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  • Writer's pictureSusie Csorsz Brown

Fact versus Fiction: Nutrition Supplementation

Fact versus Fiction: Nutrition Supplementation

Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world to be sure about is what to put in your mouth. Regular day-to-day nutrition is a possibly complicated enough; fact of the matter is what you eat IS important and directly related to your energy output, your functioning and any physical endeavors on which you may be embarking. Read: if you are planning on being physically active, you need to pay attention to what you are and are not putting in your mouth.

I’ve talked in the past about what the experts are suggesting you eat, and about how to read nutrition labels (here) and the tricks of the trade that food manufacturers might use to get you to reach for their box of product over all of the other similar options (here). I’ve talked about different kinds of fad diets (here). I’ve talked about eating meat or not (here). I’ve even talked about supplements already, but more referring to multivitamins (here) and not those claiming any sort of physical boost.

Keep in mind, there is a wide range of demand we make on our bodies from a ‘normal’ level to the extreme athlete. What I am mentioning here is just food for thought; if you think you would benefit from nutritional supplement, please contact a dietician or nutritionist. Sure, you can find a lot of information online, too, but it’s best to have a look at your specific needs and work to meet them instead of reading a bunch of random bits and then trying to make a collage of supplementation for yourself.

Basic nutrition 101: what you eat your body turns into fuel for your body functions and your activities. The more active you are, the more energy your body demands. Your body relies wholly on three sources of energy: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Depending on the type, intensity, and duration of the activity you are doing, your body will want to rely on different sources.

Supplementing for performance is not a new thing; even as far back as the 1904 Olympics, athletes were encouraged to eat additional eggs to boost performance (brandy was also strongly suggested; not sure how that might impact your marathon results). Further studies in the 1930s on metabolism showed positive results in glycogen stores in the body when specifics nutrients were eaten. From these came several more studies focusing on the role of proteins in athletic performance, and then the demand for sports nutrition skyrocketed spurned by the demand for anything – powder, pill, or gel – that might give a competitive edge. Vitamin research changed from combating diseases to looking at what effect vitamins and minerals might have on athletic performance.

Here’s the thing: powders and pills are not foods. Chemicals and added substances are not foods. Real foods are foods. If what is on your plate spent time in a lab, then likely it is not as good for you as a real food option might be. Powdered anything is not as good for you as, say, the actual live plant might be. Does that mean it is a complete waste of your money? That’s a longer answer.

Remember, we are exploring supplementation for performance here. The first question to ask yourself should be: How is my regular diet? The best way to boost your performance is to meet your nutritional needs on a day-today basis. Nailing the basics will not only make training goals more achievable but will also help improve and maintain general health and well-being.

Basics first. Once we have the nutrition basics nailed down, a couple of other points to make:

First, If you are carrying an extra amount of weight around your middle, no amount of streamlining your training outfit or apparatus will impart the same benefit as losing that extra layer around your middle. If you are a speed biker, for example, and you invest in a carbon frame with super light pedals, and all the lightweight accessories to reduce the weight of your bike and gear, the costly accoutrement will not gain you the benefit as would dropping a few pounds on your actual body weight.

Second, a word of caution: no amount of supplementation is going to make up for poor food choices and inadequate liquid intake. Relying on junk foods (even when topped up with most exotic of supplements) is never going to deliver the benefits of a well-balanced, nutritious, and wholesome diet that emphasizes natural unprocessed foods. So. Focus on your basics first.

Now let’s talk about performance nutrition.

Evidence supports a range of dietary strategies in enhancing sports performance. Generally, I would encourage you to consider combining several strategies to be of greater benefit than one strategy by itself. What do I mean by strategy? Optimizing intakes of macronutrients, micronutrients, and fluids, including their composition, and spacing throughout the day and in relation to your performance period. Read: what you eat, what you supplement, and what you drink, as well as timing or all of the above.

Let’s start with macronutrients. These are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

Your starting point should be a well-balanced high-quality diet with most of your plates being filled with fruits and veggies and whole grains. As a rule of thumb, the darker and more vividly colored a fruit or vegetable, the more health-giving antioxidant protection that food affords.

Your body likes to use stored energy (glycogen) as the most efficient source of energy during exercise. Glycogen is easily metabolized by the brain, nervous system and muscles, and stores can be refilled with the carbs you eat. Your body likes carbs. Full stop. Your body likes to use carbs for energy. Some sources of carbohydrates are better choices, though. And, importantly, what makes a good choice for your day-to-day nutrition might not actually be the best option right before a big event. Your body can store enough glycogen for a 90 – 120 minutes bought of performance. As training volumes rise, (particularly for athletes undergoing endurance training) higher carbohydrate intakes are necessary. The exact needs will be dependent on body mass, training hours per week and training intensity. Additionally, the more you train, the more efficient your body will become at creating stored energy. There are no hard and fast rules on how much extra carbohydrate will be required. When the balance of carbohydrate intake is about right, athletes will be able to undertake their weekly training sessions without experiencing fatigue or heavy/leaden limbs (“hitting the wall”) as the week progresses (indicating insufficient carbohydrate intake). But neither will they feel bloated or gain weight over time (indicating excess carbohydrate intake). In general, your carbohydrates should be as minimally processed as possible, but keep in mind that especially right before a prolonged exercise event, fiber, fillers and too much glucose can cause stomach distress.

