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Sports Supplements and Performance

BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

In their effort to enhance energy and optimize performance, many rowers purchase vitamins, herbs, amino acids, and other sports supplements that are reputed to offer a competitive advantage. While a few supplements (beta-alanine, creatine, caffeine, nitrates) might play a small role when added to a well-thought-out fueling plan, no amount of supplements will compensate for a lousy diet. 

Fundamental to every high-performing rower is an effective sports diet. All rowers should be taught from an early age how to optimize their performance using the food-first approach, so they know how best to fuel up, fuel during, and refuel after challenging exercise sessions. Once a young rower has finished growing and maturing and has fine-tuned his or her fitness and rowing skills, some sports supplements might be appropriately introduced with guidance from a knowledgeable professional.

That said, many rowers, to the detriment of their wallets, look for a glimmer of hope from the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry. Consulting with a registered dietitian who is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics would be a better use of money.

Supplements are popular

 A survey of Division I college students (89 females, 49 males) at Arizona State University showed that 77 percent consumed at least one supposed ergogenic aid. Another survey of Army personnel revealed that 75 percent used some type of dietary supplement at least once a week. Protein and amino acids were the most popular, taken by 52 percent of subjects.

Why are so many athletes willing to spend (waste?) a great deal of money on sports supplements? The reasons include improving physical appearance or physique; increasing muscle mass; optimizing general health; and meeting physical demands. Unfortunately, most supplements don’t work. Before you spend your money, please educate yourself about each supplement you plan to buy.

Where to learn more

For information about performance-enhancing supplements, the Department of Defense website Operation Supplement Safety (www.opss.org) offers abundant information for anyone who is curious to learn more. The website includes:

• a list of at least 28 unsafe sports supplements to avoid.

• a list of questions to help determine if a supplement is safe. (Does the label have a “certified safe” seal from Informed-Sport or NSF? Is the label free of the words blend, matrix, proprietary, or complex? Does it make questionable claims?)

• an A-Z index with info about specific supplements, with all you need to know about Adderall, apple-cider vinegar, caffeine, creatine, energy drinks, ephedra, ketone supplements, nitric oxide, omega-3 fats, pre-workouts, pro-hormones, proprietary blends, plus many more.

• information on unusual reactions and adverse effects (nausea, headaches, shakiness, elevated heart rate, mood change, etc.) and how to report an adverse event to the FDA and the National Institutes of Health. 

Another helpful source of information is the Australian Institute for Sport’s ABCD Classification System (www.ais.gov.au/nutrition/supplements). The system ranks sports foods and supplements in four groups according to scientific evidence and practical considerations that determine whether a product is safe and improves sports performance. 

Group A includes specialized products with strong evidence of benefit in specific events, including sports drinks, gels, iron, caffeine, beta-alanine, bicarbonate, beetroot/nitrate, and creatine, among others.

Group B deserves further research. It includes food compounds with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (i.e., tart cherry juice, curcumin, Vitamin C, and collagen, to name just a few).

* Group C lacks scientific evidence to support use. Included are magnesium, alpha-lipoic acid, leucine, and Vitamin E.

Group D includes products with a high risk of leading to a positive doping test: ephedrine, herbal stimulants, pro-hormones, hormone boosters (such as DHEA, androstenedione, Tribulus Terrestris), and others.

What supplements do work? 

Sports supplements that do work improve performance by just a small (but potentially valuable) amount despite carefully crafted advertisements that can lead you to believe otherwise. Case in point: the popular branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically the BCAA leucine, which is known to activate the muscle-building process. Unfortunately, simply activating the process is not enough to promote muscle growth. 

Research indicates BCAAs do not provide any benefits above and beyond the amino acids athletes normally consume when eating protein-rich food at meals and snacks. To see any meaningful muscle-building effect, you need to have many other amino acids present (as happens when you eat real food as opposed to an isolated amino acid), as well as enough calories—and of course, a good strength-training program and adequate sleep. 

Varied responses

Even among supplements that “work,” the response varies greatly from athlete to athlete. 

Case in pointb: beta-alanine, a supplement sometimes used by athletes such as elite rowers, sprinters, and wrestlers to reduce muscle fatigue and improve endurance during high-intensity exercise that lasts for one to four minutes. The varied responses can be related to not only genetics and biological factors but also the power of the mind, the placebo effect, adequate fuel, and enough sleep. Hence, when a supplement does seem to work, it may less about the supplement and more about athletes getting serious about taking better care of their bodies, eating wisely, and getting enough sleep.

Enhancing sports performance may not require rocket science after all.

Sports utritionist Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and her online workshop can help you formulate a winning sports diet. For more information, visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.

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