Although our bodies are very similar in many regards, but when it comes to
sport nutrition what works best for one athlete may put another in the
port-o-let. On race day you may have observed competitors chomping on beef
jerky and sandwiches while others stick with liquid nutrition for over 10
hours. Athletes will often swear by this product or that product as a means of
enhancing performance or recovery. For this reason I shy away from making very
specific food or supplement recommendations. Instead I advise athletes to
experiment with a variety of foods and products, within certain
macro-nutritional parameters, over a variety of conditions, to determine what
works best for them individually. Choosing the right product is a slippery
slope as sport nutrition can be highly individualized, and there are myriad of
products available to the athlete. To name just a few things that may vary
significantly from athlete to athlete…
Metabolic rate and speed of gastric emptying
Ratio of fat to glycogen usage: Some athletes are able to access and
utilize a greater percentage of fat as a fuel source.
Sweat rate / salt content of sweat
Ability to thermo-regulate: Some athletes can not regulate body temperature
as effectively as others
Sensitivity of the gut: Some athletes have less tolerance for solid food
How well the body regulates blood sugar.
Tastes / preferences: This is actually very important as a product that
tastes bad will not get consumed as readily.
To make the selection process even more trying the multi-billion dollar
supplement industry is an unregulated wild west of products. I recently watched
an expose on an enormously popular “immune boosting” supplement that claimed to
cure the common cold. The address of the so called institute at which the
scientific “research” was conducted turned out to be that of a little old lady
with no knowledge of the product. The “researcher” conducting the “studies” had
no college degree.
How do supplement companies get away with such blatant misrepresentation?
The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements as they do drugs; even though
dietary supplements may contain hormones or “active ingredients” which have no
long term studies as to their ill effects or proper dosage. This means the
product you think you are buying could have none or 100x the active ingredient
purported. The FDA leaves it to the supplement industry to self regulate itself
and is only responsible for taking action (which it rarely does) against an
unsafe product after it goes to market. And they only pursue a small number of
the most egregious cases. You may be playing Russian roulette with your
performance and perhaps your health with many products. For instance; a
manufacturer may buy an herbal or plant ingredient for their product, but they
do not have to test it in order to determine if the ingredient they received is
in fact what they purchased, or if it contains any of the active ingredient
(which may actually have no value anyways). Virtually anyone can produce a
product in their garage, slap a label on it with a series of unsubstantiated claims,
and begin making money.
There are some things you can do as a consumer to product yourself and aid
in choosing legitimate products that will work best for you individually. While
I was taking a course at the Olympic Training Center it was pointed out that
USADA (United States Anti Doping Agency) recommends that Olympic athletes take
NO supplements to avoid testing positive for drug use. This may seem a bit
extreme but a protein supplement that is made in the same room with a
“testosterone booster” may very well become contaminated enough to cause a
positive result, and end the career of an Olympic hopeful. When looking at it
from this angle it makes sense to not take the risk.
If you decide to take a supplement realize that there are in fact very, very
few known and proven performance enhancing supplements. Most are of little or
no value. If any of the following apply you should probably avoid the product…
Are you considering it because it is endorsed by an athlete? Athletes get
paid for endorsements. Although they may like and use the product it is just as
likely they are endorsing it for the money they receive.
Do they use testimonials to promote the product? Testimonials offer no
objective evidence of the products worth. There may be many more people out
there that found the product worthless, they may be paid, or the person giving
the testimonial may not even exist. The placebo effect is a very powerful
influence. If a person wants to believe a product works it usually will. This
does not mean it is actually aiding performance.
Does the product claim to cure or remedy multiple ailments or is it a
panacea of health: “Run faster, recovery quicker, sleep better, and have more
sex.” If it does run in the other direction.
Is the product based on real research? Real research is conducted at
institutions that utilize scientifically objective methods such as double blind
studies; and even these can be flawed. Research is not conducted in the same
“lab” that the product is made in. There is no objectivity from a “scientist”
that promotes their own products that they are profiting from. Of course they
are going to tell you it has scientifically proven value!
“Increases running endurance by 30%” If it sounds too good to be true it
probably is and if it really worked that well everyone would be buying it.
There are without a doubt some good products out there but by using these
standards you will weed out the majority of the dubious ones. The next step is
to find the products that work best for you individually. I recommend starting
with products from larger companies. Although these products are not without
risk at least a company such as Gatorade has a lot more to loose than Joe's
magic sports drink. Look for companies that emphasize quality ingredients vs. performance
Consider supplementation for your macro nutrient intake (carbohydrate,
protein, fat) but avoid the performance boosters. Supplementation should be
mainly done for convenience sake. Don't be afraid of “real” food. A banana is
just as good or better source of energy when compared to most energy bars (not
to mention cheaper). Chocolate milk is a great recovery drink. If you prefer
the convenience of supplementation for your training and racing try a variety
of products and read the labels. Carbohydrate for instance can come from a
variety of sources; simple sugars or more complex sources such as brown rice
syrup or maltodextrin. Be careful how multiple products may react to each
other. Combining energy gels with a sports drink raises the carbohydrate
concentration to a level that his not readily digestible and may cause gastric
distress. Salt tabs and electrolyte tabs may or may not be needed and it is
difficult to determine individual intake requirements.
Finally take care and be responsible for with what you put in your body.
Real performance comes from a sound nutrition plan that allows quality training
and recovery; not from the claims on a bottle or can. Once you find the right
mix of foods and/or supplements stick to the plan. Don't change anything the
week of a race and certainly not during one!