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Sports Supplements: What are they and should you be taking them?

Sports supplements are a vast industry with new products hitting the stores each week to keep individuals interested and also to keep brands one step ahead of their competitors- not to mention the potential performance enhancement benefits to athletes. It therefore makes choosing a supplement or deciding to start taking one a daunting process, as you do not want something that doesn’t have any effect, or worst have negative side effects.

So I am going to try keep it simple by providing you with supplements that suit most commonly set sports goals within athletes and regular gym goers:

Sports supplements are there to provide additional support to your body before, during and after workouts, yet should not be taken as an alternative source of energy/food. They merely ‘supplement’ your diet to help meet nutritional/macronutrient requirements (e.g. [high]protein intake), improve nutrient deficiencies, aid personal fitness goals and/or enhance athletic performance. There is times when an individual might not reach their nutrients goals to ensure optimal performance in a chosen sports or activity from diet alone. This could be due to busy schedules and/or high demands from their sport.

Types of supplement in sports nutrition, include:

- Vitamins (B, C, D…)

- Minerals ( Sodium, magnesium, potassium…)

- Amino acids (Essential)

- Herbs and botanicals (Rhodiola, green tea, ashwagandha, ginseng…)

- Food and plant concentrates (powdered form of whole food that retains full nutrient complex - e.g. green powders)

Supplements can come in the forms; tablets, capsule, liquids, powders and bars. The form in which you consume a supplement comes down to the active ingredient and the individual consuming. For example, someone who hates taking tablets wouldn’t then add an additional daily supplement to swallow they would choose a powder or liquid. Each form has benefits and downsides as to which one you consume therefore choose the type based upon your individual needs and preferences.

The best way to then choose a supplement is to try and pick a key area of your lifestyle you would like to improve, this could be inline with recent goals you would like to reach e.g. improve sleep, recovery, energy levels, muscle growth…, once you have pinpointed these goals it then narrows down the area of the supplement market, making selection that bit easier.

You might then be thinking…”How do you know which supplement brand is ‘the best’”. I understand that most don’t want to pay a large amount of money for supplements and so struggle to know if those cheap supplements are actually beneficial and safe for consumption. Most supplements will be safe, its just whether they contain enough of the actual supplement or whether the company has bulked out the product with other ingredients.

For athletes looking to compete in sporting events you need to choose supplements that have been verified by informed sports to prevent risk of doping which can lead to being disqualified. Individuals just looking for improvements in the gym should look for those tested by both the food and drug administration (FDA) AND a third party tester (NSF, BSCG or consumer lab). Also check the ingredients and make sure there are unnecessary additives, check the dosage and where it is made.

Figure 1: Example of labels you should look out for on supplement websites in their product quality assurance. If you haven’t taken supplements before or don’t know where to begin the next few supplements are a good place to start:

