There's no shortage of information out there regarding supplements; what they are, how to use them, what works, and how they improve performance. However, as the supplement industry isn't as regulated as the drug and pharmaceutical industry, it can be hard to make sense of all the information and truly ascertain what is going to help your performance and aid your recovery to make you a better rider. With the help of Belinda Reynolds, Dietitian (BSc Nut&Diet (Hons)) and Education Manager at BioCeuticals and IsoWhey Sports, we've created this comprehensive guide, which, explains what supplements are, how they work and which ones are going to be beneficial for you. We also debunk a few common myths along the way and provide an example of a supplement regime of a professional rider.
What are supplements?
Supplements are products used to 'supplement' a person's diet to ensure adequate intake of essential nutrients. They are ingested and can be found in many varying forms, including; gels, powders, tablets, liquids and more.
Supplements are used to fill the gap between your dietary intake and your physical requirements of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients to keep you functioning at an optimal level. Being deficient in any of these areas could result in poor health and increased susceptibility to illness, and for athletes, it becomes even more important as any deficiency will also lead to a drop in performance.
Not all supplements are the created equal and they have different mechanisms and outcomes depending on the area you are deficient. Supplements can be used to;
Improve you performance
Promote muscle gain
Prevent or reduce muscle breakdown
Replace lost minerals and salts
Help you recover faster
Improve your immune system
Improve overall health
Different supplements will target different deficiencies, for example, BCAA's (Branch-Chain Amino Acids) help stimulate protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown, helping you recover quicker and maintain muscle. Conversely, Coenzyme Q10 is essential for energy production within cells, plus is a potent antioxidant and can assist in additional situations such as maintaining healthy blood pressure and heart health.
We asked Belinda a few questions to find out more.
BikeExchange Blog - What supplements have the biggest impact on performance?
Belinda: It is important to get the basics right first, and ensure that you are consuming a healthy diet rich in nutritious plant foods and good quality protein, and also that you are giving the body sufficient opportunity for recovery.
In regards to what can have the biggest impact, this can be very individual, however, if we look to the evidence there are certain supplements which have long-proven results. Firstly ensuring that sufficient protein is consumed immediately after training and then regularly for the following (waking) 12 hours is important to ensure the provision of branched-chain amino acids and glutamine to the muscles for optimal recovery. Protein supplements (such as whey) often come in handy here as they represent an easy and effective method of consuming protein. Whey itself is also particularly rich in the specific amino acids the muscles need for repair.
Carbohydrate intake before and throughout training is essential for maintaining an easily accessible source of energy to the body, and therefore supplements that provide an easily digestible source of carbs are important. These can come in the form of gels (for easy consumption on the move) and also in powdered forms, often combined with electrolytes, and designed to be mixed with water. On that subject, for those training at high intensities and/or for extended periods of time (e.g. more than one hour), an electrolyte becomes essential to support good hydration.
Additionally, supplements such as caffeine, beetroot, beta-alanine, BCAAs and creatine are supported by good evidence for their ability to assist in exercise performance and/or recovery.
BE: What are the basic things people should be looking for when considering supplementing their nutrition?
BR: I think it’s important for individuals to recognise that everyone is different, and therefore it’s essential to assess their own needs, supplementing them where appropriate. When choosing a supplement it is important to look for quality ingredients and avoid any ingredient which may contribute to undesirable side effects. It is recommended to avoid artificial sweeteners and flavours, and for many, the avoidance of gluten and added fructose can be important for minimising the risk of gastrointestinal upset. Any new supplement should also be trialed during training, rather than going into a race or competitive event and taking something which you have not tried before.
Which supplements will help my cycling performance?
Remembering that getting the basics right is the most important aspect of nutrition as a means of improving performance, Belinda gave us a list of the most common supplements cyclists use to (legally) enhance performance.
Protein is one of the most commonly used supplements as it promotes protein synthesis, growth of lean muscle tissue and reduces muscle damage. There are many forms of protein, each with a different composition and mechanism of action.
