The argument in favor of supplement use
By Matt Sheeks
So you’re looking into supplements to see if they can give you an edge in your next competition, but you want to make a wise decision. Certainly you have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence about sports supplements but you wonder about its validity. Coming from a running background, I understand these concerns. Runners simply don’t believe that anything can help them improve but harder training, and lots of it. They are a fairly simple breed. They make an exception that altitude training can help them, because this will have a direct effect on the oxygen carrying capability of their blood, and this is something they can understand. However, it is hard to understand how having more of something in your body like a mineral could immediately make you faster, but I contest that this in fact the case.
If you subscribe to Central Governor theory (see my "Training Pages" at www.mattsheekstriathlete.blogspot.com), then this will be a lot more congruent with your philosophy of training than if you rely solely on the Aerobic/Anaerobic model. If one can accept central governor theory, then it makes sense that even if you have not improved your aerobic fitness via training, you can still see improvements through supplement use, because, simply put, your brain will allow the body to do more work. One of the basic tenants of central governor theory is that your brain controls at what intensity the body can perform at. It is generally believed that there is a cardiostat (which measures heart rate), thermostat (measuring body temperature), and glycostat (measuring blood glucose concentration) that the brain uses to determine what intensity it will allow a person to perform at. In addition to this there is of course the nervous system itself which contracts the muscles (and most likely can measure muscular fatigue and soreness) and I believe a host of other functions performed by the brain.
What I am getting at is this: Your brain knows how hard the body can go before it will do irreversible damage to itself. If you have less of minerals or other building blocks of energy at the cellular level, your brain will shut you down sooner; not meaning that it will bring you to a standstill, but it will limit the intensity of work you can do. Therefore, one would want to have an abundance of certain vitamins, minerals, and potentially other compounds in the body that are essential for cellular performance. This will have an effect both in training and racing applications.
My recommendations: Below is a list of supplements I have found useful in multisport training and racing. These are the first and most basic changes I would make to your supplement routine.
(1) Iron Supplementation
Iron deficiencies will probably have the largest effect on your endurance performance. For reasons that are unclear to most researchers (though multiple theories have been espoused), it is very easy for distance runners to be deficient in iron. Iron is necessary for hemoglobin to carry oxygen to the muscles, so if you don’t have enough, you’re screwed. A good ferrous-sulfate supplement should really help to keep your iron count high. I would also search out a multivitamin that contains iron, which most don’t. A normal blood concentration is measured as 10-200 ng/dl, but to be honest, if your score is anywhere under 30, it is a reason for concern. I recommend taking an iron supplement with vitamin C to enhance absorption, and you will want to avoid taking it with any calcium supplement because the two inhibit each other’s absorption.
(2) Cal-Mag-Zinc Supplement
Calcium-Magnesium-Zinc supplements are cheap and readily available. Usually promoted as a bone health supplement, it can also have a profound impact on endurance performance. Both Magnesium and Zinc Supplementation have been shown to have significant performance improvements, while calcium is a primary substance in muscular contraction, as well as a trace electrolyte. It has been found to have positive effects on body composition. Based on the effectiveness of Magnesium and Calcium as performance enhancers, you might as well look for magnesium and calcium in your sports drink (they are often included because both are trace electrolytes), but these only come in the higher-end sports drinks.
Before looking at more obscure supplements, I would recommend staying up on your vitamin and mineral intake with a Multi-Vitamin for several reasons. First off, what do you think will have the greatest performance benefit, a non-essential supplement, or a vitamin or mineral that has been proven to be essential for life? Of course avoiding a vitamin or mineral deficiency will be of primary concern. Even if it’s not as sexy as taking a supplement with the name Phosphopseudocreatineisadol, it sure is effective. Also, with so many minerals having studies that prove a performance benefit, its hard to remember to ingest all of them within a day, so you might as well take one pill to cover all your bases.
Unfortunately for early adopters such as myself, the word is out on Beta-Alanine, and it is now receiving the attention it deserves. Beta-Alanine is an amino acid produced naturally by the body. Studies have showed serious benefits (over placebo) including 13.9% increase in workload required to reach ventilatory threshold, 12.6% power increase at neuromuscular fatigue threshold, and 2.5% increase in time to exhaustion. The best results have been with supplementation over a good length of time, say one month, at a dosage of 1000mg/day.
The old standby, caffeine is believed to improve performance by sparing glycogen (increasing fat as a fuel source) and by improving the release of several central nervous system neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norandrelone, and adrenaline. Everyone knows it works; the studies on caffeine’s efficacy (especially over longer distances) is practically undisputed. The recommended optimum dose is 3mg to 6mg per gram of body weight, though I have been happier at the lower end of that spectrum. Caffeine is really only believed to improve performance in the short-term, such as in a race-day application only, although I would like to see more research on constant caffeine use, since that is what most of us practice anyways. Advice on timing your use of caffeine is also varied; ingestion in the region 1-2 hrs before beginning a workout will be optimum. Experiment with what works for you, but be careful! Caffeine is easy to over-do or mis-time.
So, there you have it! You might have noticed that I did not mention either Cordyceps or Rhodiola Rosea, which are found in the highly popular Optygen HP supplement. This article was written, knowing it would be reproduced by First Endurance (the makers of Optygen), and I feel that they have already provided better research on these two supplements than I ever could! Thanks FE!
For the readers in the house, a synthesis of my research is found under Supplements use for Endurance Athletes. Most of the data is taken from www.pponline.co.uk or The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes.