Importance of sports nutrition & supplements

Nutrition is important for athletes because it provides a source of energy required to perform the activity.  When a person eats food, it impacts his/her strength, training, performance and recovery.  Not only is the type of food is important for sports nutrition but the timings of the meals, also have a great impact on the performance levels and the body’s ability to recover after exercising.  Nutrition and hydration are both key for performance. They are what fuels the body to move.
Sports nutrition means nutritional strategies that are specifically put in place to aid the performance of an athlete. This can help the athlete prepare and recover from both training and competition. The goal of sports nutrition is to supply the right food type, energy, nutrients and fluid so that the athlete can optimize their performance. 
Meals eaten before and after exercise are the most important in sports nutrition but a person really has to be careful with everything that is put into the body. As a thumb-rule, athletes should eat about two hours before exercising.  This meal should be high in carbohydrates, low in fat and low to moderate in protein. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that power the exercise regime and protein is required to aid muscle growth and repair. After exercising it is important to replace the carbohydrates which have been used with fast acting carbohydrates and to ensure proper muscle recovery by including fast acting protein in the post training drink and followed up by complex carbohydrate and protein meals periodically.
The proportions of protein and carbohydrates required will vary depending on both the intensity and type of sport so to get the individual balance right, a qualified dietitian/sports nutritionist should be consulted for professional help with sports nutrition.

Role of Dietary & Sports Supplements
In Sports, nutritional supplements products are primarily formulated and aimed to boost the nutritional intake of athletes vis-à-vis their muscle mass that ultimately reflects in their performance.    Each of the macronutrients needed in relatively large amounts has unique properties that affect health, but all of them are sources of energy.  Micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals are important for several essential functions in the body and have to be consumed along with food, as the body cannot produce it.  A large number of supplements contain banned substances and consumption of same leads to Doping.  A qualified sports nutritionist plays a significant role to create awareness and counseling among the athletes with respect to safe consumption of dietary and nutritional supplements and medication.
Supplements are considered as an addition to an already healthy diet. Active adults or athletes may include supplements to help meet their nutritional needs, improve nutrient deficiencies, enhance athletic performance or achieve personal fitness goals. But without a well-designed nutrition plan in place, supplementation is said to be rarely effective.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends evaluating the validity and scientific merit behind supplement claims for enhanced athletic performance. The following questions are suggested:   

  • Does the supplement claim make sense? 
  •  Is there scientific evidence available?
  •  Is the supplement legal or safe?

Reliable online references like the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition or the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed will help discern if a supplement is based on sound scientific evidence or not.  If working with a sports dietitian or specialist, they can be a valuable resource in supplement research interpretation. The information gathered will enable to make the best decision about taking sports supplements for health and athletic goals.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has provided a classification for supplements based on clinical research:

  1. Apparently effective: The majority of supplement research studies show safe and effective.
  2. Possibly effective: Initial supplement findings are good, but more research is required to examine the effects on training and athletic performance. 
  3. Too early to tell: Supplement theory makes sense but lacks sufficient research to support using it.
  4. Apparently ineffective: Supplements lack sound scientific evidence and/or research has shown the supplement to be clearly ineffective and/or unsafe. 

Dietary supplements can play an important role in an athletic diet. However, they should be viewed as supplements to the diet, not replacements for a good diet. While there are very few supplements backed by scientific evidence to enhance athletic performance, there are some shown to be helpful for exercise and recovery. Whether you’re an active adult, athlete working alone, or have hired a sports nutrition specialist, it’s important to stay current on supplement research.

Supplement Value of Vitamins and Exercise Performance
Vitamins are organic compounds essential to regulating metabolic processes, energy production, neurological functioning, and protection of our cells. Dietary analysis on active adults or athletes has reported vitamin deficiencies.Although research shows a possible benefit of taking vitamins for general health, there has been minimal to no ergogenic benefits reported.  
The following common nutritional supplements have been researched and classified as either: apparently effective, possibly effective, too early to tell, or apparently ineffective:

Apparently Effective and Generally Safe

Muscle Building Supplements
– Weight gain powders
– Creatine
– Protein
– Essential amino acids (EAA)
Weight Loss Supplements
– Low-calorie foods, meal replacement powders (MRPs), ready-to-drink shakes (RTDs)
– Ephedra, caffeine, and salicin containing thermogenic supplements taken in recommended doses for appropriate populations (ephedra is banned by the FDA)
Performance-Enhancing Supplements
– Water and sports drinks
– Carbohydrates
– Creatine
– Sodium phosphate
– Sodium bicarbonate
– Caffeine
– B-alanine

