A few months ago, a nutrition infographic by sport scientist Dr. Le Meur made the rounds on social media, listing the best sport science approved supplements for athletes. The compilation was a list from the Australian Institute of Sport, and was an excellent starting point for those looking to improve their performance. Unfortunately, a framework of suggestions without knowledge of an athlete's specific goals and needs is not enough, so we did the rest of the work for you. In this article, we provide useful guidelines for getting started with supplements and offer the most practical advice for anyone looking to train and recover better.
Every year a list of the best supplements are available online, but most articles don’t include a top-level thought process of how they came to their conclusions. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) did explain how they complied the list and classification of commonly available supplements, but some small specifics and big questions needed to be expanded on. Where Dr. Le Meur and the AIS stop is where we take over, in detail, and show why blood analysis is so critical when considering supplementation.
What you ought to know before trying or buying a supplement
Anyone interested in health or performance deciding if they want to supplement will ask if it’s necessary and sometimes, if they are competing, ethical. Food is not solely about nutrition preferences, as religious and personal beliefs are factors that decide on what to eat and drink. When people who don’t believe in supplements decide to focus 100% of their energies on diet instead of pills or powders, they may be surprised to learn that they're indirectly supplementing by consuming everyday foods like fortified cereals and beverages. It’s obvious when supplements are in capsule or powder form, but anything manufactured is likely to have something artificial in it to preserve it or boost its nutritional content.
The company Genethix is a leading provider of tested supplements for elite and recreational athletes. Their protein powders are in single serving pouches for portability and reduce germs that can spread during flu season.
An athlete’s career and reputation can be ruined by a few dollars worth of pills or powder if something tests positive for a contaminant. A contaminant is a trace amount of substance legally banned from sport, and can present itself during drug testing. Some consumers have died taking the wrong supplement, or used a supplement in the wrong way. Supplements range from pharmaceutical grade options that can improve one’s health to underground, fly-by-night companies that produce dangerous products which are basically drugs. Most of the time, supplement companies are not shady or “a guy in a garage”, but being an informed shopper is the only way to be smart. If buyers think of supplements as isolated puzzle pieces and not magic pills and potions, a lot of progress can be made without risks. Anyone buying supplements should ask the following key questions:
- Is there something I can change in my diet that is missing that can replace the supplement I am taking now?
- Is my training creating a problem that I may be masking with supplements?
- How long has the research been available to support the use of this supplement?
- Is this company reputable and do they demonstrate safety and efficacy with third party testing?
These are the four questions I ask every time athletes ask me what supplements to take. I actually purchase less supplements now that I know what I need versus what I think I may need because of blood analysis. Far too many people purchase the one-a-day multivitamin for emotional security purposes — sort of like using a seat belt when driving. Unfortunately, a supplement needs to have a wide coverage of nutrients for the body in order to be useful; supplement pills usually have so little of each micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytochemcials) they are largely a waste of money.
Some supplement companies love "label dressing" — listing out every compound available to appear like one is getting a lot — but the amounts are so trace that the impact is rarely there. Every athlete should test their blood and see what nutrients are out of range instead of the common shotgun approach.
The four questions above are common questions athletes ask me, so I decided to outline my answers here, for all to benefit from.
Question 1: Is there something I can change in my diet that is missing that can replace the supplement I am taking now?
In addition to micronutrients, food offers other essential benefits like fiber and phytochemicals that are not thought of when athletes follow the hype of marketing. The right food is a combination of materials the body needs and sends information to the cells that instructs it them change and hopefully improve. When supplementing. we are usually just adding a nutrient, but sometimes we are temporarily re-programming it. Stimulant-like supplements, for instance, are short-lived and many are unsafe, thus the average person has little need for them.
Iron stores estimated by food logs are poor predictors of what is absorbed and what is actually in the body. Without blood testing entire seasons can be lost from heavy training, even if the nutritional planning is well intended.
