Sports supplements: a guide to sports drinks, health products and muscle builders

How many of these fancily packaged and extravagantly advertised products actually work?

sports drink

In recent years, there’s been an explosion in the quantity and types of sport supplements available and the sports supplement industry is now estimated to be worth a staggering 15 billion US dollars a year. But how many of these fancily packaged and extravagantly advertised products actually do what they say on the tub or sachet?

More importantly, are they worth parting with your hard-earned cash for, or are they nothing more than modern witchcraft? In this article, we’re going to look at the main product types out there, explain how they’re supposed to work and how effective they’re likely to be.

First things first

Although it’s true that some sports supplements can help you maximise the gains from your workout, the fact is that no amount of supplementation can substitute for a poor diet – all you’ll achieve is very expensive urine and a severely depleted bank balance. Therefore, before you even begin to think about using sports supplements, you need to ensure you’ve sorted out your dietary basics.

Supplement basics

Before you even consider using sports supplements, you need to ensure that your dietary basics are right. Don’t fall into the ‘performance in a bottle syndrome’, and delude yourself that a junk diet is OK so long as you’re taking fancy and expensive supplements. Many of the naturally-occurring, performance-giving substances in food have yet to be properly identified and aren’t found in even the most advanced supplements, no matter how exotic. Then there’s cost. Sports supplements aren’t cheap; could that money be better spent on increasing the quality of your diet in the first place?

The bulk of your diet should be comprised of whole, natural unprocessed foods, rich in unrefined carbohydrates (to fuel exercise), and high-quality fruits and vegetables, with minimal intakes of refined, processed, sugary or fatty foods. Proper hydration is crucial too, and you should be drinking plenty of fresh water.

Any supplementation should be carefully targeted to your individual needs. For example, if moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is your main fitness pastime, there’s little benefit in shovelling down bucketloads of creatine, which only helps boost short-term, high-intensity energy pathways. Beware of exotic and fancy claims: evidence for the efficacy of many so-called wonder supplements is sparse. If the claims sound too good to be true, they probably are.

Finally, don’t think that even with the perfect diet and the best sports supplements, you’ll notice the benefits if your training programme is not right and you don’t allow yourself adequate recovery.

But let’s assume you’ve got your diet sorted, are training hard, have it all planned out and you want to make the most of your efforts. Which sports supplements should you consider using and what benefits could they offer? The answer depends very much on your training, your sport and your exercise goals. Endurance activities such as running and cycling will require more emphasis on energy and fluid replacement, whereas strength and power sports - such as bodybuilding, sprinting and wrestling - will require more emphasis on muscle gain and maintenance.

However, some products – such as recovery drinks - can be useful across the board. For the sake of convenience, we’ll divide these products into the following categories:

•    Energy replacement (eg, carbohydrate drinks)
•    Fluid replacement (eg, electrolyte drinks)
•    Recovery (eg, combined protein/carbohydrate drinks)
•    Protein and strength/muscle gain (eg, creatine and protein drinks)
•    Fat burners
•    Health and protection (eg, vitamin/mineral supplements, antioxidants)

It’s important to understand that many products span more than one of these categories. For example, many fluid-replacement drinks contain useful amounts of energy-replacing carbohydrate; while recovery drinks proper often combine protein and carbohydrate with electrolyte minerals and vitamins and minerals. 

Energy replacement drinks

Energy replacement drinks aim to supply carbohydrate in a rapidly absorbable form, to help provide fuel for hard-working muscles during vigorous exercise. Most energy drinks contain a combination of quick-releasing simple sugars and slower-releasing longer-chain sugars, to provide a quick-acting, yet sustained increase in blood sugar, which in turn helps keep muscles fuelled. There’s a mountain of evidence to show that muscles can store only enough carbohydrate (or more specifically glycogen – a form of carbohydrate) to fuel around 1½ to 2 hours of high-intensity exercise; when muscle glycogen stores start to become depleted, there’s a sudden and often dramatic drop in performance.

Trying to replenish carbohydrate using conventional high-carbohydrate foods (eg, bread, pasta, potatoes, etc.) while on the move is almost impossible; not only does digestion slow down the rate at which the released carbohydrate comes ‘on tap’, most people also find it impossible to consume solid food during vigorous exercise without suffering from stomach cramps, abdominal bloating and so on. In contrast, energy drinks can be drunk on the move without causing abdominal distress, and can therefore help to prevent glycogen depletion during endurance training/events.

Recommended for: anybody who performs large volumes of training, particularly where workouts last 90 minutes or more - such as runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes, rowers, etc - and those who need to train for shorter periods, but more than once a day. However, if you train less than this, a decent high-carbohydrate diet will almost certainly provide all the energy you need. 

Fluid replacement drinks

Fluid replacement drinks supply fluid to hard-working bodies. In addition to water, electrolyte minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride are provided. Not only do these help to maintain normal physiological processes overall, but have particular side benefits - for example, sodium also stimulates thirst and increases the physiological drive to drink; and studies have shown that small amounts of glucose increase the rate of fluid absorption from the small intestine into the body, especially where the rapid intake of fluid into the body is important, eg during exercise in hot conditions.

