The Triathlete’s Guide to Supplements

As we discussed in detail in the June Edition, the decision to include supplements in daily training or in racing has associated risks. As an athlete, it is your responsibility to assess the risk, the need and the effectiveness of taking any supplement or ergogenic aid.

Firstly, the biggest gains to performance are going to be made with your nutrition and fluid groundwork. I am talking the boring stuff – ensuring adequate amounts and spread of the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats), plenty of quality and variety for the micronutrients, and looking after your hydration. After that, you can start looking at nutrition periodisation and timing – as that can further enhance performance.

If you have ticked all these boxes and made the decision that a supplement is worth the risk and is safe, the next step is to work out which supplements are effective for a triathlete. The number of supplements on the market is huge, and the pressure for purchase is at an extreme that can con even the most well-meaning and well-educated athletes.
The Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) classification system is a grouping of supplements that helps to identify between the well-evidenced options beside the options that may just be the most efficient way to waste money. If you are unsure of a product at any stage, it is a safe bet to refer back to this as a starting point. Basically, if the supplement you are considering is not in groups A or B, it is unlikely to be doing much for your health or performance at all.

A big thing to remember with all this is that even the most well evidenced supplements never work for everyone.

A great example of this is caffeine – extremely well evidenced as an ergogenic aid, but it is also well known that some athletes have adverse effects when it comes to performance when including it. So, with this, ensure you are trialling all supplements before any competition, consulting a sports dietitian for correct dosages and following your instinct – you know your body best.

What we do know though, is that the body is pretty predictable when it comes to energy systems and how we can influence what will drive adaptations or enhance the efficiency of these energy systems. For triathlon, we ask our body to perform for an extended period at some pretty impressive intensities. To fuel these long gruelling events, the body relies on carbohydrates as the most effective fuel source but can also use fats and proteins. This means that over the course of an event (particularly anything greater than 90minutes), you will burn through most of your carbohydrate stores and may find yourself flailing if you do not fuel properly.


Cue the Sports Foods:
Are sports foods and drinks essential? In essence, no. However, they are very effective at delivering the necessary fuel when you need it most and in a form that is readily digestible. These include gels, sports drinks, electrolytes, and sports confectionary and sports bars.

These options are all really well researched and heavily backed for performance if consumed in the correct dosage and with good timings both in training and events. The amount you need is going to largely depend on the intensity you are working at, your training level, your daily carbohydrate intake and the environmental conditions.

Protein Supplements:
There is no doubting that along with sports foods, protein supplements are a widely accepted and utilised sports supplement. These can be a real performance boost mainly in terms of convenience rather than the protein powder itself being a miracle worker.

You can absolutely get all the protein you need through food, however protein supplements can help boost current intake for lower protein meal items, or offer an easy recovery food when other options would be difficult to transport or access.

Caffeine is one of the most widely used supplements in the endurance world. Caffeine is a great brain stimulator, so its benefit lies in reducing the perception of fatigue during tough events, particularly in endurance events. However, high doses of caffeine aren’t for everyone so be mindful that if you struggle to sleep or suffer from performance anxiety, taking additional stimulants may be counterproductive.

Also, almost 10 per cent of the popul-ation actually have a negative response to caffeine rather than positive – it is all to do with the enzyme responsible for breaking down caffeine. If you feel like caffeine doesn’t work for you, you may be right!

You may not have heard of nitrates but you most certainly would have heard of beetroot juice!
Beets are rich in nitrates and are, therefore, used to supplement for nitrates. Nitrate enhances performance in endurance sports,such as triathlon, by reducing the oxygen cost of exercise. This then allows you to prolong your time to exhaustion through that improved efficiency.

You will be unlikely to see any improvements in actual power through nitrate supplementation. It is really the reduced fatigue, which provides the benefit. The key thing of note here though, is that nitrate supplementation is less effective in the highly trained. The benefits are also not as pronounced as when seen in intermittent sports or activities less than 10minutes where the anaerobic system is relied upon.

Creatine is an interesting one – originally accepted for its benefits in power-based sports, creatine is gaining traction in the endurance world as well. With races often decided by pivotal high-intensity bursts, creatine is currently being re-hashed as a potential endurance supplement. However, lots more research needs to take place before these recommendations can be confirmed.

Its use for enhanced muscle carbo-hydrate storage is also being researched. However, it needs to be noted that there are some negatives to creatine use particularly in endurance events, as it will lead to a significant weight gain.

Medical Supplements:
These supplements are really dependent on nutritional deficiencies. In the triathlete population, they tend to be primarily iron, calcium and vitamin D. There is no need to take these supplements as a ‘just in case’ policy though, they are only needed if a deficiency is diagnosed. If concerned, a visit to your GP or Sports Physician may be a good place to start to undergo screening.

Triathletes are at increased risk of iron deficiency due to a number of factors. In both the male and female athletes, reduced energy availability can contribute. Some iron is also lost due to the impact of running – called foot strike haemolysis.

Now, this article hasn’t even scratched the surface of supplements but does prioritise the ones that you may want to consider including at specific points of your season. To ensure that supplements are being as effectively as possible and integrated into your daily training, an Accredited Sports Dietitian can provide you a ‘run-sheet’ (pun intended) of what food to consume, when to consume it and what supplements may compliment that intake.


Alicia Edge

Alicia is an Advanced Sports Dietitian with an online sports nutrition business, Compeat Nutrition. She is also a mum and triathlete, so advice extends beyond the basics and is instead focused on providing effective and achievable nutrition for both training and racing.

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