Most of the time, mistakes in diet can be fixed by moving to new foods and not getting bored with always popping pills. Most people, including elite athletes, have a limit to the amount of pills they can take before the daily experience becomes an annoyance or chore. Taking a few less pills while enjoying more healthy food items every day, is a more sustainable approach for many people.
Question 2: Is my training creating a problem that I may be masking with supplements?
Supplements can’t fix or replace good training, and most supplements that try to fix surface problems are just buying time instead of addressing root issues. The average person needs to exercise more and the average elite athlete needs to recover smarter. Supplements that promise fat loss or energy simply are bad options for regular people and most athletes.
If you are not being honest and dedicated, it’s likely you're eating the wrong things or too much of the good things. If you are tired all the time, sleep and training management need to be improved, not popping an energy pill. If you are doing blood analysis then iron deficiency (a major contributor to symptoms of fatigue, poor recovery and loss of mental focus) can be revealed — so instead of stopping by convenience stores for energy drinks, look at the big picture with a comprehensive blood test, like our Ultimate Panel.
Many athletes get caught in the same cycle of living on stimulants to fix basic nutrition issues that can be remedied by blood analysis. Athletes are surprised if they have a ferritin problem (clinically low iron stores), or are prone to high levels of cortisol (poor adaptation to stress) , but they are relieved that they know what the exact problem is. Having access to what is going on inside an athlete’s body is the cornerstone to getting results on the field.
Getting everyone on one page improves outcomes of training and competition drastically. By identifying and resolving small glitches before they become big problems down the road, results are better and more consistent. Two excellent examples are poor sleep hygine and overtraining, areas that need to be resolved at the root level, not kicking the can with quick fixes for their nagging symptoms.
Question 3: How long has the research been available to support the use of this supplement?
With world records and better performances happening all the time, it’s hard to keep up with all the advancements in technology and research as an athlete, unless you have a team behind you. Having a limited budget makes it hard to keep trying new things when they come out, but chasing trendy supplements is also foolish. For me, it’s important not just to know if something works and is safe to use, but to know if it’s worth even using it at all. Some research uses controls, comparisons of a product to a placebo with no active ingredient — but nearly anything, including a simple piece of fruit, can look impressive when compared to nothing (control).
New supplements are always being discovered but I don’t jump on anything unless multiple research studies are done on it. After the research shows improvements in performance, I try it in training to see the results. In time, once I am comfortable using it in training with my athletes, I will experiment with using it in a small competition before using it in bigger events.
No athlete wants to be the last to know about something that may help their performance, but most commercial supplements are not discovered and made in "award winning" labs. Most breakthroughs in science do not stem from the supplement industry, so beware of marketing claims. My suggestion is to wait for a professional nutritionist knowledgeable in sport supplementation for advice instead of trying it without guidance.
Question 4: Is this company reputable and do they demonstrate safety and efficacy with third party testing?
The most important point of this article is that of being educated on supplement companies and how different organizations review the integrity of their products. An athlete alone can be intimidated by all of the different programs that review supplements, so here are the primary resources that can help you make better choices when buying:
USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program
Banned Substances Control Group
As you can see, most of the companies are looking to see if the process of what is on the bottle label actually is what is contained in the product, but none of them are really guides to what works best for each person.
It’s also a good idea to understand that there are no guarantees with supplementing safely. Remember that the average smoothie shop is not thinking of supporting the professional or even college athlete, and deciding to get a fruit smoothie with a scoop of protein powder from the wrong brand can spell disaster and lead to a possible positive drug test.
As I mentioned previously, anything with a label is manufactured, so even large brands we come to think are safe are still supplements — including something as common as Gatorade. Supplements are not just at GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, they are part of most of what we consume every day. We don’t think a granola bar is a supplement, but anything manufactured is a risk to an athlete. Drug testing is looking for metabolites; most companies are looking for levels of toxicity and may not even look for residues of over the counter supplements that are legal to take but illegal for athletes to use. Nearly every athlete is at risk for contamination, but education can reduce the risk.
