I’ll start out by being completely up front and state my bias that I start out extremely skeptical about the efficacy of any supplement. I’m not saying I don’t believe there are any useful supplements, but my scientific training requires that I put things properly under the microscope instead of just accepting claims at face value. So what we’re going to do in this ongoing series is to try to provide you with the same tools so that you can analyse products yourself and come to your own conclusions about whether any product is right for you.
Three Simple Caveats
OK, so you don’t feel like going back to look at my previous article on supplements, so let me just summarize the three major caveats surrounding the supplement industry:
1. There are no governmental regulations surrounding the testing of supplements.
2. There are no screening requirements for quality control of any supplements.
3. Because of #1 & 2, there is relatively little science behind any supplement compared to pharmaceuticals.
What’s a Supplement Anyway?
Let’s illustrate the difference between a pharmaceutical medicine and a supplement with some examples. Not that any of the Pez gang needs it, but Viagra is an example of a pharmaceutical. Besides being the butt of endless jokes, it is officially recognized and regulated by national health agencies such as the Food and Drugs Administration in the United States or Health Canada in my neck of the woods.
This means that Viagra has gone through literally nearly a decade and hundreds of scientific studies to demonstrate its effectiveness, test the limits of its usefulness, and determine both short-term and long-term potential side effects before it even appears on the market. The sale of Viagra is then closely regulated, and independent testing by the FDA is regularly performed on all Viagra medicine to ensure quality control, proper dosage, lack of contamination, etc.
Contrast this to creatine, one of the most popular supplements among athletes. It also has literally hundreds of scientific studies demonstrating its efficacy for improving athletic performance. Because of this, we know that it has specific ergogenic benefits for certain athletic settings, and a fairly good idea of proper dosages and side-effects.
So far so good, though this is generally not the case for most supplements. For example, ginseng is a popular supplement in many energy drinks or bars, but there are only 18 studies on its use during exercise, with about half finding no benefit and half finding some benefit on aerobic performance. Yet this lack of consensus has not stopped many manufacturers from touting ginseng as a wonder tonic or slapping the almost-meaningless phrase “clinically proven” in its marketing…
Beyond scientific testing and proof of efficacy, the real caveat with supplements comes with the lack of quality control and screening. Simply put, no matter how reputable the source appears, you have absolutely no guarantee of the quality of the creatine, because there is neither any requirement or real system in place to test that powder for its composition (i.e., does it actually contain the dosage it claims?) or what else may be in there. Ask Pro Shop contributor Scott Moninger what effect this lack of screening has had on his career…
Sport as The Poor Cousin
Why are things like creatine and ginseng not under review by the FDA? If you think supplements are big business, it absolutely pales compared to the money involved in pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately for athletes, the industry is geared towards medicinal effects (i.e., does this cure a particular illness?) rather than ergogenic effects (i.e., does this actually help healthy athletes perform?). It’s only in extreme cases like recently seen with ephedra (a stimulant often used in weight-loss supplements), where there were far too many deaths in otherwise healthy people to ignore, that you’ll typically find regulatory bodies stepping in.
So given simple economics, there’s minimal interest by pharmaceutical companies in funding research on whether ginseng improves aerobic capacity. The one place where there’s really active research into ergogenic effects of drugs or supplements during exercise is the military, and a good part of that research often stays classified or at dosages completely different from what may benefit athletes long-term.
Where to Go From Here?
In our ongoing series, we’ll start next week by taking an objective look at some of the factors that you should consider when deciding whether a supplement is appropriate. We will especially focus on how to go about objectively analysing the marketing claims you’ll read.
We’ll then follow up with some of the more popular or common supplements in weeks to come. We’ll examine the scientific rationale behind the use of these supplements in athletic settings, who might benefit from it, and general considerations when using them.
Some of the supplements I’ll be exploring include creatine, electrolytes and cramping, recovery drinks, and every cyclist’s favourite: caffeine. We’ll also review Optygen from 1st Endurance, a supplement used by Fast Freddy Rodriguez and a number of US pro teams.
Have a burning question about supplement use or a particular supplement you want me to explore? Let me know!
The serious caveats to consider with supplements
Food and Drugs Administration
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and his athletic potential is way beyond help from any supplement known to science! His company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.