The following article will attempt to clarify any concerns or doubts surrounding the effectiveness of supplements for performance in sport or health.
- Highlight how supplements can be used as a great addition to a balanced nutritious diet
- The plausible reasons as to why the demands of modern day farming might impact the quality and content of vitamins and minerals found in our foods today.
- List and detail the differences between water and fat soluble vitamins, macro and micro minerals
- Supplements for performance
- How to identify ‘good/ safe’ brands to avoid contamination
- How elite athletes are tested for banned substances.
My view on supplements has changed a lot over the last 10 years. At one point I was obsessed, then from one extreme to the other, I didn’t take anything and now I take a handful of products for both health and performance that I also recommend to my athletes.
The bottom line is supplements for health can make a big difference if someone has a very poor diet, likewise for performance, I believe supplements can help both motivate athletes and depending on the product, give them a better result from training through physiological benefits, however very few supplements have shown true effectiveness.
There are also stimulants to help intensity which can be useful before a competition. With all this being said, supplements will not make up for poor training, poor diet or poor sleep habit.
Modern Day Farming and Soil Depletion
When stating a claim I like to weigh up both sides and make a decision for myself.
A few studies have shown that due to an increased demand of farming to meet with the demands of an ever growing society, with more frequently farmed patches of land, new fertilisers, the quality of soil becomes less and less nutrient dense overtime and because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today and efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly, but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.
A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal,found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.
These were conclusions from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/ and they reason that well-conducted comparisons have shown that consistent trends of decrease in content of certain nutrients are mostly seen only when crops are lumped into broad groups of vegetables, fruits, and grains and statistical significance is lost when trying to see historical changes by comparing varieties of a single crop due to a high degree of variability.
The study authors who found statistically significant decreases in the content of particular mineral nutrients per dry weight of fruits, vegetables, or grains all agreed that these changes were not likely to have any significant impact on the nutritional health of consumers, a fact glossed over in some popular press reports citing these studies.
So unless we grow our own crops or move to a rural country (where fruit and veg almost always taste better and are more likely to have nutrient contents) if you are concerned you may not be getting enough from your diet, the next best thing would be to take a supplement.
Water Soluble Vitamins
There are two types of vitamins, water soluble and fat soluble. Most vitamins are water-soluble, meaning they dissolve in water. These include eight B vitamins and vitamin C. Water-soluble vitamins are easy to get from a balanced diet.
However, vitamin B12 is only found in substantial amounts in animal-sourced foods. As a result, vegans are at a high risk of deficiency and will need to take supplements or get regular injections.
It is also important to note that the body generally doesn’t store water-soluble vitamins, except for vitamin B12. Meaning, you should aim to get them from your diet every day.
Every vitamin and mineral has a function within the body. Vitamin C for example is a powerful antioxidant and has an essential role in connective tissue healing, has the potential to accelerate bone healing after a fracture, increase type I collagen synthesis.
Fat Soluble Vitamins
In contrast, fat-soluble vitamins are similar to oil and do not dissolve in water. These are vitamin A, D, E and K.
Vitamin A is necessary for cell growth , body growth, hair growth, fetal development and vision and is found in animal-sourced foods. The main natural food sources are liver, fish liver oil and butter.
Vitamin D, Nicknamed the sunshine vitamin, is produced by your skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. It is best known for its beneficial effects on bone health, and deficiency makes you highly susceptible to bone fractures. Vitamin D is really important because it’s role is regulates so many functions in the body inc hormones, low levels of Vitamin D correlate with low levels of testosterone, which is crucial for performance and recovery.
Vitamin E is a a powerful antioxidant protects your cells against premature aging and damage by free radicals
Vitamin K plays a key role in blood clotting. Without it, you would run the risk of bleeding to death. “koagulation,” the Danish word for coagulation, which means clotting.
With the exception of Vitamin D, most of these fat soluble vitamins are easy to get from a diverse diet, especially if you eat plenty of nuts, seeds, vegetables, fish and eggs.
