A Dutch study found that “receiving dietary counseling seemed to result in better-informed choices with respect to the use of nutritional supplements related to performance, recovery, and health.” (Wardenaar et al., 2017) so I decided to write a bit about nutrition since it’ll allow me to casually reminisce about my college days without breaking down and sobbing because I miss it.
Dietary supplements are a multibillion dollar industry. Being that triathlon is expensive as it is, let’s take a dive into the world of supplementation to see whether the pills we pop and the powder we snor… – oh wait that’s a different article – are helpful or just helpful at creating expensive urine.
Multivitamins: Multivitamins are, without a doubt the most ubiquitous form of supplementation around. They are found in nearly every household, but do they help athletes? Unfortunately, the science is mixed. Although they can be helpful to supplement a deficient diet they have not been found beneficial to athletes (ISSN, 2014). In fact, a study found that antioxidant vitamin/mineral supplements seemed to reduce training efficiency indicated by the lack of increase in VO₂max in the supplement group (Skaug et al., 2014). Besides, the reason why your urine turns highlighter yellow after taking a multivitamin should be indicative enough. Vegans and vegetarian athletes should consider supplementing with a B complex.
Side Effects: Possible toxicity from fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K). Possible highlighter yellow color urine from too much B2 (riboflavin) this is benign.
- Verdict: Avoid unless you need it to complement a deficient diet or want expensive urine
Beta Alanine: Although alanine is readily available throughout the body, supplementation with beta-alanine is becoming more commonplace. When ingested, the body breaks down beta alanine into carnosine – increase levels of carnosine can offer exercise induced protection against lactic acid production (Tamaki et al., 1977). Unfortunately, the end user improvements of beta alanine are rather slim. The biggest study done Hobson et al., showed only a 2.8% increase in muscular endurance in athletes. Of course, 2.8% can mean the difference between getting that Kona slot or not.
Side Effects: Athletes should be aware of potential tingling in their extremities **wink wink** when taking a full dose. This can be circumvented by taking smaller doses over several hours.
- Verdict: There is high scientific evidence of slim improvements for endurance athletes. Kona or top athletes should consider supplementation with beta alanine. Standard dosing is 2-5grams per day.
Creatine: Is a tiny molecule that packs a big punch. It rapidly produces ATP (what your body uses for energy). Creatine has been extremely well researched and its evidence based benefits are widely known. Strong evidence that it improves:
- Power output: 12-20% increase in strength and 12-26% increase in power following creatine monohydrate regiment (Spillane et al., 2009)
- Anaerobic running: Slight increases (Hoffman et al., 2005)
- Swimming: No reliable evidence. 2% short distance time reduction (Leenders et al, 1999)
It is also slightly effective in increasing testosterone, slightly improves VO2max and appears to improve lean mass.
Side Effects: Stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea and dehydration. Athletes should drink plenty of water when using creatine. It can potentially proliferate balding in men (Rathnayake, 2010).
- Verdict: High levels of benefit exist for anaerobic athletes. Endurance athletes should consider using creatine in the off-season to build lean mass and stop before triathlon/running season begins. Standard dosing is 0.3g/kg so a 180lb (82kg) person would take 5g a day. There is no need to load creatine.
Glutamine: Glutamine is an essential amino acid (essential means body can’t produce it while non-essential means it can). Although promoted as a muscle builder the evidence is slim when not coupled with a severe debilitating disease or trauma. In fact, glutamine failed to outperform maltodextrin (sugar) in increasing power output in athletes and, additionally, it failed to increase lean muscle mass in athletes (Candow et al., 2001). In fact, according to most research the only evidence for glutamine supplementation is in individuals with AIDS, burns or diseases which cause muscle deterioration (
Side Effects: None known (thus far).
- Verdict: There is a complete lack of evidence to show that glutamine supports anabolic muscle growth in HEALTHY adults. Few studies have shown increases in immune response after extreme endurance events coupled with glutamine supplementation. Save your money. Typical dosing is 5g or more. Optimal dosing is not known outside of a clinical setting since it does not contribute to lean muscle growth in healthy individuals.
Fish Oil: In recent years there has been a lot of promotion for Omega Fish Oil supplementation. Although it seems to be effective for the general population in reducing: triglycerides, depression, ADHD in children, high blood pressure while increasing HDL (good cholesterol) the only notable effect for athletes is its reduction in inflammation – although the reduction is not very reliable or understood (Vega-Lopez et al., 2004). No evidence suggests that it decreases muscle soreness (only 1 poorly conducted study suggested this), increases VO2, lowers heart rate or increases muscle mass.
Side Effects: Potential mercy build-up and PCB contaminants in supplements may pose a risk.
- Verdict: Consider supplementing in smaller doses for the potential reduction in bad cholesterol and heart disease. It will not improve the other measures discussed above. Typical dose: 1-2g daily.
Conclusion: There is little evidence to support most supplements. Cycle creatine in the off-season and consider a fish oil tablet once a day. Otherwise save your money for a new bike or a better divorce lawyer since triathlon killed your marriage and if it hasn’t you aren’t training hard enough.