There's no shortage of information out there regarding supplements; what they are, how to use them, what works, and how they improve performance. However, as the supplement industry is less regulated than the drug and pharmaceutical industry, It can be hard to understand what is going to help your performance as a rider.
With the help of Belinda Reynolds, Dietitian (BSc Nut&Diet (Hons)) and Education Manager at BioCeuticals, we've created this comprehensive guide. We'll explain what supplements are, how they work, and which ones are going to be beneficial for you. We also debunk a few common myths along the way and provide an example of a supplement regime commonly used by professional riders.
What Are Supplements?
Supplements are products used to 'supplement' a person's diet to ensure adequate intake of essential nutrients. They are ingested and found in many varying forms, including; gels, powders, tablets, liquids, and more.
Supplements are used to fill the gap between your dietary intake and your physical requirements of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients. Being deficient in any of these areas could result in poor health and increased susceptibility to illness. Additionally, for athletes, they become even more critical as any deficiency can lead to a drop in performance.
Not all supplements are created equal, and they have different mechanisms and outcomes depending on the area you are deficient.
Supplements can be used to;
Improve your performance
Promote muscle gain
Prevent or reduce muscle breakdown
Replace lost minerals and salts
Help you recover faster
Improve your immune system
Improve overall health
Different supplements target different deficiencies. For example, BCAA's (Branch-Chain Amino Acids) help stimulate protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown, helping you recover quicker and maintain muscle. Conversely, Coenzyme Q10 is essential for energy production within cells, plus is a potent antioxidant and can assist in additional situations such as maintaining healthy blood pressure and heart health.
We asked Belinda a few questions to find out more.
BikeExchange - What supplements have the most significant impact on performance?
Belinda: It is essential to get the basics right first. Ensure that you are consuming a healthy diet rich in nutritious plant foods and good quality protein. It also helps if you are giving the body sufficient opportunity for recovery.
In regards to what can have the most significant impact, this can be very individual. However, if we look to the evidence, there are certain supplements which have long-proven results. Firstly, ensuring that sufficient protein is consumed immediately after training and then regularly for the following (waking) 12 hours. This ensures the provision of branched-chain amino acids and glutamine to the muscles for optimal recovery. Protein supplements (such as whey) often come in handy here as they represent an easy and effective method of consuming protein. Whey itself is also particularly rich in the specific amino acids the muscles need for repair.
Carbohydrate intake before and throughout training is essential for maintaining an easily accessible source of energy to the body, and therefore, supplements that provide an easily digestible source of carbs are essential. These can come in the form of gels (for easy consumption on the move) and also in powdered forms, often combined with electrolytes, and designed to be mixed with water. On that subject, for those training at high intensities or extended periods (e.g. more than one hour), an electrolyte becomes essential to support proper hydration.
Additionally, supplements such as caffeine, beetroot, beta-alanine, BCAAs and creatine are supported by good evidence for their ability to assist in exercise performance or recovery.
BE: What are the basic things people should be looking for when considering supplementing their nutrition?
BR: Individuals need to recognise that everyone is different, and therefore, it's essential to assess their own needs, supplementing them where appropriate. When choosing a supplement, it is important to look for quality ingredients and avoid any ingredient which may contribute to undesirable side effects. It is recommended to avoid artificial sweeteners and flavours, and for many, the avoidance of gluten and added fructose can be important for minimising the risk of gastrointestinal upset. Any new supplement should also be trialled during training, rather than going into a race or competitive event and taking something which you have not tried before.
Which Supplements Aid Cycling Performance?
Getting the basics right is the most important aspect of nutrition as a means of improving performance. Belinda gave us a list of the most common supplements cyclists use to (legally) enhance performance.
Protein is one of the most commonly used supplements as it promotes protein synthesis, growth of lean muscle tissue and reduces muscle damage. There are many forms of protein, each with a different composition and mechanism of action.
The best evidence that exists in terms of protein and exercise recovery relates to whey protein. It is considered to be the best as its profile (i.e. the mixture of amino acids that make up whey protein) very closely matches human body needs. i.e. Whey is rich in the types of amino acids that are essential to humans. The types of amino acids that whey is rich in include the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine. These are essential for muscle recovery and growth.
For this reason, whey is often the protein of choice when it comes to supplementing after training. It is also easy to absorb and has been shown to stimulate insulin release, which switches the body into "anabolic" mode, and this is beneficial during the recovery period. When choosing a whey protein, you may want to also look at what else has been added to the supplement. This helps you in deciding whether it meets your needs or not. For example, are you looking for added carbs, or low carb, is it free from artificial sweeteners, preservatives, etc.?
In saying this, other forms of protein in the diet are great and are recommended to be eaten throughout other parts of the day. Meats, poultry and fish, nuts, eggs, legumes, etc., all contain a vast array of additional nutrients that are important for overall health, and therefore, variation is vital. Rice and pea proteins can still be useful if you are vegan or allergic to dairy. Just ensure you opt for a brown rice protein option, as it can be more abundant in nutrients.
Some of the most popular protein supplements;
Whey protein is one of two proteins that make up milk, the other being casein. These two products can be separated. Most commonly, after curdling and straining the milk, whey is the leftover liquid. Whey is considered a 'complete' protein. It provides all the essential amino acids you need and helps retain muscle by improving protein synthesis and promotes the growth of lean tissue.
BCAA stands for 'Branched-chain amino acids' and there are three of them; leucine, isoleucine, and valine. All three are essential amino acids as the body cannot produce them alone. As such, they need to be ingested, most commonly from foods containing protein such as meat, chicken, fish, and eggs. Much like whey protein, BCAA's help retain muscle by improving protein synthesis and promoting the growth of lean tissue.
