A Guide to Supplementation: What, Why, When and How?

Greg Eskedjian, MSc. CSCS, IOC Diploma of Sports Nutrition (candidate)

Director of Hockey Training & Sports Nutrition

As the Director of Sports Nutrition at Mind to Muscle, I am constantly being asked nutrition questions, of which the bulk are typically related to sports supplements. “Should I take this?” “What’s your thought on that?” “How do I take these?” etc. As simple as these questions may be, the answers are often more complex. In this blog, hopefully I will be able to answer some sports supplement questions you may have, which are worth buying and which aren’t.

While I was doing my Masters in Sports Nutrition, I had the pleasure of working with one of the world leaders in sports nutrition research, Dr. Lawrence Spriet. Over that time, I learned about the science behind sports supplements. Although the supplement industry is a billion-dollar industry, there is a small number of sports supplements that actually show scientifically proven benefits. Therefore, before you break out your wallet, there are a few questions you should always ask yourself:

Question 1: Does it really work?

To answer the first question, you need to track down the correct information. Unfortunately, there are too many people that have a PhD from Google, which can lead to mixed messages or incorrect insight. So where should you go to get the info you need? Some of you may get answers from the employees at various nutrition stores. Although some of those individuals may have a background in nutrition, the majority of those employees have a limited amount of knowledge in sports supplements, and cannot always provide you with detailed or accurate information. My suggestions for getting the information you need would be to speak to a sports dietician or nutritionist who has a background founded in scientific research. If you want to use the internet, I would recommend websites that are fuelled by scientific evidence. PubMed is an online database of scientific articles that can provide accurate information about supplements. However, scientific articles can be difficult to read or understand fully. On Sports Science Exchange tab of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute website there are scientific reviews geared towards the general public which are written by world reknown scientists (www.gssi.org). No matter how you decide to get information about a potential sports supplement, make sure you do your research before buying something that may not be effective.

Question 2: Will it work for my goals/needs?

The second question may be one of the most important. Taking supplements that aren’t suited for what you are trying to achieve will be a waste of money and possibly counter-productive (ie. taking creatine if you are trying to lose weight). Again, getting the right information on supplements that will work for you will help you decide which to use and which to avoid.

Question 3: Are there any potential side effects or risks?

The third question is extremely relevant when dealing with sports supplements. Unfortunately, the supplement industry is not closely regulated by the FDA, so there can be some potentially harmful additions to your supplement. If you are an athlete and need to be concerned about banned substances, make sure that you choose a supplement that is properly screened or tested by an third-party company (check the packaging for “Informed Choice” or “BSCG gold standard” seals of approval).

Question 4: How, when and how much should I be taking?

The vast majority of supplements on the market have little to no supporting research, but I will discuss a few popular supplements that are proven to be beneficial, and provide the ins-and-outs of how to use them:

Creatine

Creatine is a popular sports supplement, typically associated with muscle growth. There are also some negative stigmas associated with creatine intake, but most are not grounded in scientific evidence. Creatine is a natural compound found in the human body, which we ingest through meat (highest content in red meat). We store about 95% of creatine in our skeletal muscle, therefore, increasing the amounts in our muscles can lead to:

  • -Increased muscle mass
  • -Increased high intensity power/strength output
  • -Increased repeated sprint performance

Who should use creatine? Creatine can be helpful for the following individuals:

  • -Experienced weight lifters (novice weight lifters will experience similar adaptions without help of creatine)
  • -High-intensity athletes (sprinters, throwers, stop-and-go sport athletes, such as hockey, baseball, football)

Who should not use creatine?

  • -Endurance sport athletes
  • -Pre-pubescent individuals
  • -Novice weight lifters
  • -Weight-class athletes (martial arts, wrestling, etc)

What type should I use?

  • -Reasearch shows that any form (powder, pill, liquid mixture) all has the same effect.

What is the right way/amount to supplement with creatine?

