The supplement industry has been growing rapidly last year and is expected to keep growing 1. In itself, this is not a problem as supplements are meant to improve health and enhance performance. However, much of the promised benefits of supplements are not backed up by science. Some supplements are even dangerous as they are contaminated or do not contain what is stated on the label. Enough reasons to write a comprehensive outline of supplementation.
Ergogenic supplements can be divided into two categories: those that enhance performance in all individuals and those that enhance performance for individuals that have a shortage in this nutrient.
In the latter category, one should think about water, vitamins, and minerals. A varied diet with plenty of whole foods does the trick in this case2. It will provide you with sufficient micronutrients. Supplementation beyond the recommended daily allowance won’t provide you with any extra benefits 3. In contrast, too high doses of vitamins and minerals can even harm health and performance. The only situation where supplementation of vitamins and minerals is suggested is where a blood test has shown big deficiencies. Deficiencies mostly likely occur in athletes following a strict diet plan, being or having been injured / ill and athletes following a vegetarian diet (more on how to eat as a vegetarian will follow in a later article)4.
Then some supplements improve performance in healthy individuals that follow a proper diet. Based on advertisements of the supplement industry one might expect a 10-page list. However, this couldn’t be further away from the truth; there are only TWO legal supplements that improve performance in healthy individuals:
CAFFEINE: its benefits have been proven for endurance-related sports, stop and go sports (e.g. tennis, football) and sports involving sustained high power output for 1-60 minutes (e.g. rowing, track cycling). Time to exhaustion increases by 10-20%, speed endurance for 1-3 minute activities is improved, perceived fatigue decreases and reaction time is improved5. The effect of caffeine on single event maximum output sports (e.g. 100-meter sprint, weightlifting) is unclear. The recommended dose to experience these benefits is 3-9 mg/kg, taken 30-90 minutes before physical activity. This amounts to approximately two cups of coffee and guarantees that the caffeine concentration in your urine isn’t above the threshold set by the WADA6. Athletes wanting to take their supplementation to the next level could consider the fact that doses close to 9mg may be more beneficial for activities close to their 1 rep max while doses closer to 3mg should be used for endurance-related activities 7. There are three more things to be aware of. First, it is not suggested to take greater doses than the recommended amount as this may result in negative side effects such as headaches, anxiety, elevated blood pressure & heart rate and worse. Secondly, energy drinks are not suggested as these contain other substances of which its interaction effects with caffeine are unknown.8 Lastly, if you consume caffeine often, you may do good to cycle off caffeine 4 days before an important event and use it at the day of the event again: the experienced performance-enhancing benefits will be greater by employing this strategy9.
CREATINE: is the most research supplement and has been shown to improve performance on high-intensity exercise and resistance training. Its benefits are increases in strength by up to 20-25%, increases in total work capacity, +/- 1 kg increase in lean mass due to water retention, and faster recovery. Endurance athletes may not benefit from creatine supplementation as the reported benefits do not outweigh the increase in mass. A loading phase of 5 days taking 20 grams per day is recommended to saturate creatine stores. After that, daily doses of 2-5 grams are recommended to maintain this concentration. Some people may experience digestive problems during the loading phase. However, this is most likely a result of failing to dissolve creatine in a beverage, taking it on an empty stomach or not taking it in separate doses during the day. To avoid these digestive problems: one could take 5 grams of creatine a day. In this scenario, it will take up to a month to saturate the stores but no side effects will be experienced.10 All other anecdotal evidence about negative side effects has never been backed up by science. No negative long-term effects on the kidneys have been reported after 21 months of consecutive creatine usage either 11. However, creatine use has been linked to an increase in DHT which may be linked to baldness12. This evidence is not super strong but if baldness is common in your family, you might not want to use creatine. I find that long term research is not that extensive and convincing yet. I couldn’t find any study on side-effects from for example 50 years of creatine use. However, no claims about side effects have been proven until now. So, for now, I would say that creatine should be safe to use, also in the long term. Still, it is up to you if you want to use creatine. The fact is that it improves performance.
If you do decide to take creatine, you may be wondering, can’t I get my creatine through normal foods? Well, if you want to get in 5 mg of creatine you need to eat approximately 1 kg of beef a day. The downsides of eating 1 kg of beef a day most likely outweigh the benefits of the high dose of creatine. Moreover, getting your creatine through natural sources is way more expensive: 1 kg of beef (the equivalent of 5 gram of creatine) costs +/-€19 (in the Netherlands) vs 5 gram of creatine for 9 cents. Therefore, supplementation is the advised strategy.
To summarise, caffeine and creatine are the ONLY SCIENTIFICALLY proven supplements that enhance performance for healthy athletes. All other claims from manufacturers are bullshit at the current state of research. Of course, other supplements improve performance, but the same benefits can be achieved through following a varied and balanced diet. Supplementation in these instances is thus not required. As a final tip, only buy supplements from tested retailers as many supplements are not tested for purity and consistency: e.g.: they do not contain what is on the label. Here (Dutch) and here (US) you can find this list. As always, thanks for reading and keep up the good work!