The truth about supplements

  • Integrity Blog

Supplements are the “sprinkles on the icing on the cake” after all other performance factors are considered, says the Chief of Nutrition Strategy at the AIS, Professor Louise Burke.

Being your best as an athlete requires time, commitment and a whole range of factors, Professor Burke says, and there’s no shortcuts to getting all the layers assembled.

“The basics of everyday eating involve fuelling training and recovery, staying healthy and injury free, working towards your optimal physique and developing a competition nutrition plan.  That’s so much more complex and important that anything you can get in a bottle.”

She says special layers for competition often include the challenges of travel and jet lag but should mostly target the specific issues that cause fatigue and a performance decline in the event, including additional challenges from the environmental conditions.

“Some medical supplements and sports foods may be built into these layers, with the assistance of a sports dietitian and/or physician, but the greatest value comes from developing the knowledge and practical skills to deliver a Food First solution.

“Only when these layers are consolidated should the athlete consider performance supplements.”

Even then, Professor Burke says, the list of supplements that are evidence based in delivering a performance boost is “very small”, and the scenarios of use are specific. 

“Again, the advice of a sports supplement expert is the best way to know if and how they might be used within a specific plan.”

Most sporting organisations take a cautious approach to supplement use by athletes, often recommending that they avoided. She says this is because there are many “costs” that need to be factored into the decision around the benefits of supplement use.

Professor Burke says some expert bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have recently moved to a more pragmatic approach, noting both the enthusiasm of athletes and coaches to look for marginal gains and the evidence that a few products can be of value.

“The bottom line remains that supplements are only ever useful as an ‘add on’ when all other factors are taken care of.  Furthermore, the benefits are small, but can be useful at the top level of sport where small changes or differences might be noted.

“Against, this, the athlete must balance the issues of expense, the investment needed to find the right protocol of use of the small number of potentially useful products, and the risks associated with the product itself.”

Professor Burke warns that many supplements are not well manufactured in terms of quality control:

  • Do they actually provide the right amount of the targeted ingredient?
  • And doping risk - do they contain substances that are on the WADA Prohibited List either as a deliberate ingredient or due to contamination?

“The athlete who tests positive because they weren’t aware of the banned ingredient in a supplement will record an Anti-Doping Rule Violation regardless of its ‘accidental’ intake,” she says.

Nevertheless, Professor Burke says there are ways to reduce the risk of this outcome to a small level that some athletes are willing to accept.

“Ultimately, athletes must make their own decisions about the use of supplements and sports foods, knowing that the final responsibility lies in their hands.

“Experts such as a sports dietitian can provide help to allow the athlete to make an informed decision.  More importantly, they can assist the athlete to develop the nutrition practices that bring longer lasting and more substantial benefits to health and performance.”

  • Professor Louise Burke is the Chief of Nutrition Strategy at the AIS.
  • Updated information provided by the IOC Expert Panel on Supplement Use by High Performance athletes can be found here
  • The full paper provides a decision tree to assist athletes to work through the issues around supplement use.

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