By Carl Valle
My piece on top 10 supplements for speed and power athletes reached thousands of readers. While I’m thrilled with its popularity, I also feel that I need to expand on the supplements that were simply not worth the money, too promoted, or needed to be mentioned. I hated removing some of the supplements I felt were promising simply because the arbitrary cutoff of just 10 recommendations, but now I have a few more that may be good options for athletes.Some supplements are part of an athlete’s diet even when the research doesn’t show much value. Click To Tweet
If you are part of a sports nutrition team or work with athletes and give advice, this article will shock you over the way some supplements make their way into an athlete’s diet even when the research doesn’t show much value. If you want to save money, improve performance, and stop wasting time, this blog can make a huge difference.
Defining Supplements vs. Sport Foods
Technically, a few items in the article are not supplements due to the fact they are more like a food, but my rule is if it needs to be measured with a spoon or scoop, or would not be ordered at a restaurant, it is more like a supplement. I will write about food options in a future article, but even that becomes tricky, since extracts and powders are part of cooking, and we are in a gray area there.
The core of this article is to reexamine old conventional sport supplements and even new ones, and then start moving on. For decades, some supplements have shown up at your local GNC store and, while they may help an athlete on paper, they really are not effective or valuable in helping performance.
I have three groups of supplements in this article, and two of the three are simply a poor investment or not as effective compared to a normal diet with increased calories. The last group is special to me, as it consists of promising supplements that are just at the tipping point of being a great fit for all athletes, not just speed and power athletes.
The Overhyped Supplements
Many common sports supplements are more like candy or non-carbonated sodas disguised as solutions for athletes. While technically a fasted athlete may respond well to anything compared to nothing or a placebo, the effect isn’t exciting versus random food. Simple ingredients like sugar and salt are repackaged as “scientifically formulated,” and conventional meals will likely be just as effective or even better.
I am embarrassed that we even have a category of sport supplements that are nothing more than candy rebranded as fuel because sugar can be marketed now. I am not a sugar fearmonger, but most people, including athletes, need fewer calories in their diet, especially empty ones. We see entire cycling teams and other sports endorsing glorified desserts because everyone thinks of sports nutrition as fueling strategies or similar. We need to move on from fueling and see food and supplementation as something far more important than the gas analogy. I am guilty of using slang like “high octane” and similar analogies, but the best way to move forward is to crack down on sports candies.
Gummies, waffles, and other cheap sugar snacks are hurting the credibility of dietitians because they are part of the problem. I didn’t include bars in this section because some amazing protein options exist, but some do walk the line of being dessert bars. Sports bars are a tricky topic and deserve a full article on their own, but for now it’s easy to point the finger at sports candy. Like muffins for breakfast, manufacturers can repackage desserts with just enough marketing to fool us all.
I perfectly understand the need to get calories if you are an ultra-endurance athlete, but it’s disturbing that so many health clubs have sports gels waiting for their members. It’s almost a conflict of interest, because a one-hour jog will burn less than two packets of energy gels. Elite athletes in speed and power or team sports are not triathletes or marathoners, so they don’t need sport gels.
While some companies have added caffeine and other stimulants, the cost and taste of some of the sports gels renders them not worth trying. Due to the saturation, some companies are trying to use “organic” ingredients like natural sugars and even gourmet salts. Don’t be suckered—just realize that many markets are getting murdered by artisan-style brands and new players in the space like fruit packs and more natural options. If you want convenience, options like applesauce and similar real foods are cheaper and taste better. Many teams are making their own gels, and there are plenty of recipes on the web.
Next to fueling, hydrating is the bane of my existence due to the fact most athletes should not worry about dehydration; they should worry more about overheating. The polarized options that plague the profession make sports nutrition confusing, with some experts dismissing basic dietary habits while other gurus exaggerate claims. “Sports hydration” is a big market, and now it’s considered a lifestyle product category, as they want larger populations to sell to. Some athletes do need to drink more, but again, when we eat meal replacement bars and snacks in place of natural food, water from fruits and vegetables is lost.When we eat meal replacement bars in place of natural foods like fruits & vegetables, we lose water. Click To Tweet
Hydration is big business, including the problems it causes to teeth, so of course misinformation is going to circulate. I wish I could say salty sugar-water is a dying industry, but it’s now being reinvented by some smart people who simply know how to open the wallets of consumers. Drink water and other options, and leave most of the hydration products alone. Some options exist that are practical and useful, but most are trying to stay relevant through bad science and research.
The most common joke in sport with regard to supplements is the expensive urine line, and multivitamins are commonly accepted as a safety belt for a diet. The use of a daily multivitamin has no research to support it, but it’s the most common supplement taken by athletes and regular joes. The core problem with multivitamins is that they try to satisfy everyone, so they include everything imaginable and hope the shotgun approach works.