There have been several recent studies looking at fat stores as energy for prolonged activity, too (relying on ketosis as a part of the energy cycle). The results of these tests are not as promising as carbohydrate ingestion, especially for activities lasting longer than one hour. What shows the most promise is carbohydrates eaten in the hours prior to exercise to increase glycogen stores and extend time to exhaustion as well as improve exercise performance. Little effect came from eating foods considered to be ‘low glycemic index’. The current recommendation for activities lasting longer than 90 minutes is to consume 10 – 12 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body mas per day in the 36 – 48 hours prior to exercise. For events lasting less than 90 minutes, 7 – 12 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body mass should be consumed in the 24 hours prior to the event.

Recommended levels of protein intake are 0.8 grams of protein for every kg of body weight (roughly 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds), and this amount should meet the needs of general public. The greater the stressors you place on your body (read: endurance training, weightlifting or other resistance training), the greater your protein needs might be, but few studies have shown any benefit from prolonged protein supplementation. In fact, protein supplementation in the presence of adequate carbohydrate intake does not improve performance at all. The most sited benefit of protein supplementation is reduced feelings of soreness and markers of muscle damage. So, it seems the protein will be used for muscle recovery and growth rather than energy. Protein supplementation is an expensive endeavor, and I would recommend discussing the need with a dietitian or nutritionist.

What about fluids?

Hydration is important day-to-day; hydration during exercise – especially extreme or prolonged exercise is even more important. Hydration requirements are closely linked to sweat loss, which is highly variable and individual. Fluid consumption before, during and after exercise is important and recommended. Carefully planned fluid overload may reset fluid balance and increase fluid retention, and, as a result, improve heat tolerance. Sodium losses are often linked to higher temperatures and should be replaced along with fluid. Ambient temperature and humidity also greatly impact fluid and sodium loss levels. Fluid losses greater than 2% of body mass can impair performance; however, drinking while exercising is not always well-tolerated, and one should slowly increase fluid consumption while training instead of doing so for the first time at a competitive event. As a rough guide, aim to start training sessions fully hydrated (urine should be a pale straw color) and then rehydrate fully afterwards. A useful tip for rehydration is for athletes to weigh themselves before and after training/ competition. For every kilo of bodyweight lost, athletes should aim to drink 1.5 liters or more of fluid to replenish the losses. Generally speaking, fluid and electrolyte replacement after exercising can be achieved through normal hydration practices. So, in sum: hyperhydration prior to exercising is good. If longer than 2 hours of vigorous exercise is in your near future, it might be a good idea to get an additional hydration source during your performance period.

The question you are all dying to ask: Do you need a sports drink? As much as Gatorade would like for me to say unequivocally yes, the answer is complicated. IF you are completing a vigorous training session that will last longer than two hours, and IF you have not hyper-hydrated prior to training and IF the ambient temperature and/or humidity are high, then probably, but still maybe, yes.

Also, during-performance nutrition: An athlete completing a longer, more vigorous session will likely benefit from ‘in-session’ nutrition. Does that in-session nutrition need to be a sports drink, or goo, or some other sports bar? Not always. It may be perfectly advisable to meet your increased needs with water and snacks such as dried fruit or bananas (or Smuckers Uncrustables, a favorite workout snack of athlete I know). A properly formulated carbohydrate drink might also be a good bet if your work rate is high. Why? Because these are formulated specifically to be absorbed much more rapidly than whole foods and will cause less gastric distress. Anyone who has doubled over after having been hit by stomach cramps in the middle of a race after downing a cup of water can attest to how uncomfortable that gastric distress can be. These sports formulas give you the micronutrients your body is needing in that period of hard work (read: high stress), and the result is that you will be able to train harder for longer. A word to the wise: try out drink and food options, especially those consumed during performance and especially if the performance is competitive BEFORE the actual event.

