Sports supplements are often seen as part and parcel of a healthy lifestyle, but the truth is they are far from a necessity for most people, and it’s worth carefully considering whether you actually need them to support your training.
To help you assess the pros and cons of sports supplements, we spoke to David Dunne, a performance nutritionist and the co-founder of Hexis, a training platform that can create a nutrition plan tailored to your training and lifestyle.
David Dunne is the CEO and co-founder of sports nutrition app Hexis and a performance nutritionist. He has a PhD in Nutrition, Behaviour Change and Technology, and has been working in elite sport for over 10 years, consulting with Harlequins, Queens Park Rangers and British Canoeing among others, as well as working privately with Olympic athletes.
Can you get everything you need from your diet?
We can get the overwhelming majority of our energy, macronutrient and micronutrient requirements through our diet. There are a couple of small things that we typically can’t get enough of at certain times of the year, in particular vitamin D. We synthesise vitamin D in our skin when it’s exposed to the sun, but during winter we typically don’t get enough sun. If you’re based in the UK, it’s a good idea to supplement with vitamin D between October and April.
Outside of vitamin D, provided you don’t have any dietary restrictions or aren’t following any weird or wonderful diet, you should be able to get a host of micronutrients from seven-plus servings of fruit and veg every day. I say that people who exercise regularly should aim for seven-plus, as opposed to five. Then make sure that you’re meeting your energy requirements through whole foods. You should be able to consume sufficient protein from a variety of sources in our diet.
When can sports supplements be useful?
There are a number of cases when sports supplements can play a role. If you’re struggling to meet your protein intake, consuming a whey protein or a vegan protein supplement may help you hit your overall daily protein targets. For most athletes, that target will be around 2g of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day, but could vary between 1.6g and 2.5g. For a lot of people that can be quite tricky, because often it means having a good serving of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a high-protein snack. That’s where something like a protein shake post exercise can come in.
Outside of protein, there are a lot of performance-enhancing aids out there, and it really depends on your sport as to which is useful. One in particular is beta-alanine. It can help with repeated high-intensity efforts and can delay time to fatigue. We typically don’t get a lot of it in the diet, and it works by increasing our muscle stores of carnosine. If I know an athlete is going through a particularly intense block or preparing for a key competition, I may look to supplement with beta-alanine.
Creatine has been used a lot and has massive benefits to many athletes, not just from a strength and power perspective, but also from a cognitive perspective, too.
In the cycling time-trial world, sodium bicarbonate can be very effective to help improve people’s tolerance to those higher effort levels and delay fatigue.
When somebody is injured, sports supplements can speed up recovery. If somebody has suffered something like a tendon or a ligament injury, we may look to supplement with collagen every day. Collagen is what most of our connective tissue is made of and a collagen supplement is particularly high in two amino acids called proline and lysine. Supplementing during that recovery period with collagen can be beneficial.
There are other supplements that may be used during that injury period, particularly in more collision-based sports like rugby or American football. Creatine can have a neuro-protective effect. It can play a significant role in cognitive health, as can fish oils.
Outside of injury, travel can be another period when we’re exposed to different strains and stresses, where we might not have the food availability that we would have at home. Supplementing with a daily multivitamin isn’t a bad idea. It won’t do any harm. If you’re eating out at restaurants, you might not be getting the same food quality that you’ve had at home.
Also when going away to those other environments you might want to try to improve your gut health and make it more resilient. Supplementing with a probiotic for a minimum of 14 days before travel can help colonise the gut, and support your immunity.
What supplements are most useful during exercise?
Carbohydrate is obviously going to be key, particularly when looking at elite endurance performance. Consuming food for fuel during exercise itself can place stress on the gut. If you’re eating multiple bananas, for example, the high fibre content could lead to some unfortunate incidents.
The first thing to do with your fueling strategy is to nail what the numbers are – do you need 20, 30, 40, 50g per hour? Then start to break that down into solids, semi-solids and liquids. Solids could be a banana or a flapjack. That kind of stuff is fine if you’re on the bike, but if you are a runner and you might be out for an hour or two at a pretty high tempo, I would lean more towards semi-solids – things like gels or chews – as well as sports drinks.
What are the downsides of using sports supplements?
Most people over-supplement because they think they need something that they don’t need, and it ends up becoming very expensive.
There can be other downsides when people over-supplement with some micronutrients, when it could lead to more toxic levels. That’s something that we’d have to be conscious of, in particular, with something like zinc. Make sure you’re not hitting high levels of intake too consistently, because they can have some negative side effects.
Outside of that, I think there are plenty of positives to sports supplements when used well, but I would always take a food-first approach. The supplement is really there to add that additional edge.
If you’re training two or three times a week to stay healthy, do you need any supplements?
The biggest thing for somebody like that is avoiding deficiencies. Given that workload, given that lifestyle, you’re not really trying to enhance performance. Maybe you will, at certain points of the year as you train for a marathon or something, but day to day you should be looking at your diet. For the most part, you can avoid deficiency by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, consuming enough protein from whole food sources and then meeting your energy requirements through your typical foods.
Vitamin D is still something that jumps out during the winter months. I do think it is a worthwhile investment for most people, and it might only cost a tenner over the counter to cover a few months.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.