Sup­ple­ments: do you re­ally need them?

ni­trate and Beet­root juice

Cycling Weekly - - Fitness -

Sports nu­tri­tion­ist Anita Bean dis­pels the snake-oil and hype, and lists the few gen­uinely ef­fec­tive di­etary sup­ple­ments that might ac­tu­ally help you

The vast ma­jor­ity of sports sup­ple­ments have no ev­i­dence back­ing their claims. They are at best un­nec­es­sary, at worst harm­ful or il­le­gal. That said, there are a few prod­ucts that are sup­ported by a peer-re­viewed body of re­search. If you are sub­ject to anti-dop­ing rules, then make sure that your sup­ple­ments come from a rep­utable com­pany that pro­vides a cer­tifi­cate to prove it has been batch-tested for banned con­tam­i­nants by a recog­nised sports anti-dop­ing lab. Look for the In­formed Sport logo on the la­bel and check the batch num­ber on the In­formed Sport web­site.

Vi­ta­min D

Low lev­els can re­sult in im­paired mus­cle func­tion, weak bones and de­pressed im­mu­nity. Your GP should be able to test your vi­ta­min D level; if it’s less than 50nmol/l, then you will ben­e­fit from a sup­ple­ment (100 mi­cro­grams per day is the up­per limit). How­ever, if test­ing is not avail­able to you, Pub­lic Health Eng­land rec­om­mends tak­ing a daily 10-mi­cro­gram sup­ple­ment dur­ing au­tumn and win­ter.

Whey pro­tein

Whey con­tains a high con­cen­tra­tion of essen­tial amino acids, which sup­port mus­cle re­cov­ery, in­clud­ing the amino acid leucine, an im­por­tant trig­ger for stim­u­lat­ing mus­cle build­ing af­ter ex­er­cise. Choose whey sup­ple­ments if you aren’t get­ting enough pro­tein from your diet (in most cases un­likely) or as a con­ve­nient post-work­out al­ter­na­tive to food.


Low to mod­er­ate (1–3mg/kg body­weight) caf­feine doses im­prove alert­ness, con­cen­tra­tion and re­ac­tion time. There’s good ev­i­dence it en­hances per­for­mance in both high- and low-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise and re­duces the per­cep­tion of ef­fort dur­ing en­durance ex­er­cise. Lev­els peak at around 30–45 min­utes af­ter con­sump­tion. Re­search shows that beet­root juice can im­prove en­durance per­for­mance and re­duce the oxy­gen cost of sub­max­i­mal ex­er­cise, as well as en­hanc­ing re­peated sprint per­for­mance. Stud­ies sug­gest 300–600mg ni­trate, equiv­a­lent to one or two 70ml beet­root ‘shots’, taken two to three hours be­fore ex­er­cise, is the op­ti­mal amount. Re­sults have been more com­pelling in un­trained sub­jects, so if you’re fit al­ready, don’t count on huge gains.


Beta-ala­nine may en­hance sprint per­for­mance and ben­e­fit ef­forts of one to four min­utes du­ra­tion, and those in­volv­ing re­peated sprints. It in­creases carno­sine con­cen­tra­tion in the mus­cle, which in­creases buffer­ing ca­pac­ity and helps off­set the build-up of meta­bolic by-prod­ucts.


If you have been di­ag­nosed with iron de­fi­ciency, then you’ll ben­e­fit from iron sup­ple­ments. Symp­toms in­clude per­sis­tent tired­ness, fa­tigue, ab­nor­mal breath­less­ness dur­ing ex­er­cise and loss of en­durance and power. Your doc­tor can carry out a sim­ple blood test and will pre­scribe sup­ple­ments if you need them.

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