A recovery drink has a different formula designed to replenish energy stores, supplying a combination and ratio of carbohydrates and proteins as well as micronutrients that is generally well-tolerated. Recovery from a bout of exercise is integral to the athlete’s training regimen. Without adequate recovery of carbohydrate, protein, fluids, and electrolytes, beneficial adaptations and performance may be hampered. The carbohydrates in the recovery fluid will help restore glycogen stores. This is generally easily accomplished with a carbohydrate-loaded snack or meal following a harder or prolonged workout; however, if there are less than 8 hours until the next exercise session, it is recommended to increase carbohydrate intake for the first 4 hours (so you may need that recovery drink, after all). Additional protein has been shown to enhance glycogen synthesis rates when carb intake is less than ideal.

What about when you eat?

Another thing to consider beyond carbohydrate amounts, is timing of your meals. Athletes eat several times per day, with snacks contributing to energy requirements. For longer events (read longer than 90 minutes), glucose eaten during the event will help provide a source of energy. However, the small intestine’s rate of carbohydrate absorption is greatly reduced (hence stomach cramping issues if eating during a longer event). Sources of carbohydrates in the form of fructose is better tolerated. If you are planning on participating in a longer event, please be sure to try out several carbohydrate options and determine which one works best for you. Beyond taste and texture, look at source of carbohydrates as well as ease of swallowing. Here is where goo or chewy cubes might work better than, say, a crumbly bar.

What about other supplements?

There are so many out there, many are alphabet-soup, and it’s hard to know what one should or should not be reaching for. First, know this: Inadequate regulation in the supplement industry (compounded by widespread Internet sales) makes it difficult for athletes to choose supplements wisely. Further, if you are in a competitive event, the highly unregulated supplement industry and inadvertent contamination of supplements with banned substances increases the risk of a positive doping result. Proceed with caution. That being said, athletes take supplements for many reasons, including for proposed performance benefits, for prevention or treatment of a nutrient deficiency, for convenience, or due to fear of “missing out” by not taking a particular supplement. When used appropriately, these can boost both anaerobic power and endurance performance and are therefore worthy of consideration when athletes are in the competitive phase of their yearly training cycle. However, it can’t be emphasized enough that the potential gains these specialist supplements offer are relatively modest compared to those afforded by proper base nutrition and adequate hydration. Yes, I know, I am a broken record on this. Just know that taking these supplements without the foundations in place will result in nothing more than expensive urine.

So, really, what supplements are good ones? Studies abound about different nutrients. A top few:

· Vitamin D shows promise, especially in the role of maintain a balance of bone health and control of calcium homeostasis, and is also important for muscle strength, control of steroid hormones, and possibly improving athletic performance and improve cardiovascular health.

· Whey proteins have high levels of branched-chain amino acids (which are the preferred type for muscle metabolism). Whey and casein both are often seen in protein powders, though are not interchangeable. Whey is rapidly metabolized into amino acids which casein is slowly absorbed, allowing for a slow sustained release of amino acids over a few hours.

· Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) can be obtained from protein-rich foods. BCCAAs are key components of muscle protein synthesis.

· Caffeine has been shown to be a performance enhancer, especially when consumed as a pre-workout supplement.

· Nitrites and nitric oxide are of interest as effective vasodilators. L-arginine, too, also plays a role in vasodilation (read: more blood to the muscles doing the work).

· Beta-alanine (which is a precursor of carnosine produced in your liver), is thought to have several performance-enhancing functions including the reduction of acidosis, regulation of calcium, and antioxidant properties. This supplement has shown promising results especially in exercises of high intensity lasting 1 to 4 minutes and reducing muscular fatigue in older adults.

· Creatine is a compound found in muscles, that helps produce ATP (an energy source for muscles). This is an especially popular supplement, claiming to enhance exercise capacity and training adaptions for all ages, especially those seeking to increase their muscular volume.

· Electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. They are important for hydration and regulation of nerve and muscle function. The body loses electrolytes through sweating. As mentioned above, if you are exercising for less than an hour, there is little benefit of drinking an electrolyte supplement ‘sports drink’.

See what I mean about alphabet soup? It is confusing and hard to know what to think. I promise you, going to your local vitamin supply shop is not going to offer any clarity, either, as they will push the supplements that give them the biggest payback. Instead, if you can, talk to a professional. The availability of nutrition information for athletes varies. Younger or recreational athletes are more likely to receive generalized nutritional information of poorer quality from individuals such as coaches. If you are looking to be competitive, you would likely benefit from a few sessions with a knowledgeable nutritionist. athletes will benefit from the advice of a registered dietician or nutritionist.

Bottom line: The most important thing you do for yourself when it comes to your athletic performance is to eat a well-balanced diet and stay well-hydrated. Know what you are putting in your mouth and make mindful decisions about what it is doing for you. Sometimes, you really do just need to eat something because it tastes awesome (chocolate cake, anyone?). Sometimes, you need to opt for things that taste great AND are good for you. Real foods are better than powders or pills. And talk to a professional if you feel like your nutritional needs are not meeting your needs.

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I just learned a lot! Thanks for the in-depth article.

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