With the recent news of a rash of Olympians testing positive for banned substances, every athlete should take a moment to look into the supplements that they’re taking and consider the possible consequences. Without getting into the ethical can of worms that is the doping conversation, let’s take the premise that as a competitive athlete, you want to do everything you can to succeed. For some, this means breaking the rules and taking banned substances knowingly. For others, it means finding ways around the rules and trying new substances. For most, it means training hard and getting as much as you can out of legal substances and methods.
There’s billions of dollars in the US supplement market, and a lot of money is spent keeping the FDA out of regulating the industry. Without adequate regulation, it’s understandable that this has become a “wild west” kind of landscape mostly at the cost of the consumer.
Many protein powders have been found to be mostly filler (in this study, 31%), usually some cheap carbohydrate or sugar product, and some with certain cheap amino acids in high doses. When you test for protein content, you’re really looking at nitrogen content. These amino acids drive up the nitrogen content, which makes it look like the product has X amount of protein in it, but it’s largely useless to the consumer. It’s much cheaper than making actual protein powder though, so the manufacturers are all over it. This is called amino spiking or nitrogren spiking and you can read more about it here to learn how to avoid this.
In many instances, only getting ripped off is the best case scenario. Other supplements have been found to have banned substances in them, including prohormones, designer steroids, and heavy metals, without appearing on a label. Sometimes this is the result of mismanagement and leads to a recall (like Muscle Milk in 2010). Other times it’s willful deceit by manufacturers selling an expensive product that claims outlandish results. Because there’s little regulation, all of this just goes on until someone finds out about it. Then there’s a big news story, sometimes lawsuits, and that company goes out of business or issues an apology, and things go back to normal.
So, what do you do as an athlete who wants to stay legal?
First, familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of your governing body and any governing bodies in which you want to compete. The NCAA has one set of rules, a club organization may have others, and the IOC may still have others.
Try to rely on supplements as little as possible. Supplements are called supplements because they supplement a good diet and training program–they don’t replace either. I’ve got it down to a few specific micronutrients that I as well as most athletes are deficient in (Zinc, Magnesium, Vitamin D), a protein powder, and a carbohydrate source for morning workouts. Athletes who want to take supplements would be well-served to spend a few days or weeks tracking their food to get a sense of what they are and aren’t deficient in to target a few supplements, rather than taking a whole bunch and hoping for the best.
The supplements you DO rely on, make sure they come from good sources. It’s tempting to save money, but stay away from bargain powders from unknown vendors. I personally have bought my supplements from TrueNutrition.com for years. They sell a bulk unflavored protein without fillers or sugars, you can buy your own flavor packs, and they’ve consistently passed and been transparent with their lab results. I don’t do anything fancy for carbohydrates, opting for a simple 100% dextrose (sugar) powder. Again, the goal is to have as few ingredients as possible to have as much control as possible.
Stay away from pre-workout powders. They often have a bunch of crap in them, have had banned substances in them (before it was made illegal, many pre-workouts like “Jack3d” had the banned substance 1,3 DMAA), and generally just aren’t necessary. Work on improving sleep quantity, quality, hydration, and nutrition, with a cup of coffee before 2:00pm if you need it, and you’ll have better, more stable energy for training.
Finally, before a test, game, or race is NOT the time to try a new supplement. A friend’s dad in high school taught me that lesson. When he was a wrestler, he had heard about the magic of prune juice as a source of eternal energy, strength, and power that was sure to grant him victory, so right before the big match, he loaded up. Well, you can probably guess what happened…The moral of the story is if you want to include a supplement, include it in your training well before any competitive events to make sure it works for you and doesn’t have adverse effects.
This isn’t to say that all supplements are bad and that zero supplements is the only way to go. If you have everything else dialed in (sleep, nutrition, hydration, training) and can afford good quality supplements from reputable manufacturers, they can be highly useful. If you can’t afford the good stuff though, it isn’t worth the risk or money to buy bargain rate. I think all athletes should be taking Vitamin D and Zinc/Magnesium at a minimum, and if you’re currently training on an empty stomach, a good protein and carbohydrate powder can really help make morning training sessions more productive. You shouldn’t be afraid of supplements by any means, just be informed and discerning about what you put in your body. Ultimately, that is your responsibility as an athlete! Check out US Anti-Doping Agency’s fact sheet for more info and resources.
**Of course, none of this should be considered medical advice and you should consult with a doctor before beginning any supplement protocol**