most power/strength athletes, but due to its association with muscle growth and sometimes water weight gain, the endurance community is not as embracing of it. What lean mean hill climbing machine would want an extra 1-2 kg of extra baggage to carry? While creatine can cause a slight initial gain in water weight, this usually occurs only with high doses. Research has shown no performance effect on long duration exercise (Jun, van Loon), but sprint performance during and after (i.e. final sprint) did improve (Englehart, Vandelburie). Thus for endurance athletes, it is up to the individual to decide if creatine could be of benefit. Experiment during a training phase with different dosages and take performance measurements to know for sure if results are significant.
Yes, coffee, java, joe, kahve, café; this stuff works, no doubt about it. But are you using it to your best advantage? Caffeine has been used for hundreds of years in a performance context, but is going through a resurgence lately. Studies have shown that consumption increases catecholamines such as epinephrine (formerly known as adrenalin), increases time to fatigue, alertness and reaction speed, and also muscle contractility (Wiles, Scnieker, Bridge, Paluska). Recent research has investigated possible neural effects; as the latest theories into caffeine's performance benefits involve some effect on the central nervous system that contributes to delay of fatigue (Kalmar).
Formerly a limited substance in competition, the Olympics allowed a blood level of 12μg/ml or about six cans of Coke. This limit has now been lifted completely…….hmmm….what beverage company sponsors the Olympics? Continuous exposure to caffeine however, can lead to a reduced effect. With a café on every corner these days, many people have raised their tolerance to caffeine through the roof. To get the greatest benefit, aim to consume your coffee (or other caffeine drink/pill) shortly before training/racing and think about cutting back on consumption leading up to a big race to increase the effect when taken on the day.
There are some side effects to be aware of. Excess caffeine consumption can cause stomach upsets, irritability, affect sleep quality and increase heart rate. Very high levels have been associated with ulcers, seizure and even death (Kerrigan)
These two supplements have multitudes of research papers published confirming a performance effect. If you feel a supplement might be of use to you, why not investigate a little first. I've seen more research done on which mobile to buy than on something that is going into our body. And don't forget; top performance coach Alwyn Cosgrove put it best when he said that 'supplements are performance enhancers, not performance starters'. Even steroids and other illegal ergogenic substances are unlikely to have any effect if the user is not prepared to work their butt off; the steroids just allow them to work even harder.
Train hard, eat right and sleep well………….or the best supplement in the world won't do a thing for you.
Darren Ellis has a Postgrad Diploma in Exercise Science, specializing in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition and is currently completing an MSc. His passion is nutrition and strength training for improved performance, health and body composition, which he practices with the University of Auckland Exercise Rehab Clinic, Unisports Center for Sports Performance and as a Sports Nutrition intern with Sport and Exercise Science NZ. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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