Supplements and Sport – What to do?​

Supplements and Sport – What to do?

There is a lot of information out there
with regards to supplements and their claimed benefits with regards to fitness
and strength. It can be overwhelming and with strong marketing behind it, it is
often hard to determine what is fact, what will help and what is fiction.  This article will give a brief overview on
what supplements are, what kinds there are and if they do what they say they do
so that you are able to make an informed decision.

is a supplement? – What do they do?

There is much misconception about what
supplements actually do. They don’t ‘grow muscle’ but work with the body’s
physiology to enhance changes that happen normally with good training and good

Aren’t they all the same?

Most people think that supplements mean
just the pills and powders that you can buy from stores or online. However, supplements also include, sports drinks, sports foods such as bars and gels and
vitamins and minerals, such as iron or calcium.

Supplements can fall under 3 broad

  • Sports foods and drinks used to for
    convenience to provide carbohydrate, energy and fluid either during exercise or
    between bouts of exercise close together such as sprints. In order to maintain
    an optimal nutritional state.
  • Nutrients in a large quantity that are used
    to treat a diagnosed nutrient deficiency (ie vitamins).
  • Ergonomic aids – these are supplements that
    have a direct effect on performance and are what most people consider
    supplements to be.

When it comes to supplements, particularly, the ergogenic
aids, the rule of thumb is diet and training make up the base and supplements are
just the icing on top. Meaning, that without a good consistent diet and good training
regime (and commitment) you will not see any benefit of taking a supplement.

It’s important to know that supplements are
not well regulated, with regards to their ingredients or their claims. A lot
are based on anecdotal evidence, with little or no scientific research to support
them.  The advantages often seen with
supplements are often so small that greater improvements are seen with a good
diet, training and commitment, especially if you have just started training.

what works?

There is however, good evidence that sports drinks,
and sports food are beneficial to performance, as they provide carbohydrate and
fluid during exercise. This can have an indirect influence on your performance
as you maintain hydration and energy so it will take longer to
fatigue. The amount and timing of sports drinks and foods is important and it
should be specific to your needs.


Caffeine is know to have a beneficial
effect on endurance sports lasting more than 60 mins and team and intermittent
sports. It affects your nervous system, making you feel less fatigued. Having
more caffeine does not mean you will get a greater benefit. Large amounts of
caffeine can have negative side effects such as affecting sleep patterns,
increase heart rate or impair fine motor control (ie finger movements).


Creatine is a substance found naturally in body and
stored mainly in muscle as phosphorylated creatine. It is not used to grow
muscle, as is most commonly thought, but rather it is used to supply fuel during
short bouts of high intensity exercise (no longer than 10sec). Therefore, it is
beneficial for sports that have repeated sprints (ie long jump). There is no
evidence of benefit of creatine in endurance exercise. Creatine does not work for everyone
and side effects can include short term weight gain due to increased water
retention.  It is unknown what the long-term
consequences of creatine supplementation are.


Bicarbonate occurs naturally in the body as a buffer – it
helps to maintain a good pH outside of your cells. A low pH is one cause of fatigue.
Supplementation can increase the size of the buffer thus decreasing the feeling
of fatigue. The main benefits are seen with high intensity sports lasting
1-7 minutes long (ie swimming).  Side
effects include nausea, stomach upset and diarrhoea and this gastrointestinal
upset can cause a negative impact on performance.

These are a very brief summary of how each of these supplements work. They each have different protocols and are often sport
specific. It is best to see an Accredited Practising Dietitina to know what is right for you.

about protein bars and shakes? The package says it will make me big!

a sports food, if it’s a convenient way to help you meet your nutrition needs then they can be of benefit. However, most of us get all the protein we need from our
diets and even with exercise our requirements do not increase by that
much.  A lot of protein shake manufacturers
claim you need the extra protein to make more muscle faster, when the reality
is that there is no extra strength or weight benefit when having the amount of
protein they recommend.

Your body only needs are certain amount of
protein, the extra is either burned as energy or most likely removed from the
body through urine. Even elite athletes with hard training regimes, rarely need
more than 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight. In fact for recreational
athletes it is estimated that you only need about 0.80-1.0 g/kg/day, for example for a
70kg person that is between 56-70g of protein per day. You can get that easily from
your diet, for example by having, cereal with milk for breakfast, a yoghurt
during the day, a meat/tuna sandwich/salad at lunch and a serve (palm size) of meat,
chicken, fish or tofu at dinner.

about amino acids?

Amino acids are the building blocks of
proteins. There is no evidence that having a supplement containing solely amino
acids is better than having protein from a good protein source such as dairy
products, eggs or meat.

are non-responders?

Supplements are not a one size fits all product and
some like caffeine and creatine do not work for everyone. Some people see no
difference in performance regardless of how much they take.

about everything else like Ginseng, Glycerol, HMB?

Everything else either doesn’t work, is illegal
or there is not enough information from scientific research to be able to
clearly say ‘Yes, it works”.  The
Australian institute of Sport have a great website on sport supplements, what
they endorse and what is not recommend to their athletes.


Not all supplements contain what they say
on their ingredients list and in some cases some supplements are contaminated with illegal
substances. In addition, some supplements can be very expensive, especially if
consuming the doses the manufacture recommends.

are supplements bad?

No! It depends on what you are using it
for, and if you are using it correctly. Remember a good diet and training
regime, is necessary to see any positive benefits of supplementation.  Supplements should not replace food and
should be used following a set protocol based on research and not on what the
package labeling says. For more specific information that is tailored for you
contact an Accredited Sports Dietitian.

Author: Julia Medina Bone APD, AN

Read more about Julia here


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