The best evidence that exists in terms of protein and exercise recovery relates to whey protein. It is considered to be the best as its amino acid profile (i.e. the mixture of amino acids that make up whey protein) very closely matches human body needs (i.e. whey is rich in the types of amino acids that are essential to humans). The types of amino acids that whey is rich in include the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine. These are essential for muscle recovery and growth. For this reason, whey is often the protein of choice when it comes to supplementing after training. It is also easy to absorb and has been shown to stimulate insulin release, which switches the body into “anabolic” mode, and this is beneficial during the recovery period. When choosing a whey protein, you may want to also look at what else has been added to the supplement, and whether that meets your needs or not, e.g. are you looking for added carbs, or low carb, is it free from artificial sweeteners, preservatives etc.?
In saying this, other forms of protein in the diet are great and are recommended to be consumed throughout other parts of the day. Meats, poultry and fish, nuts, eggs, legumes etc., all contain a great array of additional nutrients that are important for overall health, and therefore variation is key. Rice and pea proteins can still be useful if you are vegan or allergic to dairy. Just ensure you opt for a brown rice protein option, as it can be richer in nutrients.
Some of the most popular protein supplements;
Whey protein is one of two proteins that make up milk, the other being casein. These two products can be separated, most commonly after curdling and straining milk, whey is the left over liquid. Whey is considered a 'complete' protein, providing all the essential amino acids you need and helps retain muscle by improving protein synthesis and promotes growth of lean tissue.
BCAA stands for 'Branched-chain amino acids' and there are three of them; leucine, isoleucine and valine. All three are essential amino acids as the body cannot produce them alone, and require them to be ingested, most commonly from foods containing protein such as meat, chicken, fish, and eggs. Much like whey protein, BCAA's help retain muscle by improving protein synthesis and promoting growth of lean tissue.
HMB is a naturally produced substance in the body that stimulates the production of proteins and inhibits the breakdown of proteins in muscle tissue, which, reduces muscle damage and aids recovery.
Beta-alanine is another amino acid and is used as a 'buffer' that allows you to better deal with acid build up in your muscles. Like creatine, it is best used for short, high intense events that decreases fatigue and improves muscle's capacity for work.
What it is: Electrolytes are involved in a number of key bodily functions including; regulation of hydration, regulating our nerve and muscle function, bloody pressure and rebuilding damaged tissue. The electrolytes we are most familiar with are sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Electrolyte levels in our body are altered by our level of hydration, so as our hydration status goes up and down, so do our electrolyte levels. Furthermore, when we exercise we lose electrolytes, creating an imbalance.
What it does: Essential for general health, and improves recovery, especially following large amounts of sweating.
What it is: Caffeine is a stimulant and well researched in sport. It is found naturally in a number of substances such as cocoa, coffee and tea, but can also be supplemented. It is a compound that is found to work via a number of mechanisms to enhance energy levels and reduce “perceived exertion” (meaning that you can work harder during training, but it doesn’t feel like you are). Doses normally start at around 100mg.
What it does: By binding to certain receptors in the body, caffeine promotes wakefulness, increases energy expenditure/metabolism and stimulates thermogenesis (and “fat burning”), improves sports performance, and can improve focus and endurance.
What it is: Creatine is a compound that is stored, and during periods of stress, it releases energy to aid cell functions. This actually makes creatine useful not just for improving strength, but also supporting the health of our brain! When there are greater stores of creatine due to supplementation, this appears to not only improve peak power output but also increase high-intensity exercise capacity and lean muscle mass. Micronised forms of creatine have smaller particle size and therefore dissolve better and are often more efficiently absorbed into the body. Dosing with creatine often involves a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase.
What it does: The key researched outcomes of creatine supplementation relate to improved athletic performance through increased peak power output and repetition during high-intensity exercise.