Many companies use the trick called “label dressing,” where they include either a scientific-sounding name or add trace amounts of nutrients too small to do anything, but which add perceived value to the product. Sometimes the company adds too much to the product, and the percentages of the RDA (recommended daily allowances) for vitamins like B12 are 1000% to excite consumers.Most athletes should blood test to see what they need, as nutrition entails a personalized approach. Click To Tweet
Most athletes should stay away from multivitamins and blood test to see what they need, as nutrition requires a very personalized approach. There is currently a big trend towards omega-3 and vitamin D “stacks,” since the research supports those two nutrients, but additions like vitamin E and other oils are on shaky ground.
The Overpriced Supplements
Technically, the supplements listed here work, but they are not a great value and better budget-friendly options exist. Some products may give an athlete a competitive edge, but in a complete diet those options may not perform as well, thus decreasing their potential value. Finally, many overpriced products are simply too cost-prohibitive to be used with groups or teams, making them luxuries available only for the elites.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
BCAAs were all the rage for training a decade ago, namely because the consumption of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine theoretically reduced central fatigue. I bought into the early research and, while I am still eager to try anything the early science promises, I am slower in suggesting new supplements. BCAAs have some science behind them, but the main issue is the need for amino acids to be used as muscle building blocks, and their price tag makes them not worth it, especially if 26% of whey protein contains BCAAs.
I have never been a believer in BCAAs as a protein source, but even if you were contest dieting, the use of them isn’t going to spare muscle as much as the prep gurus think. If you like using BCAAs during workouts because they’re an alternative to sports drinks, don’t stress out if you have the financial luxury, just realize it’s not a good option for hypertrophy or muscle gain.
Another point to consider is the taste, as BCAAs don’t have a flavor that athletes crave. In fact, their taste is close to a gym sock or sour milk, so compliance is another factor. Instead of having drink blends, some supplements use pills to mask the flavor, but again it’s really up to how they’re made.
Another expensive supplement is HMB, short for β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate. HMB is a metabolite of leucine, an amino acid found in many protein sources. HMB came onto the market in the 1990s and was the next creatine, but after years of follow-up research, it’s just not worth it. I believe it held on and continues to sell because some research shows it does beat the control, but outperforming flavored water or placebo pills doesn’t make it worth a dollar a day. You can better spend that money on supplements that do work, like creatine and vitamin D.
Another theory for HMB’s popularity is the language of some of the marketing hyping its benefits for eccentric damage. The word ”cytoskeleton” and other terms do excite coaches, and even today HMB is being researched. Perhaps the fact that only 1-3 grams are needed to statistically show up in research creates an illusion that it’s more alluring than protein powder, but from a value standpoint, you should invest in another protein option.
Colostrum Powders and Liquids
Dr. Colgan warned us all about colostrum in his book Optimum Sports Nutrition, and that was in 1993! It’s not that colostrum is dangerous or has no value; it’s just not something you should worry about, unless it’s prescribed by a dietician. It does fall into one of those limbo supplements that tends to always confuse coaches due to the warnings from WADA that it could cause problems with testing, even though it’s not on the prohibited list.As of today, colostrum isn’t a supplement worth investing in, as compared to other protein options. Click To Tweet
Like deer antler and other natural products, there is a belief that a product from an animal will be special and increase hormones or trigger muscle growth. Colostrum does have a few theoretical health benefits, but as a replacement or supplement to protein, it’s not going to make any difference in training or competition. I admit that I have been wanting colostrum to show up as a natural way to increase muscle growth or repair, but as of today it’s not a supplement that is worth the investment compared to other protein options.
I am a massive fan of honey and do use the natural food source as part of an athlete’s diet, but beyond basic carbohydrate supplementation, Manuka isn’t going to do much. My conservation background wanted it to succeed because of the honeybee problem, but the science is simply not there. Beyond basic carbohydrate supplementation, Manuka honey is nothing more than artisanal honey. Honey has been researched extensively, but only Dr. Oz and others will rave about any potential health benefits of Manuka honey.Beyond basic carbohydrate supplementation, Manuka honey is nothing more than artisanal honey. Click To Tweet
While wound repair is possible, consuming it as a supplement instead of a local honey isn’t going to do anything different. As for the taste, that is a different story. Different flavors and varieties make it hard to summarize, but it’s too earthy for me, as compared to other options. Manuka honey may take off or die off like bee pollen extract, but for now it’s not worth the extra money.
The Overlooked Supplements
This section will confuse many readers, but think of it like a director’s cut to the first article on supplements. The main reason I didn’t originally include these supplements is because they are just not essential and some are considered more food-like than artificial complements to diets. Two of these supplements—berberine and Rhodiola rosea—are so specific and subtle, they are not staples for the majority of athletes, but they could be key for select periods of time and the right use cases.
The supplement berberine is one of the four overlooked supplements in this article that are worth discussing. The reason I think most athletes don’t take it is because it’s a health supplement that doesn’t connect to anything exciting in research outside fasting glucose. Yet, when it comes down to it, how we metabolize glucose in the body is so overlooked that we are having an international crisis.
Berberine is a simple way to decrease fasting readings of hbA1c and glucose. I recommend some supervision by a registered dietitian, as this alkaloid is not for everyone. Don’t be alarmed as it’s not dangerous, but you should consult a professional before taking any supplement, and that means someone who is an RD that has experience and expertise in sports nutrition.
One final note is the interaction with “gene activation” and suppression hypertrophy. While I admit I am not an expert, using this in the off-season for a month or two might be a good idea to kick-start a body after a long season. I am not scared of this supplement causing muscle loss, but it’s a risk worth exploring in the research.
Watermelon Ultra Concentrate
I thought the cold-pressed juice craze would die out, but it looks like the watermelon hype cycle slowed down so coaches can start budgeting with a purpose. My love affair with watermelon started as a kid, and now there is emerging science on just how valuable this fruit really is. Watermelon science supports the juice as a potential way to increase recovery, mainly from L-citrulline, but 500 milligrams per serving isn’t going to do anything. In fact, you need to drink so much that, from a practical standpoint, watermelon juice isn’t going to be more than a flavor option for athletes.
So, what is the solution? The point where juice ends and citrulline supplementation begins is the reason concentrated forms are interesting. They increase the density of citrulline without adding the malate form, something that triggers a problem with NCAA rules. Advanced techniques with cold-press technology and other parts of the handling of watermelon are driving new products for athletes, like recovery popsicles and shelf-stable options that are nutrient dense.
The watermelon blend includes potassium and lycopene, but focus on the stacking benefits with beetroot juice as those drinks alone are not enough for a major boost. I like adding tart cherry and plan to experiment with currant and cranberry extract to see how post-training connects with both biomarkers and other measures of recovery. Again, I don’t use this as a performance booster by itself because the research doesn’t support it, just as a relaxing agent for explosive athletes looking to add health and smart nutrition to their training.
The most important supplement is actually a food, but since it’s trendy to make fiber a sport supplement now, I will include it as an overlooked option. Many fiber support products exist, and in isolation they are not going to dramatically change the world, but appetite reduction and hunger management do play a role in performance. Surprisingly, the research says the opposite, but the main issue is not that fiber improves satiety—the issue is likely not having enough of it and eating processed foods instead.The easiest way to manage body composition is to psychologically control hunger. Click To Tweet
Several athletes need to stay lean or have a favorable power-to-weight ratio, and the easiest way to manage body composition is to psychologically control hunger. For me, fiber is the secret weapon and we look to plants as a starting point over macronutrients. Most speed and power athletes love protein culturally, so fiber should be attacked with effort as it helps with cravings. Fiber stabilizes blood sugar with diabetics, and a diet rich in fiber (natural) and fiber supplements (processed) is a winning strategy when athletes struggle to get their 20-30 grams or so from plants.
Rhodiola Rosea (Adaptogens)
This final supplement enters the gray area with coaches as it’s both an herbal adaptogen and difficult to get in NSF form. Also, many products are not standardized and those that are available have a dose that is too small for any performance boost. Most coaches will be happy with a change in reported fatigue, but if the research is strong enough to have findings that support it, it makes sense to do it right.
Unfortunately, most companies use a proprietary blend of underpowered adaptogens to label-dress the product so it looks like there’s a lot in it, but it’s just a light dusting of various ingredients that look great on paper but fail miserably when evaluated with strong research. What we have seen during transition phase is a return to vitality, meaning waking up feeling good—not tired and unmotivated.
It’s hard to say beyond basic sharpness (cognition) and fatigue management (stimulant like) what Rhodiola rosea does. The research looked at an array of variables, but to me the feelings of well-being and energy experienced by the military subjects was enough to try it. With its price point, I like what I see, but I hope better research comes out, as this didn’t make the cut for our top ten because most of the research is not on athletes.
Rethink Supplements and Spend Wisely
If you were to pay for an NSF-approved batch of supplements based on what does work, it would cost $3-5 a day per athlete, and that adds up to be quite a hefty price tag. If the supplements that should be bought are a big cost, then products that are not adding nutritional value or performance-boosting effects need to be cut out.Try to stay current with the research, as new supplements may be worth the time and money. Click To Tweet
Food is the ultimate supplement, but from time to time conventional food options are not possible due to allergies, time constraints, and picky eaters. Be a better consumer by doing your homework and staying skeptical—the sports nutrition market is rough to navigate with all the hype and pseudoscience out there. Read the research and stay current, as new supplements that do come down the road may be worth the time and money.