Can sports nutrition supplements improve your performance?
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Looking to give your sporting performance an edge? Various sports nutritionists from the professional world give their verdicts on whether, why and when supplements could be the answer.
Walk into any health food shop or visit the numerous online retailers that specialise in vitamins, minerals and supplements, and the huge breadth of powders, capsules and gels on offer is simply overwhelming. Some are backed by dietitians or sports nutritionists, while others get rave reviews on forums and blogs that swear by their effects. But which are the ones worth your money? Who can benefit from taking them – and why? And when and how should they be taken?
Here sports nutritionists look at five of the most popular supplements from across the world of sport and explain how they can be used to boost performance and recovery, whether you’re a regular gym user, an endurance athlete or an elite sportsperson.
When to take it? “Post-training in an optimal window” – John Wilkinson, Head of Nutrition Performance, Wigan Warriors
How does it come? Powder
How much to take? "[With professional rugby league club Wigan Warriors], we try to tick the box of a minimum of 2g per kg of bodyweight. You could go above that, but we use that as a minimum.” – Wilkinson
Protein is an essential nutrient that helps muscles grow and recover after a workout. While it can be found in a variety of food sources (meat, eggs, nuts, tofu, beans and yoghurt to name but a few), most sports nutritionists agree on the benefits of taking a protein supplement if training regularly, whether that’s playing team sports, such as rugby or netball, training in the gym, or taking part in endurance activities, such as running or cycling.
"After training, professional athletes want that muscle to repair as quickly as possible. They've got a small window after they've trained to start that repair process, which is where whey protein powder comes in. It is more refined and processed than if they were to get protein through food. While speed isn't as essential for the amateur, a powdered source post-training can be a convenient option."
And, says Wilkinson, if you’re an elite sportsperson, real food can’t always provide you with enough protein to fuel your recovery. "Generally, our lads would not be able to get enough protein consumption through food alone. You need sufficient protein in your diet to allow your muscles to grow and recover. Our lads are on such a tight window, we want them to get prepared for that next training session as quickly as possible.”
Wilkinson also highlights the benefits of consuming a slow-release protein, such as casein, after intensive training. Not only does this give you an extra boost of protein and help you reach the recommended minimum amount, but taking it before sleeping shortens the length of fasting between dinner and breakfast: "We’re not looking for that fast release so you could consume some food, but things like cottage cheese aren’t always a crowd pleaser before bed. Casein powder is a quick way of getting another 25-30g of slow-release protein into the system, and that will do the job during the eight hours while sleeping. Otherwise, it could be a 10-12 hour fast, which is quite a long window when your training is so intense.”
Exeter Chiefs and England rugby union player Jack Nowell also takes on casein before going to bed to supplement his high-calorie, high-protein diet: "Before I go to bed, it would be 20g of casein protein with 5g of creatine, glutamine and colostrum.” On a standard training day, this would supplement a breakfast of "a bit of toast, avocado, spinach, eggs, maybe a bit of bacon or a sausage and probably some porridge to finish”, “a chicken breast, chicken legs, steak, rice or potatoes and veg, and also a salad” for lunch and “chicken, steak, and a lot more veg” for dinner.
You don’t have to be an elite sportsperson to benefit from protein-aided recovery. A review published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition looked at a number of different studies and found that, when taken by healthy, exercising individuals during endurance-based activity, protein supplementation may "aid in delaying central fatigue, reducing MPB (muscle protein breakdown).”
Nutrition and performance coach Will Girling is also an advocate of using protein for recovery in endurance sport – particularly during multi-day or extreme distance events. "Depending on what kind of race you’re doing – if you’re doing Transcontinental, which is multiple days, or something like Red Bull Timelaps, protein intake is going to be important,” he says.
"With Timelaps, you’ve got periods of time when other riders are going to be out, so getting that protein intake every three-to-four hours is important. Protein is the driver of cell recovery, it reduces inflammation and it’s going to improve your adaption to the exercise stimulus because you’ve damaged muscle fibres and cells, so it will help repair those.”
