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Sport Supplements: Are They Enough to Gain a Performance Benefit?

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Sport supplements are sexy. They promise improvements to performance, strength, or maybe what your body will look like. Supplements are the quick fix that our culture thrives.

But what is a sport supplement? Why do you (possibly) need one? Are you taking your supplement correctly? And are you consuming exactly what you think you’ve purchased?

We’ll walk through these questions below.



What is a Sport Supplement?

A major part of my job as a sports dietitian is to prepare an athlete for competition, fuel them while they’re competing, and to help them recover nutritionally thereafter, so that they’re ready for their next competition or training session.


There’s an assumption from athletes that a dietitian’s role is to provide a concoction of supplements—but for many athletes (depending on sport and event), this is far from the truth.

A sport supplement is meant to supplement an already healthful diet. Supplements include specific factors that—taken in the right dose and at the right time—are meant to improve some performance measure. Sport supplements can be in bar, chew, gel, gum, liquid, pill, or powder form.

A few considerations:

  • For some supplements, the more trained you are the less effective (if at all) supplements are for improved performance.

  • Whole foods provide a bounty of other nutrients and factors that provide more than supplements. For instance, dairy milk provides the slow-acting protein casein, calcium, and vitamin D, whereas whey protein isolate is mainly whey protein.

  • Supplements aren’t a cure all for a garbage diet: If you don’t eat breakfast, snack on chips and candy, binge-drink on alcohol, and think a supplement like creatine is going to make you a more explosive athlete, you’re wasting your money and aren’t focusing on the core issue of what’s holding you back from your potential.

Why Do You Need a Supplement?

If the main reasons include my friend, roommate, or favorite Instagram influencer uses the supplement; it tastes good; you heard or read about it somewhere; you exercise; and/or you saw an athlete or weightlifter taking it, reconsider your why.

With the assumption that your diet is in check and you want to supplement your healthful fueling for a sport-specific reason, a supplement may be appropriate for you.

A few examples of why some healthful eaters may need a supplement:

  • Marine-based omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA): Potential role in concussion (e.g., soccer, football) and general injury management.

  • Beta-alanine: Best for delaying early-onset fatigue (that “acidic” feeling in the muscles) for all-out exercise. Best for events under 30 seconds, but has benefits through 10 minutes of consistent exercise (e.g., running, swimming).

  • Caffeine: Improves mental alertness and concentration, delays fatigue, and can also help athletes suffering from jet lag.


Are You Taking the Supplement Correctly?

So now that you’re eating healthfully and still believe a supplement is appropriate for your sport, event, and goals, are you taking the correct dose and at the correct time to reap the benefits?

We hear about the importance of how much protein to consume after exercise (~0.25-4 grams protein per kilogram body weight), but then when it comes to specific supplements the same interest in specific dosing seems to become irrelevant.

Let’s walk through three examples.

Example #1: Proprietary Blends

Proprietary blends are for companies to say that their specific product—and only their product—will give you the best benefit because of a mystery slew of ingredients.

I can’t stand these because although they list what is in the blend, they don’t provide the specific quantity breakdown of each of the blend’s ingredient. It’s a smoke screen.

For instance, a supplement I recently reviewed listed the following proprietary blend:

Company X Performance Blend 3.941 g

  • Beta-alanine, citrulline malate, conjugated linoleic acid powder, L-carnitine tartrate, sodium citrate, fruit extract, magnesium chloride, dipotassium phosphate.

In the above blend, my eyes immediately go to beta-alanine. Research shows its recommended dose for performance benefits is 3.2-6.4 grams per day* (or 65 milligrams per kilogram body weight). Athletes begin to reap the benefits when taken every day over a period as short as two weeks through as long as 12 weeks (a huge range!).

Yet in the blend, we don’t know if each serving of this supplement provides 0.5 grams of beta-alanine, 3.9 grams, or somewhere in between. This isn’t helpful.

Pass on proprietary blends and look for supplement companies who are straightforward with their consumers and are proud of what they have to offer.

*Beta-alanine's side effect is tingling. Some athletes dislike this, so you can split the total dose into smaller ones throughout the day.

Example #2: Beet Root (Nitrates)

Type of exercise: Typically 12-40 minutes of either prolonged submaximal exercise effort (e.g., a 5-kilometer run) or high-intensity, intermittent, short-duration efforts (e.g., basketball).

Dose:

Timing: Roughly 2-3 hours before you want the effects to kick in (e.g., an hour before basketball tipoff to reap the “second wind” during the third and fourth quarters).

