In previous Toolbox articles, I have repeatedly stated my personal sentiment that nothing replaces smart training and hard work. I have also outlined some serious caveats concerning the use or reliance on supplements. In my last article titled ”Supplements: The Problem with Science” I also reviewed a recent scientific article testing the efficacy of Optygen where I stated that “For the Cat 3/4 subjects and for the rest of us typical racers, however, that 0.5 or 1% improvement may mean much less in the grand scheme of things because we’re nowhere near our genetic potential.”
Together, this history may lead to the assumption that I am biased against all supplements or ergogenic aids. So let me clarify my position and also point out a few other difficulties with using science to prove or disprove the benefit of supplements.
Where do I Stand?
First off, I am not against all supplements. Some definitely work, some likely work, some have little to no effect, and some may be problematic or even harmful. The key is to get educated on the actual science underlying the claims of manufacturers and not simply take the marketing department’s word for it. In other words, it’s your body and you need to be a smart consumer!
I believe supplements may have their place, but that it’s after doing all the other things right. Things like having a well-designed training plan, optimal bike positioning, proper nutrition, and sound recovery practices (e.g., stretching, massage, quality sleep). These are controllable factors and are almost guaranteed to have far more effect on your performance than any supplement available. Ensure the quality of these things first, and the right supplement may be the final icing on the cake.
Let me give you an example. A year ago, a provincial sports organization asked me for a letter of support in their request to the Canadian Sport Centre for an altitude tent system for their athletes to use. I ultimately declined because I concluded that there were many other fundamental and cost-effective things that could be done to their athlete development program before they were at a level where the altitude tent would really put them over the top in performance.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t
I neglected in my previous article to sufficiently highlight one other major limitation with the Earnest et al. study on Optygen. Namely, the supplement was used for only 14 days, and it is almost impossible for any supplement to produce a significant effect in such a short period of time. This is especially true for a supplement that aims to produce cellular changes in the aerobic system, as adaptations at the cellular level rarely works that rapidly.
The obvious solution to this limitation would be to have a much longer-term study, where subjects use Optygen for 8+ weeks. However, there are limitations to this approach too. Namely, a long-term study is vulnerable to the subjects having large differences in their inherent training status that may also mask or inflate any benefits from the supplement. For example, I’m much fitter in May than in March simply due to my normal training plan. Similarly, I’m much less fit in December than I am in October.
Nevertheless, such a study is still important to perform in order to counter the limitation of this initial study. That’s why I wrote previously that the solution to any scientific problem is usually that more studies are needed.
What this also means is that you (or a supplement company) cannot simply take one study as the be-all or end-all to prove their product or disprove another’s product. You need the weight of accumulated evidence from well-designed studies all pointing to a consensus saying yeah or nay. A good company, in my opinion, should be willing to present the research underlying their claims, and ideally also have an INDEPENDENT scientific advisory board that guides the company. First Endurance, the manufacturer of Optygen, does both of these things, in addition to providing a certificate of independent testing of their product composition.
So if you feel that the science behind a supplement is good and you want to try it, the first thing I would do is to give yourself a gut-check and see if you are in a position to really benefit from its use (i.e., are you doing the other things right?). The other important thing to remember is to give it time and track how your own body responds to its use.
Supplements: The Problem with Science
Introduction to Supplements
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. In the interest of full disclosure, neither Stephen or PezCycling News has any financial stake in any supplement company. First Endurance (makers of Optygen) does not currently advertise on this site, nor is there a proposal on the table. Stephen’s 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.