It is not uncommon for athletes to spend large sums of money on sports supplements, which they believe will improve their sports performance. However, the fact that they are available doesn’t always mean that they are effective or right for you. Furthermore there are also many dangers associated with the lack of legislation in the supplement industry. This article will introduce ingredients (apart from macronutrients) that have strong evidence to back their claims and that people may actually benefit from choosing.
Before continuing with the article I think that it is important that supplements are there to supplement a healthy and nutritionally sufficient diet and only play a minor role in your nutrition programme1.
Why take caffeine?
Caffeine is a stimulant which has been shown to enhance sports performance by 11-12%. It is mostly beneficial for its effects on the central nervous system which decreases the sensation of fatigue or pain and enhances alertness and reaction time. There is also evidence to show that it can improve recovery by enhancing glycogen (energy) repletion 1,2,3,9,10,11
Benefits usually derived from 1-3mg of caffeine per kg body weight, although individual tolerance can vary. Depending on individual requirements this dose can be taken in before or during exercise or in combination before and during2.
Who can benefit from caffeine supplements?
Use is largely encouraged in endurance and high intensity short duration exercise as well as some team or intermittent sports, use in strength training is still controversial2,35,9.
High dosages of caffeine can cause restlessness, insomnia, irritability, tremors and an upset stomach. Usage in children, pregnant and lactating women, those with certain illnesses and caffeine sensitive people is cautioned10.
Why take creatine?
Creatine is one of the most extensively researched nutritional supplements available and along with other less commonly reported benefits, it is proven to be effective in enhancing muscular strength, improving exercise capacity at high intensities. It is also increases lean muscle mass during training.1,4. Creatine supplementation involves a loading and maintenance phase for maximum benefit.
Who can benefit from creatine supplements?
The most distinctive evidence for benefit is shown in anaerobic high intensity exercise with short rest periods such as strength and power training as well as intermittent activities such as team and racket sports3,4,5.
The only proven side effect is weight gain, which is mostly due to water retention, although this is a desired effect for many athletes that use creatine. It may be considered a negative effect in endurance and other sports where weight gain can undesirably affect performance1,6.
Why take nitrate?
Inorganic nitrates are found in a variety of vegetables, however the focus in sport nutrition is particularly around beetroot juice. Beetroots are high in nitrate and these can easily be delivered in the form of juice or concentrated shots.
In the body nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, which promotes blood vessel dilation, thereby increasing flow of blood and oxygen to the muscles. This increase can directly enhance performance, most notably an increase in exercise time to exhaustion and improvements in time trial performance in sessions lasting less than 40 minutes1,14
Who can benefit from supplementing with nitrate?
Due to the nature of nitrate, benefits are seen in a variety of team and endurance sports, with particular benefits seen where there is a low oxygen availability as experienced at high altitudes. Performance benefits are more difficult to attain in highly trained athletes. Further research in this area is required1,14.
Research has not shown any serious side effects associated with supplementation, however, tummy upset and discomfort has been reported. Nitrates should therefore be well trialled during training. Beetroot juice can also cause urine and stools to become a pink colour, this is harmless and should not cause alarm1,14.
Why take sodium bicarbonate?
Sodium bicarbonate acts as a buffer, neutralising acid which builds up during anaerobic exercise with bicarbonate ions3,11. These benefits can be achieved by using a common ingredient that you use in your baking, good old bicarbonate soda!
Who can benefit from supplementing with sodium bicarbonate?
Performance enhancement is seen in short-term high intensity exercise where oxygen supply is insufficient to meet the demand (during anaerobic exercise lactate is formed and bicarbonate acts as a buffer against this). Examples of such exercise would be sprints and weight-lifting1,3.
The most common side effects experienced are related to the digestive system such as nausea, bloating or gas1,12. These side effects can be minimised by consuming in conjunction with a small carbohydrate-rich meal or using dosing strategies such as splitting or stacking doses. Due to the risk the various strategies should be well trialled prior to competition1.
Why take b-alanine?
B-alanine’s benefit is due to the fact that it increases carnosine in the muscle. Carnosine is believed to be a key buffer in muscles. Although findings have been mixed, there has been evidence of a decreased rate of fatigue with beta-alanine use. Benefits have been shown with supplementation over a longer period of time (not with acute supplementation). The regimen requires a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase where requirements of this amino acid can easily be met through the diet1,3,11.
Who can benefit from supplementing with b-alanine?
While benefits have been reported in both aerobic and anaerobic activity5, short-lasting high intensity efforts see the most enhancement. Examples would be short sustained high intensity sports (middle distance running, swimming, rowing etc) OR repeated high intensity efforts (resistance training, team sports or racquet sports)15.
This ingredient is apparently safe, but large dosages can cause a tingling sensation and flushing, this can be reduced by splitting doses or by choosing slow-release options12,15.
Again I would like to emphasise the point that the supplement industry is not regulated and although an ingredient may be scientifically proven and safe, the safety of the supplement contents may not be guaranteed. Visit the SA Institute for Drug Free Sport on http://www.sasma.org.za/articles/SAIDS%20Position%20Statement%20for%20ADULTS.pdf for more information and strategies to decrease your risk.
- Angela Bentley: creatine as a sports supplement
- Angela Bentley: amazing benefits of caffeine in sports
- Angela Bentley: coffee and it’s many benefits
- Nicki De Villiers: sports nutrition presentation