Macro Minerals/ Trace Minerals
The body needs many minerals; these are called essential minerals. Essential minerals are sometimes divided up into macro minerals and trace minerals.
These two groups of minerals are equally important, but trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts than major minerals. The amounts needed in the body are not an indication of their importance.
A balanced diet usually provides all of the essential minerals, you can also get a decent boost of these minerals from a high quality multi-vitamin if you wish.
Rather than list each mineral extensively, if you would like to learn more about these minerals and what they do, this website has a brilliant graph that explains it all in detail.
Zinc Depletion from Endurance Running and Testosterone
Before I move on, I’m a big fan of taking a Zinc supplement and I believe on top of a nutrient dense diet, many athletes could benefit from taking Zinc and in fact Magnesium too but it has been shown that long term endurance training has been shown to significantly decrease resting serum zinc levels in both male and female athletes compared to sedentary controls. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/014976349500002V
It has also been found that men who received 30 milligrams of zinc per day showed increased levels of free testosterone in their bodies. Because your body can’t store zinc, you need to take it in every day.
Supplements for Performance
Aside from a balanced, nutritious diet and taking Zinc and Magnesium to assist recovery, there are plenty of supplements on the market that claim to improve performance and I highly recommend checking out https://examine.com/supplements/ for an extensive database on almost every supplement with a study to back it’s claim.
Personally I only recommend what I take myself, one of which is a good quality Whey Protein supplement. There is no denying that, if you want to increase your protein intake, a powder can make your life easier. If daily protein targets are achieved through dietary protein alone, supplementation is unnecessary but for many power/ strength athletes I believe they under eat their daily protein requirements.
Secondly, I recommend taking Creatine, especially for power oriented sports. Creatine has been shown time and time again that it has the ability to rapidly increase strength and power output from training compared to placebo alternatives. It has also been shown to increase muscular endurance and VO2 max in a number of studies, an unwanted side effect could be the retention of water in the muscle cells which can lead to an increase in body weight. So some athletes may wish to come off Creatine before their competition season.
Finding a ‘Good/ Reliable’ brand
Before I returned to athletics in 2016 I was very much involved in the ‘fitness’ industry, I had attended seminars across the U.K hosted by supplement companies and had presented at national trade show, which was heavily orientated towards selling ‘sports supplements’ and I even had very short term contract with a supplement company, where I had the good fortune of visiting their manufacturing labs to see how their supplements were made and how they tested their their product for quality.
This is where I learnt first hand that many brands will package a product with really low quality ingredients or under dosing what is recommended by studies showing the effectiveness of the supplement, meaning you’re paying for a product that will likely not do anything.
This happens a lot in proprietary blends, where a product has multiple ingredients and it’s really common for them to under dose.
As for lower quality ingredients, there are usually multiple forms in which minerals can be delivered into the body and generally the more expensive the product the higher the bio availability, or the easier it is for your body to absorb the mineral.
Generally the cheaper the cost, the less available form is within the supplement.
As I only take Zinc and Magnesium as my minerals, I look to try and get these in either citrate, picolinate or oratate as these have been shown have better absorption rates in healthy adults and there is little to no absorption to Zinc oxide which is often also under dosed in my supplements.
If you’re interested in reading more about the differences between Zinc oxide and citrate, check out this study.
General rule of thumb, any product using an oxide would be considered cheap and lower quality and I would look for more well established brands in the sports and health industry rather than the fitness and bodybuilding industry.
Tainted supplements are very rare and extremely unlikely to occur if the company provides batch testing and you can even check when their last batch test occurred, this is where they randomly select their product and test them for their ingredients purity. Some companies, such as MyProtein offer batch tested products but not all of their products are batch tested, they have a range of products that generally cost more to off set the cost of testing and for the products to be made in a specific location separate to their other products to avoid cross contamination.
Cross contamination is a grey area and it’s still the athletes fault if they fail a drugs test and this can happen in two ways, either through companies sharing factories which mean the machines used in one product can leave residue for another or if a company deceives their customer base by adding an ingredient that is ‘banned’ in elite sport but wont disclose the ingredient. This is more common in the United States or China.
