Supplementation. Is It Really Worth It?

A search on the internet or a quick look through a fitness magazine will showcase some supplement or another claiming to boost your performance and recovery. Cod liver oil, co-enzyme Q10, Glucosamine, Vitamin D, Vitamin B complex, whey protein, the examples could go on and on. What do they have in common? They have all made the list. The main difference between branded and real-food options is the ingredients list and the way in which they are marketed. The question here though is how many of these are actually useful to us? Do we actually need additional supplementation as an endurance athlete?

Sports supplement products can be more convenient at times, but they are not really necessary.  For the majority of athletes, eating a balanced diet of whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables and essential fatty acids should be sufficient to meet all your nutritional requirements.

There is the trend that active, heathy people are one of the biggest consumers of supplements. They work hard to get fit and strong and susceptible to products that promise to boost performance and accelerate recovery. Bottom line: Don’t believe the hype. Also worrisome is that the FDA doesn’t do much in the way of regulating what you are buying.

With so many claims, how do you decipher which are true and which not? Although the internet can be useful, it is also a place where, if you want to find an answer, regardless of its authenticity, you will. For every study that demonstrates a particular nutrient or ingredient correlates with improved performance and health, there is another opposing study that will deny any link.

The first step before you plan on purchasing any supplements is to optimize your daily nutritional status in order to prevent deficiencies. Additional care and advice might be necessary for those following vegetarian or vegan diets. Vegans, in particular, may need to think about supplementation with Vitamin B12; while both vegetarians and vegans could possibly benefit from taking an Omega 3 fatty acid.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the question of how to know what to take? 

The following supplements have enough significant evidence to encourage their use:

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is paramount for bone health, muscle synthesis & improving recovery from hard workouts. If you live in the northern hemisphere, where you can only absorb the right wavelength of sunlight for the body to make Vitamin D between the months of April to September from 11am-3pm consider supplementing with Vitamin D. Otherwise, this could potentially put an individual at risk for sub-optimal Vitamin D levels, particularly during the winter months. If you notice that you struggle with repeated illness over the winter months or that you are not recovering optimally, it is worth having a blood test to check your levels. If deficient, (levels under 75 nmol/l or 30 ng/ml) then this is one supplement that you would benefit from because it can be a difficult nutrient to obtain through your diet alone. Include fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna or mackerel as well as fortified milk, cheese or egg yolks into your daily diet, as they all contain Vitamin D even though you get it mainly from the sun.


Magnesium is involved in numerous processes that affect muscle function including oxygen uptake, energy production and electrolyte balance. Strenuous exercise results in an increased loss of magnesium through sweat and urine, increasing requirements up to 20%. It has been demonstrated in Studies that magnesium supplementation or increased intake of dietary magnesium can improve exercise performance only in those who are magnesium deficient. Before considering supplementation, we recommend that individuals initially attempt to get the appropriate amount of magnesium through dietary intake, which can be fairly easy by eating leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, poultry, and/or lean beef.

Beetroot Juice

Beetroot is an excellent source of nitrate. When ingested, nitrate is readily converted to nitric oxide within the body. While there is still some hype about beetroot juice it is well documented that nitric oxide has a positive impact in vasodilation and regulating blood pressure. The research is based on the theory that increasing nitric oxide prior to exercise could be advantageous in aiding oxygen delivery to the muscles and this improving exercise efficiency. It has been determined that beetroot juice or 200g of cooked beetroot, may help improve your performance in activities lasting 40-30 minutes or in high-intensity, intermittent exercise. However, the evidence is only for those who are new to sport or recreational athletes. Currently, there is no evidence for the case of beetroot juice improving performance in elite athletes. The ideal dose suggested is 0.6g of nitrate (2 x 70ml intakes), 2-3 hours pre-exercise in a 3-7 day period prior to race day.

Tart Cherry Juice

Tart cherry juice comes from the Montmorency cherry and is a potent source of flavonoids and anthocyanins. In addition, tart cherry juice boasts antioxidant and inflammatory effects. The research suggests that using this tart cherry compound promotes muscle recovery following intense exercise. It is thought that the high flavonoid content reduces oxidative damage to muscles. The recommended dose is 30ml of cherry juice concentrate 4-5 days prior to and 2 days after a strenuous event. Other research is also emerging about the potential benefits tart cherry juice can have on sleep. It is believed that it may be a good source of melatonin, which is a molecule necessary to induce sleep. This could be of real benefit for those who have disturbed sleep or for athletes that need to manage jet lag.

Final Note

For healthy individuals, all the other supplements that are not listed here simply are not worth buying. It is also important to note that high dose supplements (those containing well in excess of the daily recommended intake) can actually be detrimental your overall health.

The primary takeaway from this reading is that the use of dietary supplements should not compensate for poor food choices and an inadequate diet. An exception to this is consumption as a short-term strategy when nutrient intake is challenged, or dietary changes are not possible. If you believe that you are deficient in any nutrients or vitamins, consult your physician and request a complete blood panel. And remember, for most nutrients, quality food is still your best choice.

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