Supplements for Masters Athletes– Help, Harm or Hype?

A walk into any chemist or health food store, opening any health or sports magazine, or going online to any popular sports site will highlight just how many supplements are being pushed towards athletes of all ages.

As an older athlete and sport scientist with a passion for good health and maintaining or improving my performance as I age, I am able to ‘sift through the crap’ that is out there in terms of the marketing hype. The table of questions below was developed by a world-leading sports nutrition writer to enable athletes to make informed decisions on whether to take a supplement or not.

Table 1: Five important questions you need to ask about a supplement.

  1. The safety of the supplement.
  2. The effectiveness of the supplement – is there a reason for why it may work?
  3. Research the products – go to Pubmed, a well-respected and free online search engine owned by the US National Library of Medicine. There are a couple of other great websites I recommend as well – see the list below.
  4. Consider the risks and benefits based on the safety and effectiveness of the supplement.
  5. Potential for failing a drug test – yes it can and has happened in masters sport. 

Some great websites I recommend for evaluating supplements you see round the traps are:

  • http://www.consumerlab.com/  (Provides independent test results and information to help the reader and health professionals evaluate and select dietary supplements.)
  • http://www.asada.gov.au/ (The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority website that gives information on not only dietary supplements but also commonly used drugs).
  • http://www.supplementwatch.com (Supplement Watch is dedicated to educating consumers about the potential benefits and risks of dietary supplements and provides an independent and science-based evaluation of supplements.)
  • http://ods.od.nih.gov/databases/databases.html (The homepage of American National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Reliable information on just about any supplement can be found. )
  • http://www.health.gov.au/tga/ (The home page of the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration that controls pills and potions marketed as therapeutic.)
  • http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ds-savvy.html (The United States Food and Drug Administration for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition website that gives excellent advice to coaches, athletes and health professionals when it comes to supplements).

 Below are some quick notes on common supplements athletes use:

  1. Vitamin-Mineral Supplements. I take one of these a day with an emphasis on a supplement that has mainly vitamins B and C that are water-soluble and not stored in the body like the other vitamins. Multivitamin-mineral supplements are recommended over individual supplements except for iron, calcium, vitamins D or B12 and zinc, especially in endurance athletes. Vitamin supplements should not exceed 500% of the daily value recommended and minerals not exceed 100%.
  2.  Creatine. Is naturally produced in the kidneys, liver and pancreas and also found in animal protein such as beef and fish. Creatine has been shown to increase muscle volume, some say by storing increased water (good for body builders not for endurance athletes), and may allow athletes to train harder by increasing recovery between efforts in the gym or on the track. However, recent research has shown it works in some people and not others. Loading protocols range from 3-6 grams per day for 30 days to 20 grams per day for 5 days. 16 ounces or 450 grams of meat or fish provides 2 grams of creatine. Research has also shown it takes about 40 days to return to baseline so there is no need to take it continuously.
  3. Protein Powders. Research has shown that it is more the timing of the protein intake than the amount. Muscle enlargening appears increased when 12-15 grams of protein are combined with 35 grams of carbohydrate before weight training. It also appears the same amounts after weight training stimulate greater muscle growth. The preferred type of protein is a protein isolate instead of a protein powder. Whey protein isolate is an excellent source of the amino acid leucine which research has shown to be highly effective in muscle growth.
  4. Caffeine. Dosages of caffeine in the 3-6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (One No-Doz tablet contains 100 milligrams) taken 45-60 minutes before performance have been shown to benefit endurance and team players performance. The individual response depends on an individual’s tolerance and the dosage taken. Negative side effects of big dosages can include lack of sleep, headaches, muscle tremors, increased heart rates or even irregular heart beats.
  5. Amino Acid Supplements. The marketing hype suggests that amino acids are digested and absorbed more quickly than protein. The fact is that protein foods are faster than amino acid supplements in stimulating muscle growth. They are also expensive and can lead to gut upsets.
  6. Anabolic Ergogenic Aids. Older athletes wanting to increase muscle mass may be tempted to try these products with marketing hype names such as “Muscle Gainer”, “Muscle Milk” etc. Many contain ingredients banned by the Olympic movement or professional sport bodies. Minerals such as boron, chromium and vanadium are touted as increasing muscle mass but research says no. Beta-HMB may increase muscle mass when combined with weight training but is very expensive.
  7. Fat Burners. Masters athletes wanting to lose weight may try products such as Ma Huang, Ephedra, Spitonon, or Sida Cordifolia, L-carnitine and chromium. Most of these substances are banned by professional sporting bodies or have only transient effects on weight loss, may only be effective in overweight people, with many having been shown to have negative side-effects.
  8. Supplements for Bone and Joint Health. Apart from calcium (1000-1500 mg/day), vitamin D (200-1000 IU/day) has been shown to increase intestinal calcium absorption, glucosamine (500 mg) combined with chondroitin (400 mg) has been shown to reduce joint inflammation in those with pain

The bottom line? Do your homework by checking out the websites above before you buy.