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Sports Supplements Explained

According to the NHS millions of people in the UK take sports supplements. And they take them for a number of reasons, ranging from weight loss to gaining muscle and boosting performance.

Indeed, sports supplements are popular with competitive athletes, where the tiniest advantage can give you that all-important winning edge. Guidance from the British Dietetic Association’s Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register confirms that “when used effectively and safely, some supplements may contribute towards improvements in health and/or performance for some athletes. This may be by supporting adaptation to training, supporting immune function or injury prevention/management, or by having a direct performance enhancing effect.” (i)

But sports supplements also offer benefits for the non-athletes among us, including gym-goers and regular exercisers who want to improve fitness, performance or physique – or even all three.

If you participate in sports or exercise on a regular basis, your body needs a good supply of essential nutrients. Most of these nutrients should come from food, so having a healthy balanced diet should be your first consideration. 

Try to make sure you’re eating plenty of good-quality protein such as that found in lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, beans, pulses, tofu, Quorn, low-fat dairy foods, nuts and seeds. It’s also important to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day – choose foods of various colours to get a good balance of nutrients – and to have some healthy fats such as those found in oily fish and a decent supply of complex carbohydrates.

For more information on how to eat healthily when you’re training, click here.

Meanwhile sports supplements can be helpful as they can support your healthy diet. They can help you avoid nutritional shortfalls while you’re exercising. You may also need certain nutrients to help keep your joints and muscles in good working order, which is essential if you want to stay active. And no matter how healthy your diet, sometimes you may need a sports supplement if you’re finding it difficult to get the nutrients you need in sufficient quantities from food.

Which supplement?

With so many sports supplements available, knowing which one is right for you isn’t always simple. If you’re not sure, start by asking yourself what you’re trying to achieve by exercising, as different aims often require different nutrients.

Most people who participate in physical activities are trying to achieve one or more of a few common outcomes, including to improve their overall health, to build muscle, to lose weight and to boost their energy and endurance while they’re active. Here’s a quick guide to some of the most popular supplements you may find useful…

Overall health support

  • Multivitamin and mineral
    If you’re training hard, your body may need extra vitamins and minerals. For example, your vitamin B requirement may be higher than usual, as several of the B vitamins are needed to convert food into energy as well as to help your body use protein. It’s also thought that vitamins C and E may help reduce muscle soreness after