Today’s entry discusses the topic of taking supplements as related to athletic performance and recovery, as covered in my recent interview with Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition.”
Q: Are there any supplements athletes should take?
A: Supplements should be used to be used to supplement known biological weaknesses, not as a preventive measure.
For example, if somebody is low in iron, they will not perform up to their athletic ability. Women are predisposed to having an iron deficiency. If this is the case, then a reasonable iron supplement makes sense – but if you take too much, it’s toxic, so iron should only be supplemented if a deficiency is found [via a blood test]. It can increase risk of all sorts of diseases if you supplement unnecessarily.
Most athletes don’t realize that there’s a reduced tissue sensitivity that occurs with a chronic intake of supplements. If you’re healthy, you use a tiny bit of stored vitamin C per day, and you could go a long time without any symptoms of scurvy. But if you chronically take a huge supplemental dose, your tissues “figure out” that they don’t need it, and they consequently don’t let it in as easily, so you get a resistance in tissues to the vitamin in question, and then you’re stuck having to take the vitamin, as you’ve altered your daily requirement. If you stop taking it, you will need it – because you’ve increased your daily requirement by supplementing.
Be extremely careful about how and why you take supplements. If there’s a biological need, sure – have a logical dose. Most people don’t realize this, but they are being given huge doses of vitamins and minerals. For example, with iron, taking too much every day is an ineffective way to return to a normal iron status. Chronically exposing yourself to a huge amount of any particular vitamin or mineral predisposes your absorption system to take in less and less of that particular substance. Also, receptors that take up a number of different vitamins and minerals can become completely saturated by the overly supplemented vitamins and minerals, causing other necessary vitamins and nutrients to not get absorbed. This can create other nutrient deficiencies, even if your diet appears to be well balanced. So generally speaking, even with a known deficiency, taking a smaller supplement here and there tends to be better to return to normal levels than taking a regular and relatively huge daily dose.
In “Advanced Sports Nutrition,” Dr. Benardot also discusses ergogenic (performance-enhancing) aids in depth, concluding, “There is no ergogenic aid that can make up for a proper fluid intake, a solid nutrition intake, an appropriate training regimen, and sufficient rest.” He warns that many ergogenic aids actually contain potentially harmful and/or illegal substances not listed on the labels. He is of the opinion that most athletes would see a marked increase in performance if they paid more attention to regularly consuming carbohydrates and fluids before, during and after training and competition, as it’s common for athletes to underfuel and get dehydrated despite having plenty of fluids and foods readily available to them.
Dr. Benardot summarizes his main point about ergogenic supplements as follows: “Of all the ergogenic aids mentioned…it is very clear that carbohydrate holds the greatest promise for improving both endurance and power performance. Before trying anything else, athletes should consider a regular consumption of carbohydrate with plenty of fluids.”
The next entry will delve into the roles that carbohydrates, along with protein and fat, play in supporting peak performance and recovery in greater detail.
This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!