Possibly Effective, But More Research Required
– Muscle Building Supplements
– HMB in untrained individuals, start-up training programs
– BCAA (branched-chain amino acids)
– Weight Loss Supplements
– High-fiber diets
– Calcium
– Green tea extract
– Conjugated linoleic acids (CLA)
– Performance-Enhancing Supplements
– Post-exercise carbohydrate and protein
– Essential amino acids (EAA)
– Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA)
– Glycerol

Too Early to Tell, and Lacks Sufficient Research
–  Muscle Building Supplements
–  α-Ketoglutarate
–  α-Ketoisocaproate
–  Ecdysterone
–  Growth hormone-releasing peptides and secretagogues
–  Ornithine α-Ketoglutarate
–  Zinc/magnesium aspartate
–  Weight Loss Supplements
–  Gymnema Sylvestre, chitosan
–  Phosphatidyl Choline
–  Betaine
–  Coleus forskolin
–  Psychotropic Nutrients/Herbs
–  Performance-Enhancing Supplements
–  Medium-chain triglycerides

Apparently Not Effective and/or Unsafe
– Muscle Building Supplements
– Glutamine
– Smilax
– Isoflavones
– Sulfo-polysaccharides (myostatin inhibitors)
– Boron
– Chromium
– Conjugated linoleic acids
– Gamma oryzanol
– Prohormones
– Tribulus Terrestris
– Vanadyl sulfate (vanadium)
– Weight Loss Supplements
– Calcium Pyruvate
– Chitosan
– Chromium (for people who don’t have diabetes)
– L-Carnitine
– Phosphates
– Herbal diuretics
– Performance-Enhancing Supplements
– Glutamine
– Ribose
– Inosine

General Health Supplements Suggested for Athletes
Maintaining good health for active adults and athletes is essential. It is suggested athletes supplement with a few additional nutrients to stay healthy during intense exercise.  While there is no consensus among health experts as to whether adults should take multivitamins, the American Medical Association recommends a daily low-dose multivitamin to help ensure that adequate levels of nutrients are being met in the diet.  Although not recommended to enhance athletic performance, a multivitamin may be helpful for general health.

Dietary supplements are generally not required for the well-nourished active adult or athlete.  Many ergogenic aids are unreliable and should only be considered after careful evaluation of effectiveness, potency, and safety. Extra caution should also be taken because these products are not regulated by FDA. However, sports supplements are here to stay and can play a meaningful role in your training program.
Any supplement under consideration should be backed by chronic clinical studies and clear evidence of their health or ergogenic claims. In other words, become supplement smart for your health and athletic performance and consult a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or your healthcare provider if you have questions.

1.  U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance.
2.  Kerksick CM, Wilborn CD, Roberts MD, et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendationsJ Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):38. doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y
3.  Kreider RB, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, et al. ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendationsJ Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7(1):7. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-7
4.  U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Dietary Supplements.
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8.  Wallace TC, Frankenfeld CL, Frei B, et al. Multivitamin/multimineral supplement use is associated with increased micronutrient intakes and biomarkers and decreased prevalence of inadequacies and deficiencies in middle-aged and older adults in the united statesJ Nutr GerontolGeriatr. 2019;38(4):307-328. doi:10.1080/21551197.2019.1656135
9.  Porrini M, Del Boʼ C. Ergogenic aids and supplementsFront Horm Res. 2016;47:128-152. doi:10.1159/000445176
10. Tardy A-L, Pouteau E, Marquez D, Yilmaz C, Scholey A. Vitamins and minerals for energy, fatigue and cognition: a narrative review of the biochemical and clinical evidenceNutrients. 2020;12(1). doi:10.3390/nu12010228
11. Roy BA. Exercise and fluid replacement: brought to you by the american college of sports medicine www. Acsm. OrgACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal. 2013;17(4):3. doi:10.1249/FIT.0b013e318296bc4b
12. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dehydration and Heat Stroke.
13. Cleveland Clinic. Should You Take a Multivitamin?

Thanks & Regards
Dr. Rahul Vijay Pendse
Medical Consultant- Health, Fitness & Sports Performance
Educator – Exercise & Sports Sciences