Recommended for: anybody who exercises vigorously for more than an hour in hot or humid conditions. Conversely, those who exercise at more moderate intensities in cooler conditions have little to gain, as do those whose exercise sessions last less than one hour. In these circumstances, fluid from plain water and minerals from foods in the diet will normally be more than sufficient. 

Recovery drinks

Recovery drinks are taken immediately after training and supply carbohydrate for the synthesis of muscle glycogen, and amino acids (protein) to replace and rebuild muscle fibres broken down during training. Studies have shown that the two hours after training are a window of opportunity, during which your muscles behave like sponge, soaking up what they need to power you through your next workout and build new muscle. Recovery drinks aim to supply precisely the right combination and ratio of carbohydrates and proteins, at the right time and in a form that’s convenient to prepare, easy to drink and rapidly assimilated.

Recommended for: anybody who trains seriously - including aerobic power and strength athletes; those doing high volumes of training, where the need to continually replenish muscle glycogen and avoid excessive muscle tissue breakdown is crucial; and even recreational trainers, who may find it hard to get a really well-balanced meal down their neck immediately after training. 

Strength- and muscle-building products

Strength and muscle-building products tend to fall into two sub-categories: protein-based drinks with added ‘anabolic’ (stimulatory) ingredients; and stand-alone products such as creatine, and the amino acid metabolite HMB.

Protein drinks supply large amounts of easily assimilated protein to help muscle tissue rebuild after and between training sessions. The theory is that normal balanced diets struggle to meet protein needs for those who train hard; however, a number of comprehensive scientific studies into protein nutrition have produced rather inconclusive results for the benefits of protein drinks, especially where the basic diet (and protein content) is already good.

Creatine is a different matter. Taking supplemental creatine has been shown unequivocally to increase the size of the creatine phosphate reservoir in the muscles. Creatine phosphate is a body compound that provides energy for short-duration exercise, such as weight training, so the potential of creatine supplements is obvious. Creatine phosphate also boosts the regeneration of ATP (the body’s universal energy-producing compound, ie, under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions), helping you to sustain high-energy bursts for longer and recover more rapidly between bursts. This in turn translates into better performance during intense exercise; and, because it enables greater training intensities, it also helps to produce an increased training response; eg, increased muscle growth after resistance training.

There are also a number of other ‘strength’ products out there that purport to help build muscle (eg, HMB, glutamine, AAKG and so on). However, the scientific evidence for the efficacy of many of these products is much less solid and (especially if you’re on a budget) you may be better to save your money.

Recommended for:

  • Protein – strength and power trainers who may struggle to maintain an adequate dietary protein intake (around 1.5-2g of protein per kilo of body weight per day). However, for many trainers, a recovery formulation (which also supplies carbohydrate) could be a beneficial option;

  • Creatine  – anybody who trains seriously and incorporates intense stop/start activity in their training, eg sprinting, interval training, weight training/lifting and endurance athletes seeking a bit of extra ‘kick’ for the line. It can also benefit vegetarians, whose dietary creatine intake tends to be quite low.(Note: older athletes and people with kidney problems should consult their doctors before supplementing with creatine.)
     

Fat burners

Fat burners are tablets or capsules that aim to help your body utilise more fat for fuel, thereby assisting the process of fat loss as part of a weight management plan. However, the ingredients in these formulations can vary wildly: from nutrients with good supporting evidence for their efficacy, to those without, and even to substances that are banned from sport. Taking a fat-burning product without first having in place a properly structured exercise programme that includes plenty of aerobic exercise and resistance training, and a well-balanced eating plan, is therefore a complete waste of time! As an added hazard, some of these formulations contain high levels of stimulants such as caffeine, which can cause unwanted side effects with prolonged and continual use. Note: exercise can in itself regularly boost metabolic rate by up to 20%.

Recommended for: occasional, judicious use to help lower body fat for a specific target - for example, in preparation for competition, or to help shed weight after a layoff. However, in most cases, manipulation of your diet and exercise regime will be a far safer and more effective strategy to lower body fat. 

Health and protection products

Health and protection products include vitamin/mineral formulations and antioxidants. The purpose of these products is to keep the body healthy to withstand the rigours of training in both the short and longer-term. Vitamin and mineral supplements aim to top up nutrients that may be short in the diet. Research shows that even with ‘well balanced’ diets, many people in the West have borderline intakes of nutrients, such as zinc (involved in protein turnover and growth and immunity), iron (oxygen transport), magnesium (energy production via ATP synthesis) and omega-3 fatty acids (immunity, energy regulation and brain function) to name but a few. Recent research on dietary antioxidants has shown that not only do they help maintain health in the longer-term, but they may also help reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and post-exercise soreness, boost recovery and even enhance training performance.

Recommended for: anybody interested in maximising their overall health and enhancing potential performance gains in the longer term. 

So there we have it. Hopefully, this information will help you find your way through the ‘sports nutrition maze’! Remember though, the core of good sports nutrition begins in your kitchen with the foods you eat, not at the pharmacy or sports shop!

Andrew Hamilton BSc Hons, MRSC ACSM is editor of Peak Performance newsletter, a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American College of Sports Medicine, and a writer/consultant to the fitness industry, specialising in sport and performance nutrition

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