You might be asking why they would do that. Generally these companies won’t be looking to market to elite athletes but rather the bodybuilding or fitness industry, this industry has no testing protocol and companies want to create a product that produces a better result than their competitors
Though it’s unlikely cross contamination will occur, it’s not unheard of and in some exceptional circumstances WADA or USADA will buy in bulk the product they claim to have taken and do their own testing to see if their claim is legitimate and confirm whether or not they will serve their full ban, in some rare cases they have overruled bans. The only reason this will happen is if the product contains a banned substance not listed in the ingredients.
These are the ones everyone should look out for and in my experience they usually have the most extreme names or images on the packaging and before reading the ingredients you look at it questioning if its safe to take and it is always the responsibility of the athlete to check what they take and if a coach suggests you take something that is banned, you should definitely find another coach!
If you’re unsure about a product and here are the two most important websites to check out to see if your product has them in.
Elite Athletes & Drug Testing
To clear up any misunderstanding, there are two occasions in which an athlete can be ‘drug’ tested, in competition and outside competition. Technically there is a time frame in which someone is classed to be in competition but for this case I will just use post race testing.
Both cases are reserved for exceptional athletes and in my time as a coach, I have only ever had one athlete get tested and that was post race after he ran an incredibly quick time as an under 20.
As for random, out of competition testing. I have athletes as clients who are ranked within the top 5 in the UK, have competed internationally for Great Britain as a Senior tha are not on the ADAMs/ Whereabouts register.
ADAMS is the Anti-Doping Administration Management System (ADAMS) managed by WADA.
Credit to Dave Taylor-Green as he informed that you also do not have to be on the Whereabouts register to have random drug testers come by and that you do not have to win a medal at Championships to warrant a post race drugs tests and if you are asked, you are allowed a representative (coach or friend) near by if you please.
If you’re curious to learn more about their whereabouts system here is a link https://www.ukad.org.uk/athletes/whereabouts-and-adams
You may have read the recent article in Athletics Weekly on Christian Coleman as he has missed three tests (again) and knowing the testing protocol secondhand as I lived with someone who had random drug testers come to the flat, there is absolutely no reason to miss two tests, let alone three, unless of course, you don’t want to be tested.
Athletes are required to submit their whereabouts for one hour every day, plus overnight accommodation and training information, in case they are needed for out-of-competition testing.
The last quarter of their article summaries it up, and I highly recommend reading it.
Many athletes have reacted to the latest news, with 2011 world 1500m silver medallist Hannah England, who is chair of the UK Athletics Athlete Commission, writing on Twitter: “Whereabouts can feel invasive and be stressful – particularly with travel. But it is ONE HOUR A DAY, not all day every day. An inconvenience that is worth it to protect clean sport. Going shopping during your slot when you are on two missed test is taking a huge risk with your career.”
Britain’s European and Commonwealth long jump medallist Jazmin Sawyers wrote: “As athletes we have few genuine responsibilities. The one biggie we do have is to give the drug testers one hour a day when we’re going to be at an address, and then to be there for that hour. It’s annoying but not difficult. One hour. Choose 6-7 am and make life easy for yourself.”
While Olympic and world medallist Eilidh Doyle wrote: “Even when I was in hospital for three days, having my baby, my first thought was I better update my whereabouts. It’s just what has to be done to ensure credibility within our sport.”
To summarise, I do believe high quality supplements alongside a nutritious diet is the best way forward for both health and performance. I wouldn’t recommend spending anymore than what you can afford as supplements can get expensive. It’s important to find a reputable brand that is well establish in either the health or sports world and if you’re concerned about any cross contamination or if a product looks suspect, check to see if the ingredients are on the banned substances list.It’s always safer to find a company that does batch testing or has the informed sport logo and if you’re pushing your body to the limits regularly you may notice the benefits of taking supplements more so than the average person.