I remember walking out of Holland & Barrett health-food shop, feeling like I’d just committed a drug deal. I briskly left the shopping centre, making sure that no one could see cylindrical container contained within the brown paper bag that I held.
If they were to see what I had be concealing, I thought they may have judged me as a cheat, or at best, a deluded 17 year old, who simply wasn’t aware of the potential dangers of the dreaded... WHEY PROTEIN.
Needless to say, I got home and my parents probably sighed as they asked questions like “What’s that?”, “What are you taking that for?”, “Do you know what’s in that?”, “What’s that going to do for you?”.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I now realise that those questions need to be answered when considering using a supplement (not that there's anything wrong with whey protein). Needless to say, all I knew at the time was that people who were muscular and lean took whey protein, apparently.
Although I don't really think of whey protein powder as a supplement (it is a by-product of cheese-making, after all), it does seem to be the most common thing people first think of when supplements are mentioned. Before I deal with that topic, however, there’s something else to be said first.
How Important are Supplements? Are They Even Necessary?
According to Eric Helms’ nutrition pyramid (a very popular nutrition system amongst many of the top nutrition researchers and coaches), there are 5 main areas that need to be considered in regards to nutrition.
As you go up the pyramid, the level of significance decreases. In it, supplements are the least important area at the top of the pyramid, after energy balance, macronutrients, food quality and nutrient timing.
Does this mean that supplements are useless? Of course not. However, it means that if you aren’t eating enough (or are eating too much), you aren’t eating the correct amounts of protein/fat/carbohydrate, you aren’t getting enough veggies, or aren’t eating at the correct times, then you may be focussing on the wrong thing by looking towards supplements.
So let’s say you’ve gotten all of the other stuff in place, and you feel you’re ready to pursue the last few % of progress (after all, who wants to be leaving any progress of the table?).
Let’s get into a few recommendations.
Supplements for GAA Athletes
1) Protein Powder
While it is completely possible to get your daily protein requirements from food, whey protein (or dairy free alternatives) can be very convenient sources of good quality protein. It is relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare, tasty, and whey, in particular, has an excellent amino acid profile.
One caveat I have to state is that there do tend to sometimes be issues with digestion around whey protein. Firstly, anyone who doesn’t tolerate lactose can have issues, and may be better suited to using a whey protein isolate, which has less lactose, but does cost more, or a dairy-free protein.
Aside from this issue, whey protein is a good protein source, and there is no evidence to suggest there are any negative side effects to consuming it (provided the above issues don’t effect you).
The most common time to use protein powder is after a workout or training session. The idea here is that it can be beneficial to get some protein in after breaking down the muscle, which is true. Since we're usually on the go at these times, convenience and speed tend to be important, and this is where a protein powder can come in. However, protein powder can be used in any meal to increase the overall protein content of a meal, or your protein intake for the day.
Creatine is a nutrient which is naturally produced in the body, and is also naturally found is food like red meat and fish. Creatine is one of the most, if not the most, researched sports supplement there is, and for people who have fully functional kidneys (on whom there isn't a lot of caffeine research done), there haven’t been any negative side effects shown, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think.
In an extremely oversimplified way, I like to think of it like this: there are three main energy systems used int he body: the aerobic system, which predominantly relies on fatty acids and glucose for energy production, the anaerobic system, which predominantly relies on glucose for energy production, and the creatine phosphate system, which relies on creatine phosphate.
The reason creatine supplementation is so effective is because we don’t usually have optimal amounts of creatine stored in our body, and simply topping these up can make a big difference to exercises within that third energy system. The type of exercise it tends to help with is the fast, explosive activities that lasts less than 10 seconds.
For GAA players, this is sprinting, jumping, strength movements in the gym, and other movements that require short bursts of movement. It also causes extra water storage within the muscle, which can cause a gain in bodyweight.
However, it is worth remembering that this gain is not fat, but is simply extra water within the muscles, which is usually a good thing.
Supplementing with 5g of creatine monohydrate (Creapure) is recommended, without the need for a loading period.
It is well known that a cup of coffee can give you that kick to get you going in the morning, but what about in relation to sports performance? Well caffeine has been shown to not only give you that mental kick or motivation before exercise or a sporting event, but also to increase athletic performance, more in endurance based exercise rather than the likes of sprinting.
It is thought that consumption of caffeine mobilises fat from the body, and the fat can then be used as fuel. This preserves the body’s glycogen somewhat, meaning there is more glycogen available as the event goes on. This isn't very relevant to GAA Athletes, since glycogen depletion isn't usually a limiting factor for them, due to the fact that game usually only involve less than 90 minutes of exertion (fitness is more likely to a limiting factor).
