Sports supplements are often used by elite athletes to maximise the benefits of exercise and performance. However, supplements are now also being used by the average gym-goer and not just elite athletes. 58% of adults surveyed in the US reported using supplements between 2011-2012.1 Many sports nutritionists and dietitians will agree that a food-first approach is best when managing nutrition for sport. However, some performance-enhancing supplements actually do have adequate levels of support to suggest that performance gains are possible. Before taking a supplement, it is important to assess the benefits and risks associated with that supplement. See below for an overview of the most common sports supplements used by sports enthusiasts.
It is well documented that in order for muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) to occur adequate dietary protein must be consumed. Meeting protein requirements through food alone can be challenging for some people, especially body builders with higher protein requirements and calorie restrictions. Whey protein is a soluble protein which allows for fast absorption and utilisation. Whey can be added easily to smoothies, oatmeal, coffee and baked goods without compromising taste too much. Whey protein is a complete protein and contains an important amino acid called leucine. Leucine is the most anabolic (growth-promoting) amino acid. When compared to plant protein such as soy, hemp, pea or rice, whey generally increases lean mass more efficiently due to the higher amino acid concentration
Food sources: Milk and other dairy products.
Risks: Consuming too much whey may cause digestive issues. Many whey protein powders also contain sweeteners and sugar alcohols which are known to interfere with gut function. Also, 28% of the whey protein products in the United States did not pass Consumer Lab testing. Finding quality products is essential if you choose to purchase whey protein.
How to use: For muscle building and maintenance, current research supports focusing on your total daily intake of protein as a whole, as opposed to just your post workout protein needs. When supplementing, consume 1scoop, which typically contains 20-25 grams of protein. This can be added to meals (eg oatmeal) or snacks (eg smoothie) to ensure you consume the 20 -25 grams of protein spaced evenly throughout the day. Total daily protein needs will vary from 0.8-2.0 grams/kg of body weight (.36-.91 grams/pound body weight). Speak with a dietitian to ensure you are reaching your specific needs.
Beta-alanine can help reduce lactic acid accumulation. Lactic acid is a substance that builds up in the muscle tissues with high intensity exercise. This reduction of lactic acid may help reduce fatigue, increase endurance and boost performance in high intensity exercises. One study of 20 male cyclists increased their time to exhaustion by 14% after 4 weeks of beta-alanine supplementation.2 Similarly, another study found that power output was increased by 13% following a 4 week supplement routine.3 Top food sources of beta-alanine are meat and fish; therefore vegan athletes may want to consider discussing this supplement with their dietitian.
Food sources: Beef, pork, poultry and fish.
Risks: Beta-alanine may cause tingling in the skin for the first 60 minutes after consumption. Stomach upset is common when taking this supplement.
How to use: 2-5grams per day with food. Beta-alanine is often found in pre-workout powders and sports drinks.
Creatine is one of the most tested supplements. Creatine is found naturally in the body. It helps the muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise. Taking it as a dietary supplement can increase muscle creatine content by up to 40% beyond its normal levels. Supplementing creatine may help muscle gain and enhance strength. Creatine has been shown to improve training adaptations at a cellular level, primarily for high power, shorter duration workouts over endurance exercises.4
In one review, adding creatine to a training program increased strength by 8%, weightlifting performance by 14% and bench press one-rep max by up to 43%, compared to training alone.5 The best form of creatine you can take is called creatine monohydrate, which has been used and studied for decades.
Food sources: Beef, pork, poultry and fish.
Risks: Creatine causes muscles to draw water from the rest of your body causing bloating or “puffy like” feeling. People with kidney disease should avoid creatine. Caffeine can negate the affects of creatine.
How to use: Start with a loading phase by adding 20g per day for 5-7 days. This should be split into four 5 gram servings per day. Following loading phase, reduce to 3-5g per day to maintain high levels in the muscles. Take with fluid to avoid feeling bloated. It is recommended to consume with a carbohydrate source such as a sports drink to increase absorption.
Caffeine is a stimulant that benefits athletes who engage in both endurance based sports (running, swimming, cycling) and short-term sports (sprinting). When consumed, caffeine has been shown to improve endurance capacity. Although early research was conducted using high doses of caffeine (6+ mg caffeine / kg body weight), more recent research indicates that lower doses can provide similar performance benefits with less negative side effects. Although caffeine is a diuretic, when taken in smaller doses it does not effect urine flow and hence hydration status.
Risks: Higher doses of caffeine can cause nausea, anxiety and sleep disturbances.
How to use: 1-3mg/kg body weight in the 60 minutes prior to exercise has been shown to be sufficient and beneficial.
Safety of sports supplements
There are risks to taking supplements. Generally if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The main risks associated with supplements are:
the product may contain prohibited harmful substances, so if you are an athlete who undergoes regular testing for your sport you may test positive for illegal substances.
contamination to the raw ingredients, including the fact that products could have little to none of the active ingredient listed on the label.
cross contamination in the manufacturing process, as there is no oversight in supplement production.
containing ingredients not listed on the label, or labelled under a different name.
the risk of buying a counterfeit product, particularly when purchased online.
It is very difficult to guarantee the safety of any nutrition supplement. For elite athletes, it's important that athletes work with a sports dietitian or nutritionist who understands the world anti-doping code. Despite efforts to regulate the market, a 2018 study highlighted that a large number of unapproved ingredients continue to be identified in many nutritional supplements in the US.6 Similarly, in the UK, research suggests that at least 10% of supplements contain traces of prohibited anabolic steroids and/or stimulants from leading European Sports Brands.7
Due to the many thousands of supplement products available to the public, it is difficult to test every product. There are independent organisations that offer quality certification programs to ensure batches of dietary supplements are free from contaminants. Anyone can search databases such as NSF international or informed choice to check if their chosen supplement is safe. In Europe, informed sport works closely with food manufacturers to minimise supplement contamination. Consumer labsevaluates the efficacy of various dietary supplements in the US.
Supplements can definitely play a role in sports nutrition; however, they do not take the place of a well planned diet. Do not underestimate the power of getting the basics right including adequate calorie intake, nutrient timing, hydration protocols and food preparation methods. Also, remember that more is not always better. Too much of certain supplements can actually be dangerous. According to the latest position statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, supplements offer the greatest value when added to a “well-chosen eating plan”. Work with a qualified sports nutritionist or specialised sports dietitian to discuss your supplement routine.
Kantor et al, 2016 Trends in Dietary Supplement Use among US Adults From 1999–2012 The Journal of the American Medical Association, 316(14)1464-1474.
Hobson et al, 2013 Effect of beta-alanine, with and without sodium bicarbonate, on 2000-m rowing performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, October 23(5)480-487
Cooper, R., Naclerio, F., Allgrove, J., & Jimenez, A. 2012. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 33. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-33
Trexler et al, 2015 International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of International Society of Sport Nutrition, July, 12-30.
Rawson and Volek, 2003. Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. November: 17(4):822-831.
Tucker at el, 2018 Unapproved Pharmaceutical Ingredients Included in Dietary Supplements Associated With US Food and Drug Administration Warnings. Public Health 1(16).
Russell C, Hall D, Brown P. European Supplement Contamination Survey 2013. HFL Sports Science