  1. What to take when you want to build muscle and strength.

Most people know by now that protein is needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth), with timing, ingestion and distribution being important.. Protein should be evenly distributed to regulate protein synthesis, with 0.3g/kg/BM, every 3-4 hours, ensuring total daily intake is reached to maximise recovery and anabolic processes (Areta, 2013). Although dietary protein sources are the primary choice, protein supplementation offers practicality to athletes and gym goers due to of ease of product consumption and transportation to away games or training sites, aiding the high protein demand. Whey protein - commonly consumed in powder form with one serving equating to 20-30g protein. Those blended with higher quantities of EAA, specifically leucine, have shown to elicit greater MPS rates and muscular adaptations (Witard, 2016). Vegan protein- alternative to whey protein, however you need a larger quantity of the supplement to obtain the same benefits seen in 1 scoop of whey. i.e 20g whey vs 40-48g plant. This can also be a good alternative for those suffering from digestive issues. Casein protein- ‘the nighttime protein’ - its slow releasing properties has been show in some studies to increase protein synthesis gradually over night and aid muscle growth and repair. Mass gainers- adding weight and muscle mass- A good way to increase body and muscle size as it increases ability to reach a calorie surplus, which is difficult to do with diet alone for most individuals. They are packed with carbohydrates and proteins. 2. What are the best supplements for muscle power, strength and exercise capacity? Trying to hit that pb in your heavy lift or get a quicker time in your sprints? Creatine - One of the most research and supported supplements for both professional and amateur levels. Creatine is trapped within the skeletal muscle and converted to phosphocreatine (PCr), a substrate that provides immediate energy during short duration, high intensity exercise and/or lifting heavy weights. Harris (2006) highlighted positive association with creatine loading for 5-7 days, 20g/d (4 x 5g) followed by a maintenance dose of 3-5g/d. 3. What are the best supplements to give me energy and endurance? Many settle for coffee pre workout or an energy drink to give you that boost to go smash your workout. Caffeine stimulates the release of calcium ions aiding muscle contraction and central nervous system (CNS) which reduces perception of fatigue, rating of perceived exertion (Maughan, 2018) and enhances cognitive functioning, providing rapid reaction. Caffeine also stimulates the release of fatty acids from the adipose tissue, resulting in reduced carbohydrate utilisation during the early stages of match play, delaying time to exhaustion. Up your caffeine game by choosing pre-workout. Pre-workouts- A powder form that usually contains ingredient like caffeine, BCAAs, creatine, occasionally beta-alanine (what this it can make you itch/or tingle but isnt harmful!) and fast acting carbohydrates to provide quick and easy energy without the feeling of fullness from food. Energy gels/bars/drinks- Great for those that enjoy endurance based exercise, running, hiking and cycling (can be good for those high intensity session that require quick boost). Carbohydrates are your main source of energy contributing to improved performance and delayed onset of fatigue. Carbohydrate requirements increase with exercise intensity, altering substrate oxidation from fat (walking) to carbohydrates (running), i.e. shifting from low to high intensity. Carbohydrates gels, drinks and bars are therefore beneficial as they offer a practical strategy for those quick energy sources when facilities and resources are limited, during travel or poor time management. These sports drinks products help players meet their nutrition goals and support high energy requirements. This doesn’t mean you can’t go for a food first approach and consume bananas, sweets, high sugar drinks. 4. The best supplements for joint and flexibility Fish oils: commonly taken to promote heart, brain, eye and joint health. It is extracted from the tissue of oily fish (salmon, herring, halibut and mackerel), and an essential part of your diet as they cannot be produce within the body. They have shown to help reduce inflammation caused by heavy training or other kinds of exercise-induced stress on the body, that could then prevent or reduce muscle soreness, inhibit temporary loss of strength and range of motion after exercise. Fish oils should only be consumed if you can’t achieve it through consuming fish as part of your weekly diet. Algal oil - vegan alternative to fish oils. Made from algae and has both essential fatty acids! 5. Supplements that aid recovery: Recovery is important to help you hit your sessions day in and day out but also to help build and repair your muscle around those sessions to reach those goals. Recovery is achieved thought sufficient calorie intake (through adequate carbs and protein). Additionally a diet filled with micronutrients (fruit and veg and whole-grains) will also speed up and aid the recovery process. You may therefore benefit from: Vitamin D: The sunshine vitamin, meaning individuals (especially in the UK due to the mass number of cloudy winter days and shorter light hours) become deficient. Deficiency then negatively impacts muscle and immune functioning. It is thought that 75-100nmol.l-1 a day to ensure healthy bone tissue (indicative of calcium absorption and bone mineralisation), muscle function/remodelling, enhanced recovery and performance and support immune health. New emerging evidence suggests vitamin D supplementation alongside nutritional strategies will prevent or rehabilitate individuals, with the ingestion of >75nmol.L- demonstrating increased muscle remodelling post-injury during rehabilitation and increased muscle force recovery after exercise-induce muscle damage. Magnesium: used for multiple reactions within the body; energy production, uptake of oxygen and balance of electrolytes. A main function being used as a sleeping supplement to help with insomnia. Sleep is crucial to the recovery periods as it allows the body to repair and rebuild. Vitamin C: help maintain immune system function and decrease oxidative stress after exercising. Potassium and sodium: must be replenished after exercise and could help ease muscle cramping. I get that supplements can be a whirlwind topic with so many people having their own viewpoints on whats right and wrong, so just remember supplements and the results obtained by consuming them will be individual and therefore different dependent on what exercise they partake in, food they consume and genetics. They are there as an addition to your diet, not to replace. References: Areta JL, Burke LM, Ross ML, Camera DM, West DW, Broad EM, et al. 2013. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. Journal of physiology 591, pp.2319–2331

Harris ,R. Tallon, M. Dunnett, M. Boobis, L. Coakley, J. Kim, H. et al. (2006). The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids. 30, 279–89. Witard, O.C, Wardle, S.L, Macnaughton, L.S. Hodgson, A.B Tipton, K.D. (2016). Protein Considerations for optimising skeletal muscle mass in health young and older adults. Sports Medicine. 23(8), 181.

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