Nutritional supplements lowdown: when and what to take

It can be tempting to knock back a daily cocktail of supplements, but which ones do you actually need? Nigel Mitchell explains all

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Nutritional supplements are a multi-billion dollar global market. The category can be divided up into products specifically marketed at athletes and those aimed at general health and wellbeing. Generally speaking, the main difference between a vitamin C aimed for general health and a vitamin C aimed at athletes is dosage. The athlete-specific products tend to be higher dosage – and the packaging tends to be more glitzy and macho!


 Need and want?

The first thing to ask yourself is, ‘Do I need a nutritional supplement?’. Basically, unless you have a deficiency or dietary inbalance then supplements are not necessary. But, how do you know if you have a deficiency?

The obvious way to find out is through blood tests, but these are based on normal distribution data of the normal population. It doesn’t take into account an athlete’s needs. If someone has a good diet (i.e. regular fruit and veg and a low amount of processed foods) then a deficiency would need to be looked at clinically.

The short answer, therefore, is that most people who take nutritional supplements do so because they want to.  We can consider this as a value purchase: people will often buy a supplement because they feel it fits their lifestyle. I’ve frequently heard people say ‘I know that I don’t really need them, but I want it to provide an insurance policy’.

One note of caution to begin with: the actual evidence based around supplements and sports benefits is actually pretty low. Be aware that although a product may be promoted by a TV celeb, or star athlete, this is not a marker of the efficacy of the products.

 Vitamin choice

When choosing a product I tend to suggest that people look for one that supplies a spectrum of vitamins such
as a multivitamin. There’s a danger of overloading, however, so look for a product that supplies the body’s requirements at about 100% or below (some products supply 1,000% of requirements).

Also, be aware that if you use multiple products (also known as ‘stacking’) you can run the risk of overloading and even toxicity. Zinc is an easy one to do this with. A lot of products contain zinc, such as multivitamins, some protein recovery drinks, and specific products like ZMA. I’ve seen athletes taking 10 times the daily-recommended value for Zinc by stacking, which has then led to problems.

Omega 3 and fish oils

Approximately 25% of the UK population is taking fish oils, but they tend not to know why they’re taking them. The real benefit is to try and improve the omega 3-to-6 ratio.

Omega 3 oils are less inflammatory than omega 6, but the two main oils of interest are the DHA and EPE. Our modern diets tend to have a much higher omega 6 level than is ideal for the body. It’s been suggested that an ideal ratio would be 1-1 whereas for many people it’s 1-20.  Omega 3 fats are not only linked to reduced inflammation but also positively influence blood vessels and protein synthesis. You can positively improve your omega 3 intake by including regular oily fish and milled flax seeds, but for many people a supplement is useful.

During times of hard stress and training, consuming an omega 3 can be a good idea. Look for a product that is at least 60% omega 3, while during high stress times go for 2g of EPA a day. With high dose omega 3 capsules, this equates to between 3-5 capsules a day.

 Health/maintenance products

These include antioxidants and glucosamine. There are a multitude of products aimed at keeping you healthy and protecting the body, most are based on some evidence and many people really find products such as glucosamine really useful with achy joints. Glucosamine acts as a mild anti-inflammatory, so some find it useful when suffering with aching knees and elbows.

As for antioxidant-type products (which include things like green tea extract, super fruit juices and certain vitamins), these are designed to help the body deal with free radicals produced during the metabolic processes. The idea is the harder we work the more free radicals we produce, and therefore these products may help to reduce their impact.

At some stage, most triathletes will take some form of a nutritional supplement. The important thing is to make an informed decision and understand what you’re taking and why. In my opinion, the main one for triathletes is omega 3, followed by iron and vitamin D if needed. It may seem obvious but the important thing is to get your basic diet right first. Then if you have any gaps, or you know that your diet may be compromised due to high levels of training and travel, look for helpful supplements.


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