The range of sports supplements available to athletes for use in the period before and after training is vast. Choosing the most appropriate supplement (if any) can be difficult when confronted with images and marketing slogans which may not be backed up by sound scientific research.
In many situations, athletes can be misled by these images and marketing and become reliant on these products – believing they are the best way to achieve their desired results. However, in the majority of situations these nutrition supplements can reduce the quality and variety of an athlete’s diet, and they can contribute to the athlete not achieving their performance goals.
A common scenario of sports food supplements hampering goals is when an athlete seeking to improve their body composition ‘doubles up’ on their recovery nutrition. In this scenario a well-chosen, well-timed meal following a training session will easily meet recovery goals. However, if a sports bar or shake is taken at the same time, the athlete may eat beyond their energy budget and actually be further from achieving their lean physique goal (and get no greater recovery benefit).
So how do we decide whether real food or a sports food supplement is the most appropriate choice? Like most things in sports nutrition, the choice depends on the circumstances of the individual athlete.
Before training, it is helpful for athletes to take on some extra energy to fuel their training session. Ideally, this should come from a carbohydrate rich food that is easy to digest, and won’t cause gut issues during the training session. Sports food supplements commonly marketed for use here are sports drinks, gels and sports confectionery. While these may be appropriate, in many situations something as simple and cheap as a banana, fresh dates, or some rice crackers with honey would work just as well.
The key to finding the best product for fuelling before exercise—food or supplement—is to trial it in training. This allows you to see what sits best in your gut, and gives you the best energy level and concentration for your sport. For more information on what to eat before training or playing sport, see our factsheet on pre-fuelling.
It is no secret that protein is essential in the post-training window to maximise the repair and adaptation of the muscles that have been used in a training session. Research suggests 20-25g of protein is required (and up to 40g for older athletes). These amounts of protein can be easily achieved with whole food options. A well-chosen snack (e.g. yoghurt with almonds and fruit) or a recovery meal such as poached eggs and smoked salmon on toast can easily meet an athlete’s nutrition recovery goals.
However, it is not always practical to have suitable whole foods at hand and in these situations sports supplements might have a place. For example, a rower who trains at a remote lake in the heat, finishes a two hour training session, washes down their boat, racks their oars, pulls in the coaches speedboat, stretches, and discusses the session just completed. For optimal recovery, protein, along with carbohydrate for glycogen restoration and fluids are required.
Ideally, this athlete would have packed a cooler bag with a recovery snack (e.g. tetra pack of flavoured milk or dried fruit and nut mix). However, in the busy lifestyle that so many athletes have, the cooler bag doesn’t get packed, or other commitments and sleep are prioritised over food planning. In this situation, the convenient option of using a sports supplement (e.g. a recovery protein powder) to hit nutrition targets may be appropriate. Having this back-up plan helps to kick-start recovery, but may also assist in optimising the rest of their daily nutrition as well – a recovered athlete is more likely to make better quality food choices for the rest of the day than the athlete who is tired and feeling run-down after having no recovery nutrients.
For more info on what to eat for optimal muscle recovery after exercise, see our recovery factsheet.
Planning is Key
For busy athletes, eating something—particularly in the recovery phase—is better than having nothing. While it is important to be careful not to double up your recovery nutrition needs and don’t dismiss whole foods in favour of sports supplements, the use of convenient prepackaged sports supplements may be helpful in achieving performance and sports nutrition goals. The advice on product usage and selection differs for each athlete – for help with optimising your current eating plan and the use of appropriate supplements, an individual consultation with an Accredited Sports Dietitian is recommended.