As an emerging elite athlete, you’re constantly trying to find ways to improve your game. Maybe you can get a step faster, a few pounds heavier or lighter, jump a bit higher, or even make it through the third grueling workout of the day. And believe me – the supplement industry knows this. They take full advantage of your emotional investment in your sport and sell, sell, sell, often with little regard for the rules and regulations. Because yes, a lot of time their stuff does work. But some of these things are definitely not good for you, while others it’s completely fine. In the world of elite sport, everyone is the best at what they do, and that extra 1% really does make a difference. But the penalty for a positive drug test can ban you from competition for years, whether you meant to dope or not. So how can one navigate this complicated minefield and keep from getting blown up?
A small note: supplement use in elite sport is something highly monitored and measured, and in no way should you take what I say here as permission to take something that could put you in jeopardy. This is meant to serve as an informative guide so you can better navigate the waters on your own. No matter who tells you anything, always, ALWAYS do your research, stay informed, and triple check with the authorities.
STEP ONE: Make sure you really do need a supplement
Nine times out of ten, we can get the benefits of a supplement from something that could be classified as “real” food – lean meats, fibrous vegetables, good fats, whole grains, etc. Sure, supplements are easier. You don’t have to cook them, most of the time they’re flavorless or even taste good, and provide a quick fix to your nutrition. But trust me, your body wants real food, not chemicals. Assess your diet first and foremost and see if you can get what you’re looking for by changing the way you eat. For example, if you’re feeling less energized, you may need to eat more carbs full of B vitamins. If you’re not recovering well, make sure you’re getting a carb + protein drink immediately following training as well as enough good fats in your diet. Don’t be fooled by the marketing (or the fact that your buddy Adam from class put on 10 lbs of muscle in a week by taking something you can’t even pronounce). Get your bloodwork done and consult with a doctor to see what you’re really lacking. Chances are, there’s a food for it. And guess what? You’re not going to test positive for eating broccoli. See the end of this article for a list of common issues and dietary fixes.
STEP TWO: Read, know, and understand the guidelines for your sport.
If you’re an international or collegiate athlete, chances are you’ve been through enough anti-doping training that you
could teach the class yourself. But even aspiring Olympians and up-and-coming collegiate stars can never be too careful. If you’re on the cusp, are a recruit, or plan to play elite sport in the future, get educated now. Check the prohibited list for WADA, CADP, USADA, NCAA, or whatever organization your sport falls under. Before you buy anything or ingest a supplement, read the label and check for any of that stuff. There’s even an app for that.
Every sport is different, however, so be sure to double check with your governing body as well as the specific competition. The rules for a domestic friendly match might not be the same as the rules for a World Cup, and things are constantly changing. Stay up to date. Also, know whether or not you’re required to report your whereabouts to WADA because just messing that up can cause big issues. Oh yeah, and there’s an app for that too.
STEP THREE: Only take something that is third party tested and certified
By third party, I don’t mean your third friend. I mean a nationally recognized and accredited organization that specializes in testing substances AND has zero investment in the parent company of the supplement. Because sometimes, even if the specific supplement you’re taking doesn’t have anything prohibited in it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t manufactured at the same place as something that IS prohibited, as a little bit might have snuck in your batch. It’s the same reason they put “may contain traces of nuts” on items that have no nuts in them. If they’re manufactured at a peanut plant, it’s possible a bit of nut got in it and could kill someone with a severe nut allergy.
NSF is a great international, third-party organization with an extensive list of products they’ve tested. If you’re looking to get a protein, creatine, fish oil, etc., I’d start with that list and go from there.
STEP FOUR: Conquer the world.
Look, I don’t mean to scare you away from supplements. They can definitely help, but only if you’re already doing everything else right. There’s no use in adding icing to the cake without an actual cake underneath it. Sure, the icing tastes good, but if you have to choose between an iced cake or just icing for your birthday party… chances are the whole cake will win. That’s how it will be in competition – when it comes down to two athletes with equal skill, size, speed and strength, the athlete who has complete control of his or her diet will beat the one who just took a pill and hoped for the best. Now, let’s get to the good stuff that can actually help the top 1% of you who are doing everything right (congrats for making it here, by the way).