  • -Creatine supplementation is usually done in 2 phases:
  • -Phase 1: Loading Phase
  • oAimed to increase intramuscular creatine levels
  • o20g per day for 5 days
  • oTake 5g at 4 different times during the day (every 4-5hrs)
  • -Phase 2: Maintenance Phase
  • oAimed to replace the daily losses of creatine
  • o2g per day, taken at any point throughout the day
  • -NOTE: most creatine supplements will tell you to take 5g/day throughout use. Again, this is another example of supplement companies trying to get you to finish their product quicker to buy more. It is not needed, so ease off after the loading phase.

Caffeine

Caffeine is the most common drug in the world, but has also been proven to have benefits related to sports performance. The majority of research associated caffeine related benefits to endurance sports performance, with little to no conclusive evidence related to high-intensity exercise such as weight lifting. The way caffeine works is by blocking a neurotransmitter in the brain that triggers fatigue, which can lead to:

  • -increased time to fatigue
  • -decreased perception of fatigue
  • -sustained endurance performance

Who can benefit from caffeine?

  • -Endurance athletes

When should I take caffeine?

  • -Caffeine should be taken to help combat fatigue, therefore it should either be taken before exercise, or as fatigue sets in during long duration events (marathon, triathlon, etc)
  • -NOTE: caffeine takes about 30-45min to get into the system and begin to work, so consider that before exercise.

How much caffeine do I need?

  • -Small amounts of caffeine are shown to have similar benefits related to sports performance as large amounts. Therefore, recommendations are to ingest 3mg/kg body weight. This means a 70kg (156lbs) individual only needs about 210mg of caffeine (medium cup of coffee).
  • -NOTE: large amounts of caffeine intake (6-9mg/kg body weight) can have negative side effects, including gastrointestinal distress, irritability, shakes and sleep disturbances).

Beet Root Juice

Beet root juice is a newer sports supplement, but is leading to a large amount of positive research related to sports performance. Beets are very high in nitrate, which have a positive benefit on oxygen consumption and use. What this means is we can do the same amount of work, but feel like we aren’t working as hard.

The reason beet root juice is shown to have these positive benefits is because the nitrate enters the system as nitrite. Without getting too scientific, nitrate is a highly reactive compound that we use for a variety of metabolic functions throughout our body. What that means is if we ingested the compound as nitrate, it would be used up before it got to our muscles. The bacteria in our mouth helps convert the nitrate in beet root juice to a compound called nitrite, which is a much more stable compound. This allows nitrite to pass through the stomach and into the intestine for absorption and transport to our muscles for sport performance use. If all of this sounds appealing to you, let me give you a little more information about how to use it.

Who can benefit from it?

  • -Recreational to competitive endurance athletes (research shows that it is less effective in very elite athletes because of how efficient their systems already are).
  • -Stop- and-go athletes (hockey, soccer, football, etc.): new research is showing that beet root juice can help these athletes with repeated sprint performance and cognitive function (reaction time).

How to use it?

  • -Drink beet juice (100-200mL) 30-45min before an event. Because the conversion to nitrite needs to occur to get into your system, each drink needs to be swished around the mouth for about 3-5sec to allow the bacteria in the mouth to convert the compound.
  • -NOTE: Oral hygiene products (toothpaste, mouthwash, mint gum) kill the bacteria in our mouth, therefore, try not to use these products for at least 12hours prior to ingestion of beet root juice.

Are there any side effects?

  • -There are two common side effects associated with beet juice. The first is TASTE. This stuff tastes terrible. So although it works, some athletes can’t get past the taste. The second side effect is because beets are deep red in colour, it will most likely turn your urine a reddish-purple colour. Don’t be alarmed, this is natural, but can be scary the first time you see it.
In summary, the sport supplement industry, like any other sales industry, wants your money. There are certain supplements that are worth buying and using, but the large majority of supplements are not supported by scientific research. Before beginning supplementation, please consult either a sports physician or sports dietician/nutritionist to get the facts about specific products and whether or not they are right for you.