When to take it? "It takes about an hour to get into your blood, and it has a four-to-six-hour half-life from oral ingestion” – Girling
How does it come? Energy drink, tablet or coffee
How much to take? "The amount that medically enhances performance is 3-6mg per kg of bodyweight” – Girling, while just 75mg has been shown to improve attention and alertness
Research has shown that caffeine can boost sporting performance, by allowing athletes to train at a greater power output and/or for longer, and by increasing speed and/or power output in race conditions.
"There’s good evidence that caffeine enhances performance for most types of endurance, power and strength activities,” says sports nutritionist and former British bodybuilding champion Anita Bean.
"It works by reducing perceptions of effort and improving muscle fibre recruitment; it may delay fatigue and improve mental sharpness. However, individual responses vary; some people experience side effects such as trembling, increased heart rate and headaches.”
Although it’s found in the likes of tea and coffee, Girling highlights that there’s a difference between having a coffee and a performance-enhancing serving of caffeine: "The amount that medically enhances performance is 3-6mg per kg of bodyweight. You’re typically looking at 75mg per espresso shot, although this does vary quite considerably. That would mean that you’d need to have at least a triple espresso.”
It's worth noting that the above recommendation is for a professional athlete that has built-up to – and consistently trained with – a large supplement of caffeine. The European Food Safety Agency states that a 75mg dose of caffeine has been shown to be beneficial for attention and alertness, while adding that the general population shouldn't have more than 200mg per serving and 400mg over a 24-hour period.
A 250ml can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine and is used by Red Bull athletes before and during training and racing.
Ironman athlete Lucy Charles-Barclay, who finished second at the IRONMAN World Championships for a third consecutive year in 2019, also takes on Red Bull during races. "Before, I just used to take it when I was feeling a little low. Now we can pinpoint exactly when I need to take it on throughout the race, aiming to do it just as I hit a low point,” she says.
This is a strategy advocated by Girling during endurance sport: "Another intake of caffeine maybe midway through a race of 75-100mg will further improve performance, or maintain that performance-enhancing amount,” he explains. "It improves your performance, it reduces your perceived exertion, [and] it improves your pain threshold.”
Wilkinson is quick to add that, if planning on using a caffeine supplement, to test it in training first, as it can lead to side effects such as an upset stomach, and to plan your intake strategically around a competition, to gain optimum impact.
"I try not to encourage too much caffeine unnecessarily,” he says. "By not having it too frequently, when it comes to a game or a big training session, you’ll benefit from the purpose of caffeine, which is to get that adrenaline and metabolism going faster.”
When to take it? "You can take it at any part of the day, but there does seem to be an improved uptake of creatine when you take it in the post-workout period with a large amount of carbohydrates.” – Girling
How does it come? Powder or tablet
How much to take? "[At Wigan Warriors], we advise generally 5g per day, and on heavy training weeks, up to 10g per day.” – Wilkinson
"We synthesise and create our own creatine and it’s used as an energy source – it’s an energy pathway,” explains Wilkinson. "If you were to do a strength programme, you’d be depleting your stores of creatine. By supplementing, you’re replenishing while fuelling your muscles with more creatine for that gym session. It’s quite popular when people try to put on size and muscle.”
Although creatine is naturally occurring in red meat, poultry and fish, you’d have to eat an awful lot to get the physiological performance benefits – for example, you’d have to consume around 1kg of beef every day just to get the 5g. It can also be an issue for vegan athletes to get enough creatine from natural sources, which is where a supplement comes in handy.
Although James Moran, performance nutritionist for the English Institute of Sport and member of the British Cycling endurance programmes, is not an advocate of using supplements (“I advocate a food-first approach, so wouldn’t recommend a supplement over conventional food”), he notes that to get the physiological performance benefits of creatine, it’s best taken in supplement form.
"There are a few performance supplements that can’t be obtained from food,” says Moran. "The only ones would probably be creatine and beta-alanine, which are both naturally occurring compounds, but to get the physiological performance benefits then they need to be in higher amounts than what you can get in your standard foods.”
