Elite athletes work hard to reach their goals. Not only do they follow rigorous training programs, they often have a nutrition plan designed to give them a competitive edge. These plans frequently include taking sports supplements. But do those pills, powders and sports drinks offer athletes any real advantages?
The answer appears to be, probably not, according to a report on the science behind dietary supplements by the American Chemical Society. It found that while energy bars can give long distance runners and cyclists the energy they need to get through their races, and antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can provide some anti-inflammatory benefits, particularly for older athletes, most athletes should focus more on the food they eat than the supplements they take.
The sports nutrition market posted sales of $6.3 billion in 2014. There is no shortage of products to choose from: protein powders, energy boosters, performance enhancers, and recovery and repair supplements.
Unfortunately, there are few resources available to help athletes evaluate the scientific evidence by themselves, especially in the absence of controlled studies. So review articles are the best sources of information. From there, athletes must make their own decisions about whether to put a product in their bodies.
Some studies focus on biochemical measurements like blood or urine biomarkers, but they don’t measure whether a product actually improves performance.
“That is often the major criticism of the studies,” Edward P. Weiss, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, said in the article. But such a small sample could still be satisfactory. “One of the strengths, in a sense, is if the effect is powerful enough then you only need a few subjects to make fairly definitive conclusions.”
The results of studies can vary from athlete to athlete, depending on variables like age, gender and level of conditioning. Some researchers focus on biochemical measurements like blood or urine biomarkers, but they don’t measure whether a product actually improves performance.
If nutritional supplements for athletic performance weren't so expensive, the questions about their effectiveness would be less serious. But athletes can spend as much as $85 a month for a product that may be nothing more than a waste of money.
There may be some sports nutrition supplements that are worth trying, but a healthy, well-balanced diet and adequate hydration — appropriate to the athlete and their sport — is the best advantage athletes can give themselves.
Food should be the first place athletes go for that competitive edge. There may be some sports nutrition supplements that are worth trying, but a healthy, well-balanced diet and adequate hydration — appropriate to the athlete and their sport — is the best advantage athletes can give themselves.
The report is published in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly magazine of the American Chemical Society.