I remember walking out of Holland and 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. Needless to say, all I knew at the time was that people who were muscular and lean took whey protein, apparently.
Although it’s a bit of debate as to whether whey protein powder should actually be categorised 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 the 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. I will discuss the table in other articles, but as can be seen here, supplements are the least important area, in comparison to energy balance, macronutrient manipulation, micronutrition and meal 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.
Some supplements are inter-linked with some of these areas, for example, whey protein may help you to hit your correct macronutrient targets, or a multivitamin may help with your micronutrient intake etc, but overall, getting the big things in check first is going to serve you best.
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.
While it is completely possible to get your daily protein requirements from food, whey protein can be a very convenient source of good quality protein. It is relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare, tasty, and has an excellent amino acids 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.
Using a dairy-free protein powder can also be an option here.
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).
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, 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 fat and carbohydrates for energy production, the anaerobic system, which predominantly relies on carbohydrates 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 exercise 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) can be recommended, without the need for a loading period.
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.
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.
The alertness and neurological effects also seem to have a positive impact on athletic performance.
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 far greater effect on performance that the caffeine hit can offset.
It is also important to mention that you can develop a tolerance to caffeine, where you no longer feel the positive effects, so care has to be taken as to not over-consume.
Supplementation can simply mean knocking back a black coffee or strong green tea, a caffeine gel, or even using a caffeine pill or gum. A cup of coffee contains about 100mg 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.
Whilst we should be able to get most of our vitamins and minerals from food, a multivitamin can be a cheap nutritional insurance, just in case we are missing anything from the food we are consuming.
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 seem to be all too 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 as much as possible can help a lot!
Magnesium, along with vitamin D, is one of those vitamins that most people are generally lacking in.
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.
Many people notice that when they supplement with magnesium, in particular before bed, their sleep improves, and also their recovery improves.
I recommend using a magnesium oil spray, as you get the added benefit of applying it in the area that is most fatigued, which can help with recovery of that area of the body. The magnesium can then also be absorbed through the skin, used to improve the magnesium levels in the body and be used in a multitude of ways in the body.
Beta Alanine has been shown to effectively improve the buffering of lactate in the muscles, which can improve performance of exercise within the 30–60sec 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 also causes a tingling sensation in the skin, which although has been said to be harmless, has yet to be extensively studied.
BCAA (Branch-chained amino acids)
Amino acids are basically what protein is made up of. When we ingest protein, it is broken down into amino acids. The branch-chained amino acids are leucine, isoleucine and valine.
These amino acids are contained within most other good food-based protein sources, as well as in whey protein. If sufficient protein is already in the diet, then BCAA supplementation may not give any additional benefit.
However, if protein intake is less than optimal, and/or, for some reason, a whey protein isn’t suitable for the individual, then supplementing with 10–20g of BCAA pre- post- of intra- exercise, may be recommended, depending on the timing of other food intake.
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 adding more than one supplement to your intake at a time is not the way to go. This is because if you’re to notice any effects (positive or negative) you won’t know which supplement, if any, is causing it.
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