However the cognitive effects are likely to have a positive impact on tactical decisions and skills.
Caffeine can also have a beneficial effect on power output, through increasing adrenaline and dopamine production, which is useful in GAA sports.
Caffeine takes about 30–60 minutes to reach peak levels in the bloodstream, but can remain in your system for hours afterwards. This will inform your timing of intake, but should also tell you that it may not be wise to consume if your activity is late in the evening, due to the effect caffeine can have on sleep. Poor or little sleep can have a huge effect on your recovery and fatigue levels, which in my opinion, will have a greater effect on performance that the caffeine hit can offset.
It is also important to mention that you can develop a tolerance to caffeine (particularly for the power output improvements), where you no longer feel the positive effects, so it can be beneficial to save your caffeine consumption for the 2-3 hardest workouts of the week, as opposed to having it everyday.
Supplementation can simply mean knocking back a strong black coffee, a caffeine gel, or even using a caffeine pill or gum. A cup of coffee contains about 100-300mg of caffeine (depending on brew method and other factors). Around that level or more seems to be effective, but it will be important to observe how you as an individual feel best and adapt your intake accordingly. It's probably best to start off low and build up from there, if needed.
4) Fish Oil
Fish oil consumption has been correlated with so many health benefits that supplementing with it is a no-brainer.
Omega-3 fish oil is found mainly in the diet in oily fish (no surprise there), but is unfortunately lacking in the large majority of people’s diets, apart from those who are eating oily fish most days, perhaps.
1.8–3 grams per day of total fish oils per day is recommended, based on the current research.
It is important to look at the total EPA/DHA value on the package of the fish oils, as opposed to the weight of each capsules. For example, each capsule might be 1000mg, but may only contain 300mg of fish oils (it may say 300mg of DHA/EHA on the bottle, or 120g EPA & 180g DHA) meaning you may need 6–10 of these capsules per day, or you can get a higher strength variety, at a higher cost, if you don’t like the idea of swallowing that many pills per day. These should be taken with meals, and can be spread throughout the day.
5) Vitamin D
In the modern world, where we spend most of our time indoors, the sunlight vitamin, vitamin D, isn’t being produced in the body as much as it should optimally be, and vitamin D deficiencies are quite common. For most people, a daily recommendation of 2000–4000 IU seems to be optimal, but getting blood tests to assess individual needs is best. Also, getting outside into the sun as much as possible can help a lot!
6) Magnesium and Zinc
Magnesium, along with vitamin D, is one of those vitamins that most people are generally lacking in, and zinc is a very common deficiency among athletes.
Magnesium also tends to be more depleted with increased intense physical exercise, so it is crucial that athletes stay on top of this, as deficiencies are correlated with many negative health implications, such as muscle cramps, fatigue, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, nausea and even heart disease. Zinc has also been associated with improving general health, as well as mood and depression.
Many people notice that when they supplement with magnesium, in particular before bed, their sleep improves, and also their recovery improves.
The recommended supplemental dose of magnesium is 200-400mg and for zinc is about 20-30 mg. This is usually the amounts used in a ZMA supplement, which can be an easy way of getting both, and is the most common form of supplement of these nutrients. You can also use a magnesium spray, where the magnesium can b absorbed through the skin, although the research is unclear as to which method is better.
7) Beta Alanine
Beta Alanine has been shown to effectively improve the buffering of lactate in the muscles, which can mean putting off that feeling of heaviness in the legs, which can improve performance of exercise within the 30–60 sec range.
One issue with beta-alanine is that, for optimal dosing, taking 400–800mg 4 times per day is required, which can very difficult to be consistent with, for the small potential benefit to performance.
For this reason, I don’t necessarily recommend it, unless everything else is in place first. It can be taken all in one serving of 2-5g, but that can cause a tingling sensation in the skin, which although has been said to be harmless, has yet to be extensively studied.
This is by no means a prescriptive list of supplements that you should be taking. It is simply giving you the information to make an informed decision. And while that may sound like a disclaimer, I genuinely believe you shouldn’t take any supplement without doing your own research.
I also think that you should probably not add a load of supplements at once. This will allow you to notice any effects (positive or negative), and have a better idea of what is causing it, which can advise your future supplementation protocol.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
If you want to get your nutrition and gym-work on point for GAA, check out the Gaelic Athlete Program here: knowyourselfnutrition.com/programs or our online coaching program here: knowyourselfnutrition.com/gaaleanathlete.