What it is: We’re all familiar with beetroot, however, most of the benefits found in beetroot won’t be achieved through consuming what you purchase in a tin from the supermarket shelf! If you find the right beetroot source, this can be high in beneficial nitrates which work to promote higher nitric oxide levels in the body. Nitric oxide is essential for vasodilation (blood vessel “relaxation”), meaning there is more efficient delivery of blood and therefore oxygen throughout the body (this means cardio-efficiency is improved). Beetroot can be used both on a regular basis to achieve the benefits of ongoing consumption, and also acutely (i.e. just before a workout).
What it does: Research demonstrates that beetroot can enhance exercise capacity and sports performance (e.g. improving performance at high altitudes, achieving faster sprint times and better decision making in team sports, achieving enhanced time trial performance and aerobic fitness).
Diary of a professional rider
We asked Belinda for an example of a supplement regime a professional rider would undertake in the middle of a heavy training load. See the daily plan below.
Creatine + HMB 1 serve per day (following loading phase)
UM Magnesium 1 serve per day
Electrolyte Formula 45 minutes prior to event/hard training
Pre-Workout Fuel 30 minutes prior
Caffeine + D-Ribose Energy Chews 15 minutes prior
Electrolyte Formula every hour (after the first hour)
Energy Bar (or Energy Gel) every 1-2 hours (for longer training/events)
Caffeine + D-Ribose Energy Chews (for longer training/events take as required)
Refuel & Rebuild immediately following training/event
Electrolyte Formula to sip on for the period following (replenishing lost electrolytes, fluid and carbs)
Common supplement myths debunked
BR: A common myth can be that there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to diet and supplementation. The fact is that what suits one individual, may not suit another, and therefore it is important to listen to your body. Some individuals thrive on more of a ketosis type diet, whilst others feel they perform better when carbs are used as their main energy source. Some athletes will consume large amounts of caffeine during training to enhance their performance with no noted side effects, whereas the next person finds that they get an upset stomach if they exceed a 30mg dose. Everyone is different, and therefore it is important to assess your own needs, and design an eating/supplement program that is right for you.
Another myth may be that “supplements are a waste of time, or simply result in expensive urine”, however, I disagree with these blanket statements. There is no doubt that consuming a healthy diet is absolutely the most important thing when it comes to achieving sound nutritional status and good health. However, there are certain situations that can call for additional support and when it comes to athletes, they are often at a greater risk of certain deficiencies due to the unusual demands being placed on the body, and the increased nutrient losses that occur (e.g. mineral losses through the sweat and urine). In these situations, the right supplement can be beneficial in helping to minimise the negative side effects this immense pressure of hardcore training can place on the body.
Other important considerations
Supplements are not regulated like the drug industry. Before a drug can be made available it needs to undergo clinical trials to prove it does what it says it does. Conversely, supplements have no such regulation, so before you decide to take any supplements, it's worth consulting a health professional and doing some research of your own.
Timing is everything when it comes to supplements and often the potential benefit can only be realised if the timing is right. For example, there is a small window of opportunity following a hard session when the body is more receptive to supplementation, it's at this time you should try to replenish your protein and carbohydrate stores as quickly as possible to start the recovery process. This is also why post-exercise 'shakes' are so popular, the liquid can be absorbed and processed much faster than solid food.
Ratios much like timing, influence the potential benefit of supplementation. More is not always better, so before you start taking as much protein or creatine as you can fit in your stomach, read the recommended dosage and don't exceed it. It also pays to start small and build up, so you can track how your body adapts to the supplements. The same applies to protein drinks post training, more protein isn't the answer, in fact, combining protein with the right amount of carbohydrate will improve your recovery and muscle growth.
Thanks to Belinda Reynolds, and IsoWhey Sports for helping us put this guide together. Images provided by IsoWhey Sports.
This article provides information only and should not be used as a means of prescriptive supplementation. You should always consult a healthcare professional before undertaking any supplementation program, and they shouldn't replace a balanced diet.