HMB is a naturally produced substance in the body that stimulates the production of proteins and inhibits the breakdown of proteins in muscle tissue, which, reduces muscle damage and aids recovery.
Beta-alanine is another amino acid and is used as a 'buffer' that allows you to better deal with acid build up in your muscles. Like creatine, it is best used for short, high intense events that decrease fatigue and improves your muscle's capacity for work.
What it is: Electrolytes are involved in several crucial bodily functions including; regulation of hydration, regulating nerve and muscle function, blood pressure and rebuilding damaged tissue. The electrolytes we are most familiar with are sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Our level of hydration alters electrolyte levels in our body. So as our hydration status goes up and down, so do our electrolyte levels. Furthermore, when we exercise, we lose electrolytes, creating an imbalance.
What it does: Essential for general health, and improves recovery, especially following large amounts of sweating.
What it is: Caffeine is a compound that is found to work via a number of mechanisms to enhance energy levels and reduce "perceived exertion". This means that you can work harder during training, but it doesn't feel like you are. It is a well-researched stimulant in sport and can be found naturally in many substances such as cocoa, coffee and tea. Caffeine doses typically start at around 100mg.
What it does: By binding to specific receptors in the body, caffeine promotes wakefulness, increases energy expenditure/metabolism and stimulates fat burning. In turn, this can improve sports performance and can improve focus and endurance.
What it is: Creatine is a compound that is stored, and during periods of stress, it releases energy to aid cell functions. These functions not only creatine useful for improving strength, but also supporting the health of our brain! Higher stores of creatine due to supplementation is not only proven to improve peak power output but also increase high-intensity exercise capacity and lean muscle mass. Micronised forms of creatine have smaller particle size and therefore dissolve better and are often more efficiently absorbed into the body. Dosing with creatine often involves a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase.
What it does: The key researched outcomes of creatine supplementation relate to improved athletic performance through increased peak power output and repetition during high-intensity exercise.
What it is: We're all familiar with purple vegetable. However, most of the benefits found in beetroot won't be achieved by consuming what you purchase in a tin from the supermarket! If you find the right beetroot source, this can be high in beneficial nitrates which work to promote higher nitric oxide levels in the body. Nitric oxide is essential for blood vessel "relaxation", meaning there is more delivery of blood (and therefore oxygen) throughout the body. Beetroot can be used both regularly to achieve the benefits of ongoing consumption, and also acutely (i.e. just before a workout).
What it does: Research demonstrates that beetroot can enhance exercise capacity and sports performance. For example; enhanced performance at high altitudes, achieving faster sprint times and better decision making in team sports, achieving enhanced time trial performance and aerobic fitness.
Diary of a professional rider
We asked Belinda for an example of a supplement regime a professional rider would undertake in the middle of a heavy training load. See the daily plan below.
Creatine + HMB 1 serve per day (following loading phase)
UM Magnesium 1 serve per day
Electrolyte Formula 45 minutes before an event/hard training
Pre-Workout Fuel 30 minutes prior
Caffeine + D-Ribose Energy Chews 15 minutes prior
Electrolyte Formula every hour (after the first hour)
Energy Bar (or Energy Gel) every 1-2 hours (for longer training/events)
Caffeine + D-Ribose Energy Chews (for longer training/events take as required)
Refuel & Rebuild immediately following training/event
Electrolyte Formula to sip on for the period following (replenishing lost electrolytes, fluid and carbs)
Common supplement myths debunked
BR: A common myth can be that there is a "one-size-fits-all" approach to diet and supplementation. The fact is that what suits one individual, may not suit another, and therefore, it is vital to listen to your body. Everyone is different, and therefore, it is crucial to assess your own needs and design an eating/supplement program that is right for you.
Another myth is that "supplements are a waste of time, or simply result in expensive urine"; however, I disagree with these blanket statements. No doubt, consuming a healthy diet is the most important thing when it comes to achieving a sound nutritional status and good health. However, certain situations can call for additional support, and when it comes to athletes, they are often at a higher risk of certain deficiencies. This is due to the unusual demands placed on the body, and the increased nutrient losses that occur (e.g. mineral losses through the sweat and urine). In these situations, the right supplement can be beneficial in helping to minimise the adverse side effects this immense pressure of hardcore training can place on the body.
Supplements are not regulated like the drug industry. Before a drug can be made available, it needs to undergo clinical trials to prove it does what it says it does. Conversely, supplements have no such regulations. So before you decide to take any supplements, it's worth consulting a health professional and doing some research of your own.
Timing is everything when it comes to supplements, and often the potential benefit can only be realised if the timing is right. For example, there is a small window of opportunity following a hard session when the body is more receptive to supplements. It's at this time you should try to replenish your protein and carbohydrate stores as quickly as possible to start the recovery process. This is also why post-exercise 'shakes' are so popular; the liquid can be absorbed and processed much faster than any solid food.
Ratios much like timing, influence the potential benefit of supplementation. More is not always better, so before you start taking as much protein or creatine as you can fit in your stomach, read the recommended dosage. It also pays to start small and build up, so you can track how your body adapts to the supplements. The same applies to protein drinks post-training, more protein isn't the answer. Combining protein with the right amount of carbohydrate is proven to improve your recovery and muscle growth.
Images provided by CorVos and Tim Bardsley-Smith.
This article provides information only and should not be used as a means of prescriptive supplementation. You should always consult a healthcare professional before undertaking any supplementation program, and they shouldn't replace a balanced diet.