InsideTrackers' Artificial Inteligence platform, B.R.I.A.N., provides supplement suggetions based on more than 30 biomarkers. Focusing on simple areas like glucose can help with focus and cogntitive performance.
The other side of the coin is actually making sure you are getting the quantity and quality of the supplement you intended to purchase. What is on the label of the product is what's literally on paper — but not always what is contained in the bottle. The company Genethix, for instance, tests for heavy metals as well as ensures no banned ingredients are contained in their products.
Ever more disheartening is that even if the product label reflects what is in the bottle, the supplement itself may not be absorbed if not properly timed and used correctly. An example is taking the right supplement at the wrong time — such as taking a mineral with the wrong meal or taking a supplement without the right food. Supplementation is not as simple as downing a few pills or drinks in the morning.
The Adjusted Supplement List of 2016
It’s hard to disagree with the list the AIS provided, but some of the information can be distilled more to make it more practical and simple to the recreational athletes and the pro athlete. The chart is extremely useful with the sub-categories identifying how they affect the body, like creatine and caffeine being acute performance boosters, while sports foods are more likely to be convenient macronutrient (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) solutions.
The Medical supplement list was an excellent group, as the serious tone for nutrition should be the approach by coaches and athletes when screening. For the purpose of clarity and brevity, we separated the sport foods here and will cover the use of gels, drinks, and bars in a later article.
Original Chart Source: http://ausport.gov.au
Here are the top seven suggestions for athletes and fitness enthusiasts, in no particular order. Remember that a major benefit to blood analysis is to know what diets are working and how much a supplement is impacting recovery and repair. Attempting to improve without blood testing is like painting while blind, so athletes should test quarterly to fine tune diet and supplement regimens.
Vitamin D (Read More)
Iron (Read More)
Mineral Supplements (Read More)
Probiotics (Read More)
Whey Protein (Read More)
Caffeine (Read More)
Creatine (Read More)
Not included in this list are beta alanine, beetroot juice, and bicarbonate, along with calcium. It’s not that the aforementioned options don’t work at all, it’s just they are too narrow or unlikely to be a factor to make the top list. Legal supplements that are recommended by governing bodies like the AIS are still worth trying, but priorities must be made.
A good example of why we left some supplements off the top-list is the case of calcium — since many that are consuming probiotics in yogurt and whey protein are likely to get their necessary intake for the day. If one is a vegan or doesn’t consume dairy, one should use the calcium calculator from WebMD and see if enough leafy greens are consumed to make up the difference. Bicarbonate is a valid supplement, but many athletes report “explosive diarrhea” and it’s not worth using in all sports. Finally, much of the added value to supplements like beta alanine and beetroot juice is still being evaluated in the research, so it’s more of what is a priority versus the efficacy of different products.
Choose your supplements wisely
My point is not to make supplementation to sound like a chore for regular people or to scare elite athletes away from supplements, but doing due diligence matters. My hope is was to share real advice on the importance of doing one’s homework on companies and products before taking them. If you first look inside your body by analyzing yourself with blood testing, you can save yourself a lot of time and money by focusing on what your body truly needs, not what you think might help. There are numerous reasons why one needs to look under the hood and see what's really going on, versus hoping a label or diet is doing the trick.
Need help on supplementing with a personalized touch based on your hormones? InsideTracker created a gender-specific FREE GUIDE for you to download ...one for men, and one for women!
Some other blog posts we think you'll love:
- Tired of Being Tired: How I Optimized My Iron Levels
- Getting Back on Track: Laura Ingalls' InsideTracker-Fueled Journey Back to Holistic Health
- Avoiding The Crash: How Monitoring Iron Levels Can Save Your Season
- Stress Fractures: The Relationship Between Biochemistry, Nutritional Screening and Biomechanics