Sport and nutrition supplements are a massive, billion-dollar industry worldwide. It can be very tempting to believe some of the outrageous claims on the bottles and advertisements when looking for a competitive edge. Promises of faster fat loss, enhanced muscle gain, improved performance, and lightning-quick recovery are rarely delivered. Unfortunately, many of the benefits from these products are unfounded or exaggerated.
If this is the case, then why is the supplement industry so vast and successful? Because people want fast results without all the hard work. The painful truth is that supplementation can make up for 1-3% of total athletic success. And that is assuming the supplements you are taking actually do what they say they do!
The big rocks of athletic success will always be training, practice, sleep, nutrition, stress management, and recovery. Once these foundations are covered, athletes and coaches can look to some supplements to add in that extra 1-3%.
This is a guide for athletes to some of the most common sports supplements. Why you might want to take them, which ones are worth the investment, how to get a similar effect from food, and how to make an informed choice when choosing a sports supplement.
Sports Supplements Guide
1. Whey Protein
Why take it? Whey protein is a derivative of milk and is a very concentrated, complete protein source. A complete protein has all of the essential amino acids (protein building blocks) our body needs but can’t make independently. This can be a great addition to your health-promoting diet if you need more protein and do not get enough food alone.
Is it safe? Whey protein is entirely safe if you buy it from a reputable source (see the end of the article for buying guide). Protein supplementation is safe in all populations who have a healthy liver and kidneys. If you are lactose intolerant, keep in mind whey is a milk protein, so it may upset your stomach. Other options for quick and convenient protein supplementation include a blended vegan protein blend. Find more on the effects and safety here.
How can I get these benefits from food? Lean protein sources like chicken, fish, lean beef, egg whites, and low-fat dairy are also complete protein sources. These also contain all the essential amino acids that you need to build muscle. If you are getting enough dietary protein from food, there is no need to supplement with extra protein. However, it can be much more convenient to quickly drink a whey shake than sit down and eat a homemade chicken dinner.
A research-backed, well-established guideline for daily protein intake is between 0.8-1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight. So, if you weigh 150 lbs, anywhere from 120 to 180 grams of protein per day is sufficient.
Why take it? A pre-workout could help you get more out of your training. Several different pre-workout supplements on the market use different ingredients to get you energized to train, thus improving performance. The most effective of these ingredients by far is caffeine. Caffeine is one of the most studied and most effective sports performance supplements on the market.
Is it safe? Caffeine consumption can be safe in most populations if the dosage is appropriate. Many pre-workouts contain upwards of 300mg of caffeine per serving, which can be safe and effective for some people but could be too much for others. Caffeine tolerance is highly individual and can be influenced by other health issues, medications, or other supplements. Up to 400 mg/day is considered safe for most adults, but this is a lot of caffeine! For reference, an average 8 oz cup of coffee contains 100 mg, although this can be highly variable.
People with cardiovascular health issues should also consider limiting their caffeine intake. Visit this resource to get more information on caffeine dosing, safety, and effectiveness.
How can I get these benefits from food? While some of these supplements can be safe and effective, there are a few other things that need to be taken care of before considering a pre-workout supplement. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Are you fueling your body with enough nutrients (protein, carbs, and fats)?
- Can you get a great workout without a pre-workout supplement?
If you answered no to any of these questions, then you probably shouldn’t be taking a pre-workout supplement yet. Get your sleep schedule, hydration, and nutrition dialed in first, then see if you still want one. Try drinking coffee or caffeinated tea before grabbing a ridiculously named product off the shelf. You’ll get a boost from the naturally occurring caffeine, water from the beverage, and a host of health-promoting anti-oxidants.
Why take it? Creatine monohydrate is probably tied with caffeine as the most researched sports supplement on the market. Time and time again, creatine shows to be effective at increasing muscle, strength, and performance. But, this doesn’t happen overnight. By “saturating” your muscles with creatine, you increase your ability to do more work in the gym, thus yielding greater results. In other words, it won’t work unless you do!
Is it safe? Creatine monohydrate is very effective and has been demonstrated to be safe in most populations. While there are many other forms of creatine on the market, monohydrate is the most effective and cheapest. Most of the supposed dangers of creatine are unfounded. Creatine supplementation can increase levels of creatinine, a marker of kidney damage in the body. It is crucial to note that this increase is NOT from kidney damage but from simply more production from more intake via supplementation. For more on safety, dosing, and performance-boosting effects, visit here.
How can I get these benefits from food? Just like with pre-workout, some of these supplements can be safe and effective. Even so, there are a few things that need to be taken care of before supplementation is considered. Most athletes will want to introduce creatine supplementation if they need to get stronger, move up a weight class, and maintain as much muscle. All while cutting weight or during the season when training volume drops. Do your absolute best to maximize your results without supplements first to accomplish these goals. Are you eating enough calories to get bigger and stronger? Are you resting enough to allow yourself to grow and recover outside of the gym? Try my favorite mass gaining tip before springing for the creatine. Double-decker PB & J with 2% milk every night after dinner.
4. BCAA’s (Branched Chain Amino Acids)
Why take it? Amino acids are the building blocks for protein in our body. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are 3 specific amino acids that were once thought to be the key to building muscle. Suppose you are eating enough protein throughout the day. In that case, there is absolutely no need whatsoever to be taking branched-chain amino acids. In fact, BCAA supplements are missing a key ingredient to actually build muscle. It’s another amino acid called leucine. You get it when you eat complete proteins from animal products like whey protein, dairy, chicken, and eggs. Save your money. This supplement is a total skip!
Is it safe? While BCAAs can be totally safe, there is no good reason to take them if you are getting enough protein throughout the day.
How can I get these benefits from food? Ensure you are eating enough real food and real protein from lean meats, eggs, dairy, beans, and nuts. Refer back to the whey protein section for a recommendation on daily protein intake.
Supplement Buying Guide
While the supplement industry is not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), private organizations pick up some of the slack. They make sure the products you consume are safe and legal for competitive sports. It is ultimately up to the athlete to be an informed consumer in terms of their health and ensuring they are not taking a banned supplement. Look for these stamps or labels on your supplements.
This stamp means Good Manufacturing Practices. Very simply put, it means what you see is what you get. Companies that boast this stamp of approval on their supplement say that their products are accurately labeled in terms of ingredients and effects. There are also guidelines in place to ensure quality on the production and purity side of things to get the GMP stamp.
This organization makes sure that what you are taking does not contain any banned substances. Compete or plan to compete at the college, professional, or Olympic level. You must be sure you are not consuming any banned substances. This organization does just that; certifies supplements do not contain banned substances. Their website allows a search to ensure your supplement does not contain any.
Final Notes on Sports Supplements
Focus on the big rocks of athletic success before thinking you need to break open your piggy bank and invest in sports supplements. Dial-in your training, your technique, your sleep, your nutrition, and your stress management first. Once you have all your athletic ducks in a row, consider some effective supplements that align with your goals. Make sure you are buying from a reputable source, GMP stamped, and NSF certified for sport. If you have questions, consult a registered dietitian for more information.