- Protein – athletes typically need more protein than your average Joe, and it can sometimes be difficult to get this through whole food due to satiety. Whey protein is best, but can also use beef protein, casein protein, rice protein, egg protein or soy. An extra 20g during your snacks will do the trick
- Fish oil– Eating lots of fish unfortunately comes with risk of environmental pollutants, and can also be a struggle because it makes you full. 2-3 g of omega-3 rich fish oils per day should be good, maybe more during high training periods.
- Protein + carb drink – Critical to post-exercise recovery from high intensity sessions or games. 2:1 or 3:1 carb to protein ratio (skim milk is a good choice here). The faster you recover, the better you become.
- Beta-alanine – If you participate in any kind of repeated high-intensity training (most team sports, especially rugby, soccer, hockey, etc. as well as cycling, wrestling, middle distance running and more) you’re going to accumulate lots of hydrogen ions in your muscles (acidity) during exercise. Your body does its job naturally to move this out of the cells, but sometimes it can’t keep up with how awesome you are. This is where beta-alanine supplementation can come in handy. It can help buffer those ions out of the muscle cells so you don’t feel as fatigued as fast and can keep up the high intensity work for longer. Usually you have to take these a few times per day for a couple of weeks to let it build up in your system.
- Sodium bicarbonate – does the same thing as beta-alanine essentially, but can be cheaper and doesn’t require a “dosing” stage. Take about an hour before high-intensity training or competing with water for benefits.
- BCAA’s – can be used to replenish energy, help restore glucose levels, fatty acid, muscle tissue, aid immune function, and more. Basically, it helps you recover from the intense stress of training. Take during/immediately after a workout
- Greens supplement – high in antioxidants, full of vitamins and minerals and can help maintain the alkalinity to balance training/diet acidity. This is also a great option to get your “veggies” when traveling, as it can be difficult to pack asparagus, cabbage and an entire pumpkin in your suitcase.
- Multivitamin – Sort of a fail safe for deficiencies. This is where getting your bloodwork checked would come in handy. A multivitamin doesn’t replace vitamins from real foods, but rather can fill gaps if you’re traveling or otherwise struggling to get enough
- Creatine – Helps regenerate ATP (energy) during quick, powerful movements such as heavy lifting or short sprinting. Requires a loading phase so take with care. No need to go more than 5g/day to get benefits.
- Melatonin – helps you fall and stay asleep, which is a crucial part of good recovery. 1 to 3 mg of melatonin before sleep should help, but may cause drowsiness in the morning
Here’s a short, nowhere-close-to-exhaustive list of some common issues and dietary fixes:
- Muscle spasms/cramps: Calcium, magnesium or Vitamin D
- Eat: whole grains, mixed nuts, avocado, banana, salmon, black beans, broccoli, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt, egg yolk
- Lack of energy: Vitamin A, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, B6, B7, B9, B12… really all the B vitamins.
- Eat: oats, green leafy veggies, salmon, avocado, onion, berries, cauliflower, eggs, halibut, peanut butter, asparagus, beets, mushrooms, yogurt, lentils, tomatoes, eggplant, sunflower seeds, red/yellow peppers, carrots, pumpkin, squash, mangoes
- Muscle fatigue: high acidity/difficulty buffering out acids during exercise
- Eat: Baking soda. Yep. Or make your diet more alkaline.
- Sleep issues: Trouble falling/staying asleep, changing time zones
- Eat: Tart cherry juice and avoid blue light before bedtime. TCJ has naturally occurring melatonin (and great antioxidants) to help your body’s natural production when circadian rhythms are off. Additionally, making your environment as dark as possible when it’s time to sleep naturally triggers the pineal gland to produce this hormone.
- Need to put on mass: more calories of lean meats, good fats and whole grains
- Eat: whole milk, avocado, lean beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, salmon, quinoa, brown rice, millet, amaranth, full fat cottage cheese, mixed nuts, etc
- Looking to maintain/lose body fat: better calorie management
- Eat: more filling, calorie dense foods such as fibrous fruits and vegetables, beans, lean meats, lots of water, etc