Supplements are a hot topic item in training and nutrition. There are literally thousands of supplements available on the market, most of them making rather lofty claims regarding their effect on health and performance. With so much information, marketing, and advertisements surrounding this industry it can be rather overwhelming to know where to start. So what supplements work and do you need them?? This blog will focus on supplements and training performance, and how they might fit into your nutritional plan.
First and foremost, supplements are not a magic fix for a diet that leaves you lacking. Whole foods, recovery, and adequate hydration are the foundation of athletic and training success, and no supplement can overcome poor nutrition, dehydration or subpar sleep/recovery. Supplements are a nice compliment to a good diet, but adding in expensive supplements to a diet that is lacking in fruits, veggies, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates is the nutritional equivalent of putting really nice wheels on a clunker of a car. You might love the way the wheels look, but the overall performance of the car won’t change, which is the same with training performance when supplements are being used to overcome poor nutrition habits.
Now, when it comes to training there are five supplements that have been supported with large bodies of scientific research to improve training performance. Those five supplements are:
Stimulants: Number one example here is caffeine. Most pre-workout supplements function as some sort of stimulant, which has a small positive effect on perceived energy levels and muscular endurance.
Creatine: Supports rapid energy production during training in form of ATP (fundamental energy source for every body cell.) Remarkably safe and one of the most researched of all dietary supplements.
Fast Acting Carbohydrates: These are simple carbohydrates that are easily digested and utilized by the body to maintain energy levels during training sessions. Dextrose is the most common and readily available supplement under this category. Not a necessary training supplement but useful for maintaining blood sugar levels and is especially useful during longer duration training (+90 minutes).
Whey Protein: Whey protein is a fast digesting protein source that prevents muscle wasting and provides the necessary building blocks for muscular repair and growth post-training.
Casein Protein: Casein protein is a very slow digesting protein source that is effective at maintaining a steady source of protein to the body over long periods of time where food may not be available (while sleeping is the number one example). This long duration source of protein prevents muscle wasting and supports muscular growth and repair when calories are not being consumed.
So do you need supplements? The short answer is no. They can be useful for a small improvement in training effect. For example, lets look at creatine. The impact of creatine in a nutshell is to allow you to lift a weight you could normally do for 5 reps for maybe a 6th rep on one or two total sets. Not a huge difference right? Well, over time, those one or two extra reps do add up and have a positive training influence. The same can be said for something like fast digesting carbs or a pre-workout supplement. They are useful, but only account for about 5% of total training and dietary success.
Supplements are not regulated and held to the same standards of quality by the FDA as food products. What this means for you, the consumer, is that supplement companies are free to fudge the facts when it comes to nutrition labels, as well as the proposed benefits of their products. Which, in a super saturated multibillion-dollar industry they are sure as heck going to do in order to make their product standout. Further, because these companies are free to claim whatever they wish regarding their products, scientific literature is often twisted to support the ingredients and products they use. So be wary of the company that makes outlandish claims, such as their product will improve your strength and credit score by 600% in one dosage. Additionally, companies that rely on flashy labels and catchy names may be compensating for a substandard product. So that “super hyper mega gnarly strength-gasm 4000 ultra rare whey protein” is probably a little bit of the same quality protein as the legit supplements and then a bunch of cheap fillers that actually don’t help you at all.
When searching for supplements it is best to do your research and buy from reputable companies. Usually, if a nutrition company has been around for sometime and still successful they are probably doing the right things for their customers. Another good resource is labdoor.com, a third party supplement reviewer that objectively and honestly reviews supplements for their legitimacy, quality, and pricing. And remember, a balanced diet, good hydration, sleep, and smart training are all you need to be super successful! Supplements might just be the extra cherry on top.