A Guide to Staying Supplement Savvy
As many athletes and fitness enthusiasts transition into fall and winter sports and prepare for competition, it may be a time of year met with setting new performance goals, forming new habits, and perhaps trying new products and supplements. The global supplement market is ever expanding and athletes are often early adopters when something new and promising comes out.
Whether new to the market or new to you, there are some key considerations and steps to take to help consumers stay safe, informed, and savvy when it comes to trying a new supplement.
Here are a few of those key considerations to explore before trying a new supplement, as well as the actions to take when implementing a new product into a fueling regimen.
1. What’s the purpose or goal of taking the supplement?
Whether the purpose is optimizing performance, improving endurance, speeding recovery, boosting energy, supporting good immune health, or something else, it is important to clearly define why the supplement might be needed. Ensure that the particular product’s reported benefits align with these goals. If there is not a clear reason to take a particular supplement, skip it.
Determining this purpose or goal will also play a role in examining whether this particular supplement actually has research to support these outcomes and claimed benefits. It is also important to review and reassess goals over time as they may change and the need for a particular product may also change.
2. Is there research to support this supplement? Is it evidence-based?
Once the purpose of taking the supplement is identified, consider whether there is evidence to support the product claims. Analyzing research properly does take experience, however websites like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) PubMed database: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed, the National Institute of Health - Office of Dietary Supplements, and Examine.com are resources for searching for credible information and research. If a supplement does not have published studies to back up their claims, it’s probably a good idea to pass on it.
3. Is the supplement quality made? Has it been third-party tested?
The supplement industry is not well regulated and not all products follow the same quality control measures to ensure their supplements are made in sanitary conditions, to the highest standards, and free from contamination. A good rule of thumb is to look for supplements that have a third-party testing certification seal on the container or package, with preferred testing coming from Informed Sport, NSF Certified for Sport, BSCG Certified Drug Free, or USP Verified. For competitive athletes in drug tested sports, this is an important consideration for ensuring supplements are free from any banned substances that might result in a failed urinalysis.
4. Is this available in food form or other alternative sources?
Supplements are intended to help meet any nutritional needs that may be challenging to consistently meet through the diet, and/or to enhance health and/or performance by providing additional benefits than what the diet alone may provide. Some supplements may therefore be unnecessary for those that can consistently meet a nutrient need through the foods they regularly eat, as they may not provide any additional benefit.
For instance, a person consuming adequate protein daily would likely receive no additional benefit from supplementing with BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids), as protein-rich foods are already composed of the three BCAAs, plus the remaining amino acids that make up protein in the human body.
On the other hand, the average human would likely be unable to consistently consume the amount of blackcurrants necessary to achieve the performance benefits seen with taking a supplement made with a concentrated blackcurrant juice or extract, such as 2before Blackcurrant Pre-Workout.
In the literature, benefits such as increased endurance and improved exercise recovery, are seen with a blackcurrant-derived anthocyanins dosage around 100-300mg. At least fifty New Zealand blackcurrants would need to be consumed to hit the lower end of that range. Each serving of 2before delivers a guaranteed dosage of 120mg of anthocyanins.
Beyond these four key considerations, also explore whether the supplement is associated with any side effects, whether there are health conditions it may interact with, and if financially this product makes sense. It should be noted that it’s good practice to consult with a healthcare professional before starting a new supplement, particularly if there are any underlying health conditions, or if pregnant, nursing, or taking other medications.
After determining if a supplement is appropriate, necessary, evidence-based, and safe to take, take these steps to implement the product.
Step 1: Determine the appropriate dosage and timing
Check the supplement container or package to determine the intended dosage and if there is a particular time the supplement should be taken, as well as if the supplement is intended to be taken with food or not. Some supplements should be taken at a particular time in order to yield the greatest benefit, where other supplements may be less time sensitive.
For instance, take 2before Blackcurrant Pre-Workout 30-45 minutes before activity as performance benefits peak around 60 minutes after consuming.
Step 2: Make a plan for when to start the supplement and for what length of time
When trying a new supplement, just like when trying a new pre-training food, plan to trial it during training and not right before competition. Everyone’s body responds differently and sometimes it takes time for the gastrointestinal system to adapt, as well as to assess the impact of the supplement. Establish a trial period for testing out the product and determine how long to take it. It often takes several weeks of consistent use to tell if a supplement is effective, however there may be signs before that the supplement isn’t a good fit. During this trial period, try to limit introducing other new products to focus on the effects of one at a time.
Step 3: Record notes about any changes, side effects, or other observations
As a new supplement is implemented, take notes regarding anything positive, negative, or otherwise that is observed. Pay close attention to how the body is responding. How is the GI system tolerating the product? How easy or difficult is it to consistently take? What benefits have been observed during training? What adverse side effects are being experienced? How does it taste? Anecdotally, does the supplement live up to the product claims?
These notes will be helpful to reference through and after the trial period to help make a determination if the supplement is worthwhile to continue taking as well as if it is appropriate to take before/during competition.
Step 4: Decide whether to keep using the supplement or discontinue
After this thorough analysis from pre-purchase through the implementation stage, decide whether this supplement is sustainable and desirable for continued usage. Did the positive outweigh any negative? Is this supplement better than alternative strategies? Can it be consistently, and safely used long-term? Does the supplement meet the goals established for taking it?
Step 5: Review and adjust regularly
Continue to periodically assess the supplement’s effectiveness towards achieving established goals as well as monitoring for any adverse reactions or side effects. If desired results are no longer being delivered or if the supplement is causing any issues, consider discontinuing or seeking an alternative.
This strategy of assessing new supplements and strategically implementing them can and should be applied anytime there’s a new product of interest. A Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD or RDN) can also help evaluate supplements and determine appropriateness of use, recommend correct dosage and timing, and support the implementation steps.