A few of my clients have recently been asking about supplements and what they take to what I would recommend. I thought instead of just telling them I’d make a blog post to give a good overview of supplements to show how with a lot of them it’s not all what they’re crack up to be.

But first what a supplements and what can they do??

​Definition Of Supplements

There is no single definition for a supplement, however the closest one is:

A food component, nutrient, non-food compound that is taken repeatedly with a regular diet, with the aim to hit a goal.

Quite vague isn’t it!

But  I hear you say 'I don’t care about its definition….what does supplements for me!?'

Supplements can contribute to all round good health and sport performance, this is because:

  • They can give a required intake of specific nutrients
  • Provide energy and Macros that would be hard via food alone.
  • Can increase performance e.g. lift heavier, jumper further or sprint for longer!
  • Alter the physique e.g. increase muscle mass
  • Decrease pain
  • Decrease recovery time

All of the above sounds great doesn’t it, who doesn’t want to be increase performance, have a better body and have all round good health….

Unfortunately when you look a little deeper research is actually quite scarce and when you can actually find some research lots of the outcomes are anecdotal and observations during trainings.

​Common Supplements in Athletes

Examples of micronutrients often requiring supplementation in athletes are Calcium, Vitamin D and Iron.

Calcium deficiency is usually due to missing out on dairy products or disorderly eating. These is no known indicator currently, however bone mineral density may play a part coupled with being Low in Vitamin D… I’ll get onto that next

You can actually be at risk of Vitamin D insufficiency throughout the year. There is no agreement for the concentration of Vitamin D marker however the need for supplementation depends on the skin and  UVB exposure

A non optimal iron status may result from limited iron intake, inadequate energy intake, or excess iron need due to rapid growth, high-altitude training, menstrual blood loss or excess iron lost in body fluids.

There are several checks to do, these can be done simultaneously to pin point what stage of Iron deficiency you are at. If you are then found to be deficient then you may need supplemental iron at doses greater than their RDA (ie, >18 mg/day for women and >8 mg/day for men)

Lastly calcium can need to be supplemented when an you’ve avoided dairy products or other foods that are high in calcium. Another issue potential cause for a lack of calcium is disorganised eating habits.

Bone Density scan may indicate a chronically low amount of calcium, low Vitamin D levels have also been shown to be linked with low calcium levels.

Calcium intakes of 1500 mg/day and 1500–2000 IU vitamin D are recommended to optimise bone health in athletes with low energy availability or menstrual dysfunction.

​Supplements For A Direct Increase in Performance

A few performance-enhancing supplements might, at the present time,  be  considered  to  have  an  adequate  level  of  support  to  suggest that marginal performance gains may be possible. These supplements  include  caffeine,  creatine  (in  the  form  of  creatine  monohydrate),  nitrate,  sodium  bicarbonate  and  possibly  also  Beta-alanine.

When using supplements you should trial them thoroughly first, ideally mimic training on what that would be like in competition! You’d then need to weigh up the positives and negatives of the supplement to see if it is worth future use.

Details of these supplements are below:

1. Caffeine is a stimulant that possesses well-established benefits for performance across endurance-based situations, and short-term repeated sprint tasks.

3-6 mg/kg BM is the recommended dosage, taken about 60 minutes prior to exercise.

9 mg/kg or above doesn’t cause performance to increase and can cause negative side effects such as insomnia, anxiety and nausea

2. Creatine can help improve performance in high intensity repeated exercise, think football, rugby etc.

 It can also increase lean mass during resistance or interval training programmes.

A loading phase of 20g/day (taken in four 5 grams doses for 5-7 days and once this is done, switch to maintenance which is between 3 and 5g a day.

Performance benefits from creatine are lean mass gains, muscular strength and power with an increase in acute performance of high intensity exercises which lasts 30 seconds or less.

No negative health effects have been noted with long term use(1 study has assessed this over a four year period)

The only sport related issue is due to creatine increasing water retention it maybe detrimental to sports such as pole vault (where body mass has to be moved against gravity) or where you need to stick to a specific body mass target

3. Beta-alanine, the thoughts behind this is that it helps increase sustained  high intensity exercise as it helps produce carnosine. Carnosine helps as it is able to reduce lactic acid build up helping you to exercise at high intensity for longer!!

Dosage for this is recommended to be 65 mg/kg BM and taken every 3-4 hours as a split dose e.g 0.8 to 1.2g over 12 weeks.

Increase in performance is small, but potentially meaningful with increases of 0.2 to 3% in performance. ​Reasons to not supplement are that the supplements effectiveness is harder to see if you are well trained already.

Large variations in carnosine production has been reported between studies and that authors state that further investigation is needed for for practical implications in sport.

So take Beta-alanine and it’s benefits with a slight pinch of salt.

​If however you decide to,  side effects can be skin rashes and or transient paraesthesia

​Supplements for an In-Direct Effect on Performance

Multiple supplements claim to be able to aid your health, ability to train hard, recover, adapt, repair from injury and stop muscle soreness. A particular area is our immune system where becoming ill can drastically impact training programmes and competitions.

The most promising supplements for helping prevent illness  is Vitamin D.

Vitamin C however is great for periods of heavy exertion.

It’s zinc however if it is too late and you are starting to get symptoms.

An important note to make is that high doses of vitamin C has been found to reduced training adaptations.

​Supplements For Immune Health

Vitamin D-

This is essential for immunity and is know to influence several aspects of it. Our skin exposure to sunlight (aka vitamin D) accounts to 90% of our intake. This explains why in the winter months it is relatively easy to have less than we need!

Vitamin C

There is moderate research that vitamin C supplementation helps reduce the possibility of colds, sneezes and runny noses. However once you are coughing etc taking >200mg a day of it doesn’t help. Therefore don’t go loading up on orange juice once your cold has started!

​Gaining & Losing Body Mass

When gaining, Protein is the one main supplement that comes to mind. Thankfully there is a lot of science backing proteins effects of putting on mass when mixed in with resistance training.

Evidence for ‘fat burning’ supplements is far from being conclusive and there is a complete and absence of evidence of this effectiveness for many of these supplements.

Examples of these include green tea and omega 3 which studies have found them to have only a small to trivial effect on fat loss.


​Supplements can  play  a  small  role  in  an  athlete’s  sports  nutrition  plan,  with  products  that  include  essential  micronutrients,  performance  supplements  and  health  supplements. All of these potentially providing benefits to you and I.

Some  supplements,  when  used  appropriately,  may  help  you  to  meet  sports  nutrition  goals,  to train  harder,  and  stay  healthy  and  injury-free.  Only few supplements can directly enhance competition performance. 

It  takes  a lot of  effort  and  expert knowledge to identify which supplements are appropriate, how to integrate them into the your nutrition plan, and  how  to  ensure  that  any  benefits  outweigh  potential  negative  side  effects.

To work out the potential positives and benefits this analysis would be best done with an input of a well-informed sports nutrition professional.

For Additional information visit Br J Sports Med. 2018 Apr;52(7):439-455. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099027. Epub 2018 Mar 14.