Should I take sports supplements?

Charlie Dean
Health Adviser and Sports Enthusiast
21 August 2019
Next review due August 2022

Sports supplements. It can be a confusing topic, right? In the digital age, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with information. So in this article, I try to cut through the noise to help you get the information you need.

We’ll explore how sports supplements are used by elite athletes and whether they could benefit your performance. We’ll also look at some of the most commonly used sports supplements to date.

Should I take sports supplement?

As a Health Adviser with a keen interest in sport, something I get asked regularly is, “do I need sports supplements if I’m active?” The short answer is no. Most people can support their training with good-quality nutrition and other key factors like getting enough sleep and making sure you’re well hydrated.

Depending on the type, length, intensity and frequency of your activity or exercise regime, you can also usually tailor your nutrition through your diet accordingly. For example, a long-distance runner might up their pre-workout carbohydrate intake to support their muscles through a long run, or replenish their stores along the way.

Generally speaking, there’s no need to reach for supplements and a healthy balanced diet will most likely support your body’s needs if you’re active and exercising according to recommended guidelines.

So why do athletes take sports supplements?

Well, given the competitiveness in elite sport, even a one per cent improvement in athletic performance can be the difference between winning and losing. Sport scientists at elite football and rugby clubs, for example, work around the clock to ensure their athletes are primed and ready to perform. Attention to detail at this level is extremely meticulous, with players training intensely and supplementation regimes closely monitored to make sure that, when they go out on to the pitch, they’re in the best possible shape.

This isn't to suggest that you can't also benefit from some of these supplements for your sport; many people who are active would like to improve their athletic performance, but often lack the guidance and information they need. Here we look at four common sports supplements, including how they work and why athletes might use them.

1. Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine (bee-ta-al-a-neen) is a naturally occurring amino acid that’s found in your muscles. One of its roles is to form something called carnosine (car-no-seen). Carnosine is important as it helps your muscles to contract efficiently, which helps them to perform well. It does this by regulating something called the PH of your muscles. PH refers to how acidic, neutral or otherwise the environment that surrounds your muscles is.

Meat and fish are rich sources of beta-alanine from foodstuff. But a typical diet usually consists of far too little beta-alanine to significantly increase the levels of carnosine and to help your muscles perform at their best. This is why some athletes take beta-alanine supplements.

There’s lots of good-quality evidence showing how beta-alanine supplements improve athletic performance. More specifically, it’s thought that beta-alanine supplements have the capacity to improve exercise that involves short bouts of intense activity more so than longer, endurance-based activity.

2. Beetroot Juice

Beetroot Juice has gained worldwide attention, most notably in the last ten years for its impact on cardiovascular health (this is the health of your heart and blood vessels) and exercise performance. The main ingredient here is dietary nitrate, so it’s not beetroot juice per se, but the high concentration of nitrate in beetroot juice that works the magic.

In your body, nitrate is eventually broken down into something called nitric oxide, and it’s this that elicits some remarkable improvements in health and exercise performance. It’s thought that nitric oxide can increase blood flow to your muscles, helping them to contract more efficiently.

It takes your body around two-and-a-half hours to convert the nitrate from beetroot juice to nitric oxide, so it’s recommended that you take this supplement two-and-a-half hours prior to exercise for maximum effect. One final tip — when using beetroot juice, it's advisable to not use mouthwash. Studies have shown that mouthwash can severely interfere with the breakdown of nitrate, blunting the effects of the supplement.

3. Caffeine

Caffeine is one of the oldest supplements known to enhance exercise performance. It’s been shown to enhance a wide array of exercise performance-related parameters from muscle strength to endurance exercise, suggesting that caffeine has a place on most athletes’ supplement shopping list. How it achieves these effects has been widely studied and it’s thought that caffeine does so by acting on lots of different systems in your body.

There are lots of different sources of caffeine — coffee being the one that you’re probably thinking of. However, athletes likely take more measured approaches to consuming caffeine. Powders, gels and chewing gum are the types of supplements that may be used by athletes. Caffeine in chewing gum, for example, is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, making it an ideal supplement to take during sports that have a half-time during play. But it’s important to remember that caffeine can also cause headaches and other unwanted side-effects.

There have been reports of people accidentally taking the wrong dose of caffeine (usually powdered caffeine) because they mistake milligrams (mg) for grams (g). This mistake has been fatal, so if you decide to use caffeine supplements be extra careful and always read and interpret the information that comes with your product correctly.

4. Creatine

Creatine (cree-a-teen) is a supplement that you’ve probably heard of if you’ve been in and around sporting environments, and especially gyms, where the focus is on body building. This is because creatine is important for activities that require short bouts of energy.

In your muscles, creatine is converted into something called phosphocreatine (fos-fo-cree-a-teen, or PCr for short), which can be used instantly by your muscles.

Think of yourself standing up from a chair or in a more extreme example, the first few seconds of an all-out sprint from standstill. The ‘energy system’ that is powering you here is PCr. But PCr is finite, meaning that within a short space of time it runs out. When this happens, we can’t sustain our efforts. Again, think of a 100m sprint, we all know that by the end we slow down. This is because our PCr has been used up and we’re now having to get our energy from less efficient energy sources. The good news is that once we stop exercise, PCr is replenished. Meaning that when we sprint, let’s say in a game of rugby, then stop, our body makes more PCr so that we can sprint again.

Creatine supplements increase the amount of PCr available in the muscle, which is why athletes competing in sports like football, rugby, netball and hockey, which require multiple bouts of sprinting, may use them.

Things to consider

Here we’ve looked at some of the more common sports supplements. As mentioned earlier on in this article, if you exercise for fun and/or health, sports supplements aren’t necessary. However, if you’re playing or taking part in a sport at a sub-elite level (like myself) you don’t have to be an athlete to reap the benefits of sports supplements used by the world’s best. That being said, it’s important to be safe and use supplements responsibly. Before taking supplements, here are some things you need to know.

  • There’s a lack of regulation in the supplements industry, so there’s no guarantee that any supplement is safe.
  • If you decide to take a supplement, I’d suggesting consulting with a registered sports nutritionist first. Do your research and make sure that you definitely need it and that there’s good evidence to show that it will work for you. And remember, the decision to take supplements (or not) is yours to make.
  • Informed Sport and Informed Choice have lists of certified supplements and sports products on their websites. However, their certification scheme simply tests that products do not contain ‘banned substances’. They do not test how effective and safe products are.
  • If you do decide to use supplements, purchase them from a reputable source to avoid fake supplements and always read the information leaflet that comes with your product. For information and advice speak to a qualified sports nutritionist.

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Charlie Dean
Charlie Dean
Health Adviser and Sports Enthusiast

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