Carnosine, like carnitine, comes primarily from meat. Carnosine levels in the blood increase after a person has a meal of beef. Whereas a 1000 mg of carnosine a day has been recommended as a supplement, there is about 1500 mg of carnosine in a pound of beef, and close to 2000 mg in similar amounts of pork or chicken
“Creatine monohydrate supplements have been well researched over the years and, on balance, have proven an effective aid for increasing strength and muscle mass, as well as enhancing performance in high-intensity activities,” explains Bean.
She adds, though, that it doesn’t work for everyone, with 20-30 percent of people not responding to creatine supplementation. Bean doesn’t recommend taking it if competing in endurance sports – the increase in muscle mass leads to an associated weight gain that can be detrimental over a long distance or on a hilly course.
Wilkinson also doesn’t recommend that players use creatine for endurance training. "It’s not something we’d recommend around endurance or game day,” he explains. "It’s more focused on gym sessions, and then post-gym, when they [the players] are making protein shakes, they’d put a scoop of creatine in there as well. "We advise generally 5g per day, and on heavy training weeks, up to 10g per day.”
And he says that such amounts would benefit amateur players and gym users, too. "You’ve got amateurs and those who go to the gym four-to-five times a week doing 90-minute sessions, so those amounts wouldn’t be far off someone going training.”
However, unlike Bean and Wilkinson, Girling is an advocate of using creatine for endurance training. "If you look at a race, such as Red Bull Timelaps, I’d probably take creatine because it improves your 1-10 second sprint and total power. Your training up to that point will be improved by doing that kind of effort, and creatine improves your recovery between those sets and between sessions. If you’re out riding on a relatively flat course, which Timelaps is, then it’s ideal – the bit of weight gain you’re going to get [in training] is going to be minimal compared to the raw power you’re going to gain.
"If you’re going into a training programme that has a particularly high amount of peak-to-power training, then take it for a small period of time – roughly six weeks. That’s going to improve your return from that part of your programme. Typically, depending on the duration you’re doing it for, I’d get my athletes to do a loading phase because it gets it in there quicker. That would be 20g a day for five days, and then you move it down to the normal 5g dosage per day.”
When to take it? "Daily during loading phase” – Girling
How does it come? Capsules
How much to take? "A normal dosage is 3g per day” – Girling
Beta-alanine is an amino acid most commonly found in meat, poultry and fish. It’s a non-essential amino acid (meaning that the body creates its own supplies), which is combined with histidine (another amino acid) by the body to create carnosine.
Carnosine comes primarily from meat, but to get a performance-enhancing amount of carnosine you’d have to eat an awful lot – 450g of chicken is equivalent to just 2g of carnosine. On a daily basis, this isn’t an issue – unless you’re vegetarian, in which case, research suggests a supplement is beneficial in in helping prevent damage caused by too much sugar in the body.
Research has found that an increase in muscle carnosine, due to a beta-alanine supplement, can improve exercise performance, with one study finding that it increased sprint peak power after a two-hour endurance exercise bout by 11-15 percent, in participants who had taken a supplement for eight weeks.
"Beta-alanine supplementation works by increasing carnosine concentration in the muscle, which increases buffering capacity and helps offset the build-up of lactic acid during high-intensity exercise, which in turn may enhance sprint and short-distance performance,” explains Bean. "It may benefit activities of one-to-four minute duration or those involving repeated sprints or surges of power.”
"In layman’s terms, it helps prevent the onset of that burning feeling a bit,” adds Girling. "Before that burn from the onset of blood lactate accumlation comes in, you can push a little bit harder for a little bit longer. He adds that to saturate your muscle supplies of beta-alanine, you should take 4-6g per day for four-to-six weeks.
"If you stop taking it after this period, it has a half-life of about 10 weeks. If you were going to stop it, I wouldn’t allow it to completely leave the system, as you’d have to do another loading phase. You could load it for six weeks, not take it for six weeks, and then just take a normal dosage, which is 3g per day.”
