Dietary supplements are big business. You only have to walk into a health food store to see that. However, knowing what to use and when can be a minefield for an experienced athlete, never mind someone stepping up their cycling training. The claims made can be spectacular, almost too good to be true — unfortunately, they generally are.
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Below, we go through some of the key supplements that will help you go faster on your bike. Some will enhance your ability to recover between training sessions. This is key, as the better you recover, the better you can perform.
There are also some supplements that will keep you healthy. If you’re not healthy, you can’t train. If you can’t train, you won’t get faster. Finally, there are supplements that will just make you go faster.
Some will be more relevant for endurance cyclists, while others are suited to sprinters or track cyclists.
Carbohydrate and protein recovery drinks
What are they? These are usually a combination of simple sugars and whey protein.
What are their benefits? In addition to the advantages of the whey protein alone, the carbohydrate helps replace the energy burned during exercise. The whey protein will also help replenish lost energy stores, and the fluid will help rehydration.
When to take them? Immediately after training.
What are they? Electrolytes are electrically conductive substances that contain free ions. As a sports supplement they're generally solutions of salts containing sodium along with other ions such as potassium, calcium and magnesium.
What are their benefits? The main pluses are for rehydration post-training. During training, the fluid you lose as sweat needs to be replaced to maximise recovery. Electrolytes mixed into fluids help the body retain fluid rather than it passing straight through the body.
When to take them? After training, particularly when the weather is hot and you’ve sweated a lot. They can help during training too.
Multivitamins and minerals
What are they? Supplements that provide a range of vitamins and minerals in one tablet.
What are their benefits? There’s little research to say you need to supplement with a multivitamin. However, you could see it as an insurance policy to ensure you get the nutrients you need each day.
When to take them? If you feel the need to, take one a day. Look for supplements that contain 100 percent or less of an RDA (recommended daily allowance).
What is it? Whey protein is one of two types of milk protein (the other being casein).
What are its benefits? There’s clear evidence that whey protein can help enhance recovery. It aids the muscles in repairing themselves and building themselves up to promote adaption to training. There’s also evidence to suggest that whey protein can help manage weight and body composition.
When to take it? Immediately after hard training sessions.
What are they? These are generally just a supplement that contains fish oils and in particular omega-3 fatty acids. The latter are the really good ones!
What are their benefits? Fish oils will look after your immune system when you’re training hard.
When to take them? Look to take 500-1,000mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day.
What are they? These are naturally occurring substances that get converted to nitric oxide within the body. One of their best-known sources is beetroot juice.
What are their benefits? They reduce blood pressure, increase blood flow, decrease the energy cost of exercise and make you go faster. They’re definitely worth a shot.
When to take them? Try one shot of beetroot juice three hours before your race.
What is it? Caffeine goes by the chemical name of trimethylxanthine and is found in drinks such as coffee and tea.
What are its benefits? Caffeine has been shown to improve performance over a variety of distances and types of cycle race. Its most likely effect is to decrease sensations of pain within the muscle.
When to take it? For shorter races take a dose of approximately 2mg/kg body weight approximately 60 minutes before the start. For longer events do the same and then take approximately 50mg per hour of racing.
What is it? Creatine is found naturally within the muscle and provides the initial burst of energy you need to kickstart your training.
What are its benefits? Creatine is particularly useful for strength and power-based work, such as that completed by a sprinter. It allows you to complete more efforts, such as reps in the gym, and therefore get stronger and faster.
When to take it? Take 2-5g after training with your recovery shake.
What is it? Beta alanine is an amino acid that’s one of two precursors to the muscle buffer carnosine.
What are its benefits? Beta alanine supplementation increases muscle carnosine, which allows you to handle acid within your muscle more effectively. This has been shown to improve performance over shorter distances, such as a 4km pursuit, and improve sprinting ability at the end of longer races.
When to take it? Take 2-4g daily, spread between two and four doses per day.
What is it? Sodium bicarbonate is just simple old baking soda.
What are its benefits? The research is quite clear, supplementing with sodium bicarbonate improves high intensity performance. However, this only applies to events and races that last between one and 10 minutes. Any less or longer and it will be ineffective. There can also be considerable side effects to sodium bicarbonate, as it can cause diarrhoea. This is definitely one to try in moderation, in training, first.
When to take it? 0.2-0.3g/kg of body weight about 90 minutes before exercise.