Most dieticians will tell you that you should try to get all of your nutrients from "real food" sources rather than relying on supplements. While I would advise athletes to work on their regular diet first before thinking too much about supplements, it is virtually impossible for most of us not to have some gaps in their nutrition without taking supplements. On top of that, simply getting "enough" of a given nutrient is not the same thing as getting the ideal amount for you. Some nutritional challenges that athletes face:
- Because endurance athletes are training and competing for extended periods of time, it is necessary to eat and drink while exercising. The most commonly used supplements for endurance athletes: bars, gels and energy drinks. Since taking a tuna sandwich on a ride with us just isn't practical (and even if it was, we probably wouldn't tolerate it too well), a bar that is easy to bring along, easy to eat, digests easily and has everything we need at the time to top off the stores can be ideal. Gels come in handy when we are exercising at higher intensities and can't tolerate solid food. Energy drinks keep us hydrated, help limit salt and electrolyte losses through sweat and help us to get enough Calories.
- We breath a lot of air. Just the simple act of breathing means that we take a lot of pollution, pollen and free-radicals into our bodies. These things can make it difficult to breath, make us sick, cause cellular damage and even cancer. Even the oxygen that we rely on so much is in itself toxic to our cells. Have you ever noticed that some endurance athletes that have been doing this for a long time look a lot older than they really are? Chances are it's the cellular damage caused by all the oxygen, free radicals and sunlight. One of the biggest things you will see in vitamin supplements marketed for endurance athletes is high doses of antioxidants. These antioxidants will help to reduce cellular damage, keep you healthy and young-looking.
- Vegetarian and especially vegan athletes face the special challenge of making sure they get enough protein, and in particular, enough iron from their food. Endurance athletes rely heavily on the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, which will be severely diminished if iron stores are low. Though plant based sources of protein and iron are plentiful, absorption rates are often lower than in meat based sources. Protein supplements can come in handy after workouts as recovery drinks, and iron supplements are necessary for many athletes, even many non-vegetarians. Like many supplements though, be careful not to overdo it, as too much iron can be toxic.
In short, athletes are not normal people. We routinely push our bodies far and above what can be considered "normal" and perhaps even healthy. But we do it because there is something special about taking ourselves to the absolute limit. To do that, we need a little help. For all the work we put into training and the sacrifices me make to compete, we want to do everything in our power to make sure that we can reach our maximum potential. There are lots of supplements out there that may be able to help us in lots of ways, but we need to be educated about them. I like to break it down to 3 simple questions...
1. Is it safe? The FDA does not regulate supplements, so it is important that we do out homework here. The last thing we want to do is actually hurt our performance, or worse yet, cause long term health problems because of a supplement. It is important that to read unbiased literature (not simply the manufacturer's studies), ask other athletes that have used the supplement about their experience, and try things in training before you try it in competition. Dosage is extremely important as well. Too little and there may be no effect and too much can be dangerous. Find out any potential side effects as well, and if you are considering taking something, make sure that the side effects don't outweigh the benefits. And make sure that you get your supplements from a reliable manufacturer, where you should have a minimal chance that you are taking something you don't think that you are taking.
2. Is it effective? There's no use using something that doesn't work, especially considering the high cost of so many nutritional supplements. Find out what the benefits really are. Will it help your recovery? Prevent cramping? Increase energy? Decrease perceived exertion? Increase threshold power? Increase sprint power? Help to build muscle mass? Help you lose weight? Make sure that whatever the supplement does, it is something that is important to you and will help you, not hurt you in reaching your goals. Again, dosage is very important. Find out how much you should take, when you should take it, what you should take it with and how often you should take it. Pay attention to the details.
3. Is it legal? Plain and simple, if it isn't legal, don't take it. You could make a pretty convincing argument that EPO can be safe if administered correctly and in the right doses. You could also argue that training too much is dangerous too your health, or to use the Dr. Ferrari argument, "Too much orange juice can kill you too". But guess what? EPO is illegal and it's cheating. If they made orange juice illegal, you wouldn't drink orange juice. My advice is to not waste your time arguing ethics. Just understand the rules and don't break them. My experience has been that the vast majority of athletes are well intentioned and do not want to cheat, but they dont always know what the rules are. It is your job as a competitor to familiarize yourself with the rules of the governing body that you compete under. Remember, USA Cycling is different from USA Triathlon is different from the UCI is different from the World Triathlon Corporation. If you don't know, ask your coach. That's what we're here for (amongst other things :)).
Throughout the next couple weeks, I will go over some specific supplements that may be of interest to you as endurance athletes. If you have comments or questions or would like more information about a specific supplement, please post a comment this blog or email me directly at email@example.com.