Sports Supplements: Do They Really Improve Performance?
We begin a series of articles that will help you not to lose the north in the world of supplements and ergogenic aids. What are they, what are they for, how should they be taken, what dosages are appropriate, and the most important question of all: which ones work and which ones don’t.
Before starting, two reflections that seem fundamental to me. The first: ergogenic aids are useless if there is no planned and constant training . No matter how much whey protein we take, if the muscle does not receive the adequate stimuli it will not help us.
The second: in the vast majority of cases, athletes do not need these aids or supplements , because the intensity and frequency of our physical activity do not justify it. A good diet will provide us with everything we need to satisfy the small extra demand generated by sports practice. Now, if you have brutal training sessions every day, if you are an ultrarunner, or a medium or long distance triathlete (to name a few sports, but there are others), if you compete, then they do make sense, always in the right measure and within the context of an adequate diet based on quality food: it does not make much sense to take ergogenic aids, which would become the roof of the building, if the foundations are not solid enough.
How do I know they work?
Ergogenic aids (from the Greek, «ergos», work, and «genan», generate) aim to improve the athlete’s performance, either by optimizing the sport practice itself or by improving the body’s recovery processes to back to 100% the next workout. But there is a very big difference between those that say they work (the market for sports products is full) and those that actually work. How do you know?
To begin with, if you believe the labels, you are not doing well: although there are brands that work with commendable rigor, most of them promise that we will end up becoming Schwarzenegger, Ledecki or Bolt in a month and then they are not up to the task. Do not trust. The best thing is to put yourself in the hands of a good nutritionist who specializes in physical activity who knows well the scientific evidence behind the products: at DiR we have many who will advise you very well and adapt to your particularities. This is very important, because the evidence does not assure us that a product always works, it tells us that it works in most cases , since there is a huge individual variability of responses that we must also take into account.
It is also very possible that a product without scientific evidence works and this could be for two reasons: the first, unusual, is because this evidence is about to be obtained or there are not enough studies; the second that it works due to the placebo effect, which is usually the most common explanation and that is what is hidden behind “It works for me.” The «It works for me» was born thousands of years ago, with warriors who ate gazelle meat or lion’s heart with the belief that this would make them faster or stronger and quickly moved to the first Greek athletes.
Be vigilant with products “It works for me” that have no evidence, because they can put health or, what is worse, contain illegal substances that can lead to a suspension from sports practice if you compete. Those who are against supplements because they are “chemical”, remember that there are many foods and substances that do not come from chemical synthesis that improve performance and that are perhaps worth knowing, such as the humble beet juice, or the cherry acid, which have excellent results if used properly. Yes, the beet juice of a lifetime is an ergogenic aid with scientific evidence!
What types of scientific evidence are there?
All these products are classified into four groups, depending on the degree of evidence they have.
- Group A. They are products of evidence agreed by the scientific community. The list is surprisingly short considering the offer on the market and may vary depending on the body that publishes it.
- Group B. There are studies on its possible efficacy, but they are not enough to make general recommendations.
- Group C. They have limited efficacy detected in some studies or have no efficacy. They are best avoided.
- Group D. They are prohibited substances, either because they test positive in an anti-doping control or because they are harmful to health.
All this is not usually talked about, in the labels. To find out which products they are, you can consult the website of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) or the EFSA; there are small differences, but they are good references. Anyway, we will talk on the DiR blog in future articles. And since it seems like everyone has gone crazy over coffee these days, let’s start with caffeine. Works? I’ll tell you soon.