Today's blog is a guest  post from Alison Friesen. She's a fantastic Registered Dietician that works with numerous high level athletes. Below are her thoughts on supplements. If you want more information you can visit her website


“Should I be taking a sport supplement? Which one is the best? Are they safe?”- These are questions that I think every athlete asks at some point in their career. I hope to answer a few questions through this post but whenever we are dealing with supplements, I always encourage athletes to speak with a dietitian prior to trying something new.  There is a lot of information available on supplements but unfortunately a lot of the information is inaccurate, biased and misleading. One mistake many athletes make is looking to family, friends, teammates, or trainers for information or advice about supplements. A research study looking at supplementation practices in Canadian high-performance athletes found that athletes used the sources listed previously as their primary sources of information even though they are not educated in this area. Physicians were the 8th choice and sport dietitians were the 16th choice for sources of supplementation information (Lun et al., 2012). Although family, teammates and trainers may have some knowledge about supplements, and even have had some experience with supplements themselves, they are not experts like a dietitian or exercise physiologist. Every athlete is unique in what will work for them, even though it is difficult to not compare yourself with teammates and friends. It is best to seek the advice of an educated health professional for this information.

Another concern I have with supplements has to do with doping. A Doping Violation in sport is not and should not be taken lightly; not only is doping a form of cheating, a doping violation can result in a 4 year to lifetime ban from sport. We have all heard the story of Lance Armstrong being stripped of 7 Tour de France titles, but doping violations are occurring in every sport, at every level and athletes are not always doping on purpose; Alex Rodrigues (MLB), Ryan Braun (MLB), Aaron Rathy (PanAm Canadian Wakeboarder) and the Waterloo University Football team to name a few recent names related to Doping Violations. Dietary supplements are regulated under Natural Health Products (NHP) which means they are not regulated as food or drugs. This can result in products not being tested for purity, there is no guarantee of the contents, labels do not always indicate all of the ingredients, contents of the supplements may change from batch to batch and (most importantly!) dietary supplements can contain banned substances. There are ways to ensure a supplement is safe for sport such as looking for third party testing like NSF or Informed Choice and checking on the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport for lists of banned substances.  In my Drug Ed and Supplement workshops, I emphasize that ignorance is not an excuse for a doping violation. It is the athlete’s responsibility to be educated on the supplements they are using and ensure that they are not contaminated. Athletes have been stripped of their medals and banned from sport for doping violations and say that they had no idea they were taking a banned substance. It is safest to work with a sport dietitian or exercise physiologist on what is safe to take. Be cautious with supplement store reps, there is no regulation for their training and they are not always aware of Doping protocols.

With that being said, as a dietitian, I still encourage athletes to work with their diet and food before trying any supplement, even vitamin and mineral supplements. Supplements cannot and will not make you a better athlete if diet and training are not in place first; I cannot stress this enough. Supplements are often the first thing athletes try in an attempt to maintain health, increase energy, support recovery and increase lean body mass and strength but it is a waste of money without the support of diet, training and the appropriate dosage and timing. We need a solid base before we can add the extras in an attempt to inch ahead those last couple millimeters or lift that last kg. Supplements also do not work for everyone and are not something that I think every athlete needs to take or should take. When contemplating using a supplement, you should consider effectiveness, cost, risk to health and performance and potential for a positive doping test.

Here is a little supplement humor for you….

Now that I have given a little bit of background information on supplement usage, I will give you the basics of a few most commonly used supplements. ***Not intended for use under the age of 18 years

Whey Protein: Protein powders in general are often used to help athletes meet their higher protein needs but they are most certainly not needed or necessary. Protein needs are easily met through the diet, especially with our high protein North American diet. Amino acids are often better absorbed in food form and when consumed as a food, it is safe and much less expensive. Examples of foods that provide a similar amount of protein to protein powders and work great as a recovery food include: 500ml chocolate milk, 1 cup cottage cheese, 1 can of tuna or ¾ cup Greek Yogurt. Protein powders are convenient and do help athletes ensure they get in their recovery. One should note that excess protein is not stored in the body as protein, but it is used for energy or converted to fat for storage when consumed in excess. Our bodies max out at using 0.4 g/kg bodyweight of protein at any given time. Whey protein is the protein powder most often used because it contains the greatest amount of essential amino acids and there is quick absorption from the GI tract (digestive tract) into the bloodstream. Optimal dosage of whey protein is 20g. Risks associated with protein powders, including whey, are contamination of the powder (ensure powder NSF or Informed Choice certified for safety) and long term high protein diet increases workload on kidneys and increases calcium excretion in the urine. For best use of whey protein, focus on timing and quality. Whenever consuming protein for recovery or as a pre-workout, always consume it with a carbohydrate source to optimize protein use.

Creatine: Creatine is typically used to help with mass building. Creatine is naturally made in the body by amino acids and plays a vital role in energy production (regeneration of ATP in skeletal muscle). The supplement is about optimizing body stores to help with recovery between short bouts of high intensity intervals, glycogen storage, and acts as a cellular buffer. The supplement is only safe for use if it has been third party tested and certified for sport. There are different dosages used and this will depend on athlete preference, reason for taking the supplement, tolerance and stage of training they are in. An issue that does arise when taking creatine is weight gain (this may be wanted, but can be unwanted depending on sport and reason for use) and long term effects are still currently unknown. Creatine is most effectively used in power sports (short, intense bursts) like weight lifting, jumping and sprinting. There are limited benefits to be found in its use for endurance sports. It is best to speak with a dietitian to discuss dosing that is right for you.

Beta-Alanine: Used to increase muscle content of carnosine, which is an important intracellular chemical that acts as an antioxidant, calcium sensitizer and buffer to acid in the muscles that is produced by high intensity exercise. Protocols vary depending on use and why it is being taken, similarly to creatine. The sports that beta-alanine have been most effective in supporting are the short, high intensity bursts (lasting 1-7minutes) in running, swimming, rowing or skating.

Caffeine: This is the most widely used supplement in the world, I personally use this supplement in the form of coffee every morning J! Caffeine acts on the Central Nervous System to stimulate mental arousal and stimulate the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). It also stimulates the mobilization of fatty acids and MAY (may being the key word!) increase fat oxidation. Caffeine is currently not banned in sport but is on the ‘to-watch’ list. There are risks associated with caffeine, especially at high doses such as heart palpitations, over arousal, headaches, muscles tension and most importantly increased heart rate. It is best to speak with a dietitian to discuss dosing appropriate for sport use.

There are a number of other supplements that are being used by athletes but due to the length of this post, I cannot discuss every single one. There is lots of ongoing research related to supplement use and effectiveness in various sports and protocols, dosages and uses are changing as we learn more.

If there is one thing that I would like you to take away from this post, it is that supplements are not necessary but can be used depending on the situation and circumstance. Athletes need to be careful whenever using any type of supplement and are to take them at their own risk. It is best to seek advice from a Sport Dietitian (RD) when deciding if a supplement is right for you.