One final thing to note is the side effect that can come from taking too much beta alanine in one go or without a meal. "You can get paraseizure, which is essentially a tingling pins and needles feeling you might get in your hands, ears and face,” says Girling.
"I’ve had a lot of clients who ignore my advice of taking 1.5g or 2g in several doses throughout the day, take 6g at once and wonder why they’re tingling all over. You get used to it. But take it with a meal and try and split the dosage up.”
When to take it? "I recommend we [elite rugby league players] use fish oils daily” – Wilkinson
How does it come? Capsule (vegetarians and vegans should look out for algae oil instead)
How much to take? "I typically recommend around 1000mg of EPA and DHA a day” – Girling
Unless you have a diet rich in oily fish, walnuts or flax seeds, it’s fair to say that you’re probably not getting enough Omega 3.
The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition guidelines (2004) state that a healthy adult should consume a minimum of two portions of fish, one of which is oily, per week for its health benefits, which include lowering the risk of chronic heart disease.
According to research published in Open Heart Journal, the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society, fish oil has been shown to counter the proinflammatory side effect of Omega 6 (found in the likes of soy beans, sunflower oil, meat and nuts).
For this reason, Girling recommends taking a supplement, for health reasons, if your diet doesn’t contain high amounts. "Omega 3 is an essential amino acid that we need in our diet and getting a balance between Omega 3 and Omega 6 is important. If you’re not eating a lot of oily fish in your diet, flax seeds, linseeds, [and] walnuts, you’re going to find that you’re promoting inflammation within the body as well.”
In addition to supporting overall health, the amino acid can also help athletes to recover after a workout. "We generally don’t get enough Omega 3, but higher doses are shown to benefit the recovery process,” says Wilkinson.
Girling agrees, saying: "There’s research that shows it improves muscle protein synthesis which is what helps create and recover muscle. There is a lot of evidence. I typically recommend 1000mg of EPA and DHA a day. Whatever capsule that makes that dose. So it depends on the quality of what you buy.”
Another recent study has also found that Omega 3 supplements can inhibit muscle stiffness and development of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after weight-training.
Sixteen men were included in the study and were randomly assigned either EPA and DHA supplements (types of Omega 3 fats) or a placebo for eight weeks prior to an exercise experiment which involved lifting dumbbells. Maximal voluntary contraction and range of movement were significantly higher in the supplement group, while muscle soreness and upper arm circumference were significantly higher in the placebo group.
While nutritionists, in part, conflict in opinion over the importance of supplements and where using them is beneficial, one thing they all agree on is the importance of a well-balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle as the foundation of good sporting performance.
"Too often people will search for a nutritional supplement or product over getting the right foundations – enough sleep, day-to-day general nutrition, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables and fuelling the training sessions to keep them healthy – because they’re not as sexy or glamorous but have a much bigger bang for their buck,” explains Moran.
However, as Wilkinson and Moran both agree, supplements become of increasing importance where nutritional deficiencies are present in a person’s daily diet.
"Nutritional supplements can supplement either deficiencies in a diet – so if there are any dietary intolerances or if you avoid certain food groups for ethical reasons – and there are a few performance supplements that can’t be obtained from food alone.”
For the athletes Wilkinson works with, these deficiencies aren’t due to food intolerances or ethical dietary choices, but a result of the sheer volume of their training load: "If we could get all of those through a natural diet then we would. But the players would struggle to get through those quantities in natural food and get them into their systems quick enough.”
For amateur athletes, Girling concludes it’s about finding a balance between supplements and real food: "If you’re an amateur, working individual, it’s looking at the options that are inexpensive. But at the same time, if you don’t sort out your pre-race nutrition, carb load or hydration, then you’re already going to fail – supplement or not.”
But he does add that some are an inexpensive way to get some potential marginal gains: "It depends on what you’re doing and how important it is. Beta alanine is very inexpensive and you get a great return from it – these things come in scales.”