Athletic performance & dietary supplements

Athletic performance & dietary supplements.jpg

In just a few short weeks, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de janeiro, Brazil, will be well underway.  Watching the world’s top athletes compete in some of the most athletically challenging sporting events is amazing and awe-inspiring to observe as amateurs defy superhuman strength, agility, speed and endurance the rest of us mere mortals can only dream about. 

One commonality some of the participants may share with other athletes is using a dietary supplement. Dietary supplements have always played a predominate role in the world of sports.  Whether a competitive athlete or a casual exerciser, today’s participant is always looking for the latest and greatest nutritional supplement giving them the ultimate performance-enhancing edge.   Competition in sports has always been high but nowadays it is more fierce and demanding than ever and this can be one way athletes seek to improve their skills. 

It is difficult to assess just how many athletes routinely use a nutritional or dietary supplement as part of their training or competition but a safe estimate is probably at least 50%.  A 2007 review of elite track and field athletes found 85% of them regularly use dietary supplements as part of their training or competition routine. 

The supplement industry thrives upon this booming interest of all athletes, competitive or casual, who admit to fueling themselves with various powders, liquids, engineered bars, vitamins, minerals, protein, creatine and “ergogenic” compoundsSome of these supplements can be useful in certain circumstances as long as there is no restriction or replacement of food intake.  However, many athletes may use these dietary supplements without much knowledge or without getting a professional opinion from a sports dietitian/nutritionist who can evaluate the potential benefits and risks pertaining to their use.  If they do this, it will help reinforce their efforts to improve their performance while decreasing any potential harm from a supplement. 

Reasons why athletes use dietary supplements

Here are some of the more common reasons an athlete makes a decision to use a dietary supplement:

·         To enhance performance

·         To improve physical appearance

·         To prevent or treat injuries

·         To promote immunity and resistance to illness/infection

·         To promote fat loss

·         To enhance energy supply

·         To compensate for a poor diet

Are dietary supplements regulated?

The answer to this is no.  Because of the DSHEA Act of 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has little control over the sale of supplements.  Unlike drugs and food additives, dietary supplements do not have to undergo clinical studies to test safety, effectiveness, or interactions with other drugs.  There has to be proof of a supplement being unsafe before the FDA can remove the product for sale to consumers.  Consumers need to be aware of this before using any type of a dietary supplement and to use them with caution. 

Regulation of dietary supplements in different countries can vary widely and if supplements are bought over the Internet, the athlete may not know the origin of them.  Be aware that in some supplement facilities, there has been found poor quality control in the manufacture and storage of these substances along with impurities (glass, lead, animal feces, etc.) found in the supplements.

Popular dietary supplements used by athletes

Following is a list of common dietary supplements used by athletes for various reasons and that may have potential benefits for athletes due to documentation of research conducted.  It’s advisable to seek the guidance of a qualified health professional who works with athletes before using them. Many of them may not be suitable for anyone under the age of 18:

·         Beta-alanine – an amino acid claimed to be an endurance and performance enhancer.  There is some evidence it supports benefits for rowers, swimmers, and sprinters.

·         Bicarbonate or sodium bicarbonate – These act as a buffer against lactic acid that accumulated in the blood.  Has been shown to have a moderate effect on short high-intensity exercise performance.

·         Caffeine – This occurs naturally in leaves, nuts, and seeds in many plants.  Is supposed to improve endurance and reaction time.  Research has shown a benefit for short (1-5 minutes) and prolonged (20-60 minutes) of high-intensity exercise.

·         Creatine – A naturally compound found in muscles.  It is considered a performance enhancer in strength and power events and helps fuel sprints and other high-intensity exercise.  May be beneficial for short bouts of high-intensity exercise but long-term effects unknown.  Not recommended for anyone under 18 years of age.

·         Glucosamine – Has mild anti-inflammatory properties.  It claims to support or repair cartilage and boost immune system.

·         Multivitamins/minerals – Provides nutrients needed for physiological function.  Claims to improve aerobic endurance exercise performance.  They may be necessary for those who restrict calories or limit a variety of foods.

·         Nitrate – This stimulates production of nitric oxide which regulates blood flow and oxygen consumption.  It claims to improve aerobic endurance exercise performance. A small number of studies suggest improved performance in events lasting 4 to 30 minutes. 

·         Glutamine – An amino acid and source of fuel for immune cells.  It claims to boost immune functioning, heal wounds, and inhibits protein breakdown.  It won’t hurt you but there is no conclusive evidence that it affects protein metabolism.

The supplements listed below have been shown to have little to no evidence to effectiveness in improving or enhancing athletic performance or ability and are not recommended:

·         Branched-chain amino acids

·         Carnitine

·         Chromium picolinate

·         Coenzyme Q10

·         Cordyceps

·         Ginseng

·         Inosine

·         Nitrous oxide supplements

·         Oxygen boosters

·         Pyruvate

·         Rhodiola rosea

·         Fish oil

·         Medium-chain triacylglycerols (MCT)

Best advice on dietary supplement use

An athlete’s decision to use a dietary supplement is one not to take lightly.  Athlete needs to educate themselves before taking one to decide if this is the right time and for the right reasons. The reality is most athletes are already well-nourished. Competitive athletes generally already eat more food because of their intense workouts. Therefore they are already taking in more calories, vitamins and minerals than the average person making the chance of a nutrient deficiency unlikely. 

Any athlete contemplating the use of a supplement should consult with a registered dietitian or one who is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.  They can evaluate the athletes’ diet and be able to tell what nutrients are missing and what foods to choose that support the athlete the best.  Food should always be used first before resorting to using a dietary supplement. If poor diet is a concern, it’s better to improve the quality of the diet than to try to fix it with the use of supplements.