Firstly, it is important to recognise that supplements are exactly that, they are manufactured to supplement an already healthy performance-enhancing nutrition plan. The food you eat provides you with more powerful nutrients to support health and training than any supplement on the market. However, supplements, when taken appropriately can complement a healthy diet and further enhance training adaptations and competition nutrition. For an endurance athlete, my top 3 supplements are as follows:
- Carbohydrate + Protein Recovery Powder
Ideally an athlete should get all of their carbohydrate and protein from food. However, when training loads are high and fuelling and recovery is a priority, daily carbohydrate and protein recommendations will also increase.
Daily intakes of carbohydrate and protein may reach above 500g and 150g respectively. When you consider a large bowl of pasta equates to 100g of carbohydrate and a chicken breast contains 30g of protein, this can add up to a considerable amount of food to be eaten to hit your recommended target intakes.
In this instance, consuming a carbohydrate + protein powder allows you to consume a large number of macronutrients in a low volume. A typical recovery product can provide 80g of carbs and 25g of protein in 500 ml of water.
Depending on your daily carb and protein goals, it may also be beneficial to have separate carbohydrate and whey protein powders which you can mix and match to more accurately achieve your fuelling and recovery goals. For example, you may find it difficult to hit 20-30g of protein at breakfast time but hit your carbohydrate goals easily so a whey protein supplement could help you in this instance.
Similarly, you may want to use your carbohydrate solution before, during and/or after rides and runs to supplement your glycogen stores when there isn’t a need for protein or you are getting your protein source from food.
I find it easier when working with athletes to manipulate their carbohydrate and protein goals using separate powders but each individual will have different needs and preferences.
2. Carbohydrate Powders/Drinks/Gels/Bars
Carbohydrate is the most important fuel source for an athlete to sustain intense training and maintain competition pace. Therefore, during sessions, particularly, those lasting > 2h, it is a vital fuelling strategy.
Carbohydrate intake during the session supports performance by maintaining blood sugar levels and in very prolonged races, providing the muscle with fuel. How much carbohydrate you need per hour to sustain performance depends on the length of the session;
- < 120 min, consume 30g of carbohydrate per hour and and/or use a carbohydrate mouth rinse
- > 120 mins, consume 60g per hour. For the muscle to use 60g/h or more per hour, the carbohydrate needs to contain multiple forms of carbohydrate, e.g. glucose + fructose or glucose + fructose + sucrose.
Research has found that using multiple sources of carbohydrate improves performance better than single sources, particularly when events last more than 2.5 h. This is simply because multiple carbohydrate sources are absorbed by different transporters in the gut and therefore, more carbohydrate gets into the body.
Gels, bars and fruit may also be used to hit your target carbohydrate intake per hour and what you use or what combination is generally down to personal preference. Gels and drinks are absorbed at a similar rate however bars should be low in fat and protein to enhance absorption.
As with all fuelling strategies, it is essential that you trial your preferred mixture of carbohydrate products on training days. High doses of carbohydrate may cause gastrointestinal distress.
There is a mountain of scientific evidence to support the positive effects of caffeine and endurance performance. Caffeine taken 15-60 minutes before exercise exerts an effect on the central nervous system resulting in reduced perception of effort and/or reduced perception of fatigue.
This basically means that the exercise bout feels easier to complete and therefore, times and effort are usually improved as the athlete can push themselves more.
The performance benefits of caffeine have been found in doses as low as 1-2 mg per kilogram of body weight. This implies that if you are 80 kg, a dose of 80-160 mg may improve your performance.
However, everyone has a specific tolerance to caffeine depending on their day to day consumption. Some people may need 3-6 mg/kg body weight to feel similar effects, particularly if they are used to consuming lots of coffee on a day to day basis.
Others react negatively to caffeine supplements and don’t like the feeling that caffeine supplements give, so it is a very individual response to the supplement and its dosage.
When performing, caffeine has been found to have positive performance effects when taken both before and/or during exercise. Depending on the length of the session, caffeine can be taken at different strategic points throughout or 40-60 minutes before your most important sprint/climb part of the session to give you that performance boost to leave your competitors in the dust!
Caffeine is a great performance tool and without doubt improves endurance performance. However, it should be trialed and tested in training and should not be used unless you have a good performance diet in place first. Caffeine should also never be used by those under 18 and its effects can be more potent and detrimental to performance but more importantly health.
Supplements are taken entirely at the risk of the athlete and therefore, you should choose a supplement based on your need, risk and being fully aware of the consequences if the supplement is contaminated. Use the informed sport website to assess whether supplements have being batch tested or go directly to the manufacturer. Some reputable manufactures have specific sites that you can order batch-tested products from directly. For more information on the safety of supplements check out Sports Ireland.