Caveats:

  • Nitrates are a great example of the more trained the athlete is, the less of a benefit (if any) they may gain from beet root supplementation.*

  • When you consume nitrates, the body eventually produces nitric oxide (NO), which is what’s beneficial for performance. The chemical reactions to create NO begin in the mouth via bacteria—bacteria that is destroyed by anti-bacterial mouthwash. If you’re consuming beet root juice or powders, but also anti-bacterial mouthwash, you’re defeating the purpose of this supplement.

Dietary sources:

  • Ensure you're including nitrate plants in your diet.

  • Very high in nitrates (>250 mg nitrates per 100-gram serving): Celery, red beets, spinach (1 cup = 900 mg), and arugula.

  • High in nitrates (100-250 mg nitrates per 100-gram serving): Collard greens (½ cup cooked = 200 mg) and leaf lettuce (1 cup = 100 mg).

*This could also be due to using a product that lacked the appropriate dose. Again, see the Gallardo & Coggan (2019) paper that's linked above.

Example #3: Plant-based Protein

I’m all for plants and think the supplement industry is doing a good job accounting for those athletes who choose to forego dairy. Unfortunately, "plant based" has become a popular marketing strategy.

What plant proteins have similar muscle-building properties as whey protein isolate? You need to consider the following:

  • Is there an adequate dose of total protein? Check out the number listed on the "Protein" line of the label.

  • How much leucine does the plant option offer? Leucine triggers muscle building.

  • Are all of the essential amino acids needed for muscle building present? Once leucine has turned on the muscle-building engine, are the other amino acids present to actually build muscle?

Just because the label reads plants, doesn’t make it an equal substitution for whey protein.

Dose:*

  • At least 20 grams protein per serving.

  • Contains 3 grams leucine (not always listed, but great if it is).

  • Type of protein: Pea or soy protein.


If a “protein blend” is listed and doesn’t list the quantity of protein derived from pea and/or soy protein, try a different brand.


Reasoning: Pea and soy protein are pretty comparable to whey protein in their quality amino acid profile (read my pea protein blog here). That means you’ll reap similar muscle-building outcomes. If brown rice, pumpkin seed, and other plant proteins are listed, you’re likely purchasing a low-quality product.


*This matters most if the powder is your only protein source immediately after exercising. If you're having a meal in an hour that includes higher-quality proteins (e.g., eggs for breakfast), then you're fine. Granted, if you're eating in an hour, is a low-quality product ever worth your money?

Third-party Certification: Are You Consuming the Product You Think You Are?

These supplements tend to cost a little extra, but that’s because of the voluntary program that companies pay into to ensure their supplements:

  • Are free of banned drugs.*

  • Contain only those ingredients listed on the label (and nothing more).

  • Contain the specific dose of each ingredient listed on the label.

You as the consumer are paying more to know that your money is being spent on what you’re expecting to receive (i.e., you’re paying for and receiving a brand-new Tesla, not a second-hand Ford Fiesta disguised as a brand-new Tesla).


Recommended third-party certifiers include:

When I worked in Major League Baseball, the agreement between owners and athletes were that all supplements had to be NSF Certified for Sport. If an athlete approached me with a creatine monohydrate supplement that wasn’t certified by NSF Certified for Sport, or certified at all, it was a hard no.

*If you’re an athlete involved in a sport/program that drug tests, make sure you understand what supplements and drugs will lead to failed drug test. If your sport abides by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), check the list here, which is updated at least annually.

Take-home Message: What Can you First Accomplish with Your Diet?

Remember the, “if I can’t pronounce or don't know what an ingredient is I won’t eat it,” saying when analyzing what we eat? We've becoming increasingly aware of what's in our whole foods, but have turned a blind eye to what’s in our supplements.

Here are the steps to take when interested in a sport supplement:

  • Talk with a sports dietitian: Look for the credentials RD (registered dietitian) and, ideally, CSSD (certified specialist in sports dietetics). An RD can review if you’re meeting the basics of a healthy diet (i.e., likely to have greater effects on performance than adding one supplement). I call out CSSDs because they're hyper-specialized in sport and its nutrition research. Similar to the specialities of an orthopedic surgeon versus an oncology doctor, CSSDs have further experience in the sport field to provide optimized solutions.

  • Seek out a third-party certified brand, especially Informed Sport and/or NSF Certified for Sport.

  • Purchase a product with the correct dose of whatever factor you're interested in.

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