Nutrition: Adding value

The pros and cons of dietary supplements

Do dietary supplements improve our performance over just eating a balanced diet? Two experts debate the merits of giving nature a helping hand.

To supplement means to add to, extend or strengthen. Therefore, these must be key considerations when weighing up the pros and cons of taking dietary supplements, such as creatine, beta alanine and whey protein. But do they add any real value to your cycling performance? And can they increase your abilities above the levels you can achieve with a balanced diet alone?

Qualified nutritionist Moyra Cosgrove from the Nutrition Society, and sport scientist Tim Lawson from Science in Sport have very different opinions on the merits of dietary supplementation. So we asked them the big question: should we take supplements or not?

Moyra Cosgrove says that we can get what we need from our diets without needing supplementation.

“The question of supplementation is really important," she explains. "In my opinion, I would steer away from supplements unless there’s a specific medical reason to take them. Instead, look at what you can get in your diet.

“It is easy to get caught up in what you read on the internet, which is often inaccurate, and then before you know it you’ve spent £100 on supplements – most of them completely unnecessary.

“Firstly, it’s important to remember that the biggest cause of fatigue is dehydration. Therefore, before you try to boost your energy levels with supplements, look at your water intake. Losing just two per cent of your body weight in fluid, which is very easy to do when you are pedalling hard, can actually reduce your performance by 10-20 percent," she explains.

"Adequate hydration is, therefore, essential. For a ride of under an hour, water is fine. Longer than this and you may want to have an energy drink as you’ll also benefit from the glucose.

“Cardiovascular exercise like cycling requires a carbohydrate for fuel, especially wholegrain bread, pasta, potatoes and brown rice, plus adequate lean protein, such as chicken, tuna and turkey. Any excess protein from supplements will just be broken down as waste in the body.

“And something like taurine, which is a real buzz word right now, is a non-essential amino acid, meaning it can be made from other amino acids in the body. Although it’s a building block of protein, there’s no research that really suggests it’s beneficial to take it in sports supplements.”

Tim Lawson, on the other hand, thinks we should make use of supplements to aid our cycling performance.

“Keeping the balance of nutrition is very difficult," he says. "We grab a sandwich on the go or go out for pizza with friends, and inevitably end up eating some empty calories that do not help our fitness. Even if you eat normal food for energy, such as pasta the night before a race, the carbohydrates are good for energy, but it lacks the micro-nutrition you can get from taking supplements.

“There’s an opportunity with supplementation to put that balance right. For example, a normal diet tends to lack omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oils. By taking a supplement, this will not just benefit performance, but also your health," he explains.

“It’s a similar story with creatine, which helps supply energy to the muscles, and also with beta alanine, which decreases muscle fatigue. You’re unlikely to get a lot of these from your average diet, but supplementing them has the potential to improve your cycling performance.

“Hydration is another important area. If you only drink water after exercise, then that water tends to go right through you – thus not really helping with hydration. You need between 400-600mg of sodium and potassium for the water to be absorbed. You could get this from a packet of crisps, but you have to weigh this up against the bad fats you would be eating. Instead, a carbohydrate electrolyte drink would be good, since it gives you exactly what you need.

“Although it’s not impossible to get what you need from your diet alone, it is time consuming to get the right foods together. In my opinion and experience, supplements are better. And an appropriate diet through supplementation is easy to maintain, which means that you’re more likely to stick at it.

“With supplements from trusted retailers, you know that the ingredients have gone through quality control, checking that they are to specification and not contaminated. With many supermarket or restaurant foods, you do not have the knowledge that your food is made specifically with athletes in mind.”

Key Supplements

Beta Alanine: This is one of the two amino acids that make up the protein carnosine, which works on the muscles to help stop fatigue.

Cosgrove: “This is a protein that’s already in the diet – in lean meat such as turkey – so there’s no need to have extra. People hear about protein supplements and think that they will help them build muscles, but any extra protein/amino acids over and above our needs will just be broken down by the body.”

Lawson: “Beta alanine has been shown to be effective at 4-6g per day for two to four weeks. That would take a lot of turkey – nearly 1kg per day – which is a lot of calories and isn’t as convenient. Supplementation is precise, and there’s a growing body of evidence that demonstrates effectiveness.”

Creatine: An amino acid that can help to increase muscle power.

Cosgrove: “If you’re doing weight, sprint or repeated high-intensity training, then maybe there’s an advantage to taking creatine, because it may provide instant energy to fuel this. However for endurance sports like cycling, there’s no benefit. The aerobic system kicks in very quickly, so creatine won’t be of any help.”

Lawson: “People tend to eat less red meat than in the past, often for health reasons. So as juniper berries appear to be the only significant vegetarian source, creatine stores in the muscle are often sub-optimal, making supplements the easier option.

"Since it usually only works for repeated sprint efforts, it may be useful for a flat circuit race or track competition, but not good for someone looking to improve their sprint at the end of a hilly road race. It’s fallen out of favour with endurance guys, but is still used extensively with sprint cyclists.”

L-Carnitine: A compound required for the transportation and breakdown of fatty acids, and the generation of metabolic energy.

Cosgrove: “Carnitine can be gained in your diet through red meat. It supposedly breaks down fat, making it available for fuel. But in aerobic exercise there’s no scientific benefit. It’s a theoretical advantage only, and there’s no science to support its use.”

Lawson: “Carnitine is found in high quantities in red meat, but is relatively low in milk or other protein sources. Many years ago, carnitine as a supplement was flagged for endurance athletes because it burns fat as energy. It fell out of favour with academics, but its use by athletes and sports people has continued, indicating that it may work for other reasons.”

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