An Introduction to Sports Supplements
Sports supplements and the wider sports nutrition market generate a tremendous amount of revenue. Some sources report that sales in the protein industry alone generated £260m between 2007 and 2012 and by 2017, this figure could be as high as £8bn. To get to the heart of the matter and clear up any misconceptions about supplements, we talked to Rafik Tahraoui, founder of No Limits, a research-based supplement brand.
In terms of his knowledge and experience, Rafik is a well-established voice in the industry. He has represented Team GB in water polo and handball at the Olympic level, and is currently completing a PhD in Performance Nutrition. He also holds an MSC in Strength and Conditioning and a BSc in Applied Sports Science.
In addition, he is an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach with the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association and has worked with numerous professional and international athletes/teams in various sports including rugby league, football, boxing, MMA (Mixed Marital Arts) and handball.
What are sports supplements?
Sports supplements, also referred to as ergogenic aids, are products used to enhance athletic performance and recovery from exercise. Supplements appear in various forms, from the more traditionally used sports supplements such as protein, amino acids, creatine etc, to those that are used on a general basis such as vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals (made from roots, leaves, bark, or berries of a plant).
What are the benefits of supplements?
There are numerous benefits that sports supplements provide over normal foods, two of the biggest are convenience and rate of nutrient absorption.
Convenience: Whole food should naturally form the foundation of your diet, but in today’s society everybody seems to be busier and busier with less time to cook meals. Therefore, supplements can make a great alternative to typically unhealthy convenience food choices. They can provide a quick and easy option, whether it’s for additional intake of calories, protein, or vitamins and minerals. Additionally drinking a shake post-exercise when supplements need to be consumed quickly is much easier than preparing and eating food.
Absorption: The structure of supplements allows the body to digest and absorb nutrients far quicker than it would normal food. The speed of digestion is crucial post-exercise in order to initiate the recovery process and maximise protein synthesis. Nutrients such as free form amino acids are absorbed the quickest as they do not require digestion and are absorbed into the bloodstream.
In addition to the above, supplements allow you to consume adequate quantities of various nutrients that would typically be difficult to consume through food.
When should you use supplements?
Supplement use will vary between individuals and is based on level physical activity levels, lifestyle, diet etc. An elite athlete who trains intensely multiple times a day will invariably use supplements more than an individual who trains once a day as it is necessary for the athlete to recovery quickly between sessions in order to maintain performance levels. However, an individual that trains once every evening may only require supplements prior to the single training session to increase energy and focus after a day at work and supplements post-exercise to initiate the recovery process.
Are supplements just for men?
For the longest time, companies marketed supplements towards the bodybuilding industry, with campaigns being fronted by large muscular men. In doing so, this created a misconception around who should use supplements, putting off many females from using them. Although there are differences between the male and female anatomy, our organs, muscles and energy systems work the same. It’s also a common misconception that using supplements, particularly after training, will guarantee a bodybuilder’s physique. This is simply not the case however.
The human body changes and adapts to the training/exercise you perform and the food you consume. Sports supplements can help increase the rate of such adaptations through enhanced performance and recovery, but alone they can do very little. So, the desired effect of sports supplements are what you make of them, regardless of gender. Whether you wish to lose weight, build muscle, become fitter and stronger, or improve as an all around athlete, supplements will help you provided your training and diet appropriately support your goals.
What supplements should you use and which are the most effective?
Whey protein – Whey is the widely available type of protein on the market, compared to the likes of casein and soya. It also has a far superior capacity to stimulate the rate of muscle protein synthesis and decrease the rate of protein degradation after exercise. Compared to other forms of protein, whey has a great stimulatory effect – this has been attributed to its high leucine content and rapid rate of digestion. (Campbell et al. 2007)
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – These key amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) enhance protein synthesis and adaptations to training. BCAAs also help to decrease exercise-induced muscle enzyme release, which can often be an indicator of muscle damage – this is achieved by promoting an anti-catabolic hormone profile. They also aide the decrease of protein degradation. (Campbell et al. 2007)
Creatine – It’s thought that creatine monohydrate is one of the most effective supplements available, in regards to its ability to increase high-intensity exercise capacity, and promote lean muscle mass increases during training. Despite the many myths surrounding creatine, it is a safe and highly effective supplement to use. (Buford et al. 2007)
Beta-alanine – This naturally occurring amino acid has great ergogenic potential due to its relationship to carnosine. Carnosine is a dipeptide of beta-alanine and histidine, and is as one of the primary buffering substances available in skeletal muscle. It aides the neutralisation of acid during high-intensity exercise, thus delaying the onset of fatigue. (Trexler et al. 2015)
Caffeine – Caffeine is at its most effective when consumed in an anhydrous form, such as powders, capsules or tablets. It has the ability to cross the membranes of nerve and muscle cells, resulting in neural and muscular effects. One of the primary activity sites of action is the central nervous system – this result in a heightened sense of vigilance during periods of high-intensity exercise. (Goldstein et al. 2010).
Fish oil – To the general public, fish oil has been widely marketed for its cardiovascular effects, such as lowering blood pressure. It is now considered to have an essential place in an athlete’s supplement regimen. Fish oil has the ability to reduce inflammation after intense exercise, decrease body fat, and increase protein synthesis. (Bloomer et al. 2009; Couet et al. 1997; Smith et al. 2011)
Bloomer et al. Effect of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid on resting and exercise-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers: a randomized, placebo controlled, cross-over study. Lipids Health Disease (2009) 19:8:36)
Buford et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2007) 4:6
Campbell et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2007) 4:8
Couet et al. Effect of dietary fish oil on body mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders (1997) 21:637-643
Goldstein et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2010) 7:5
Smith et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperoinsulinemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clinical Science (London) (2011) 121 (6): 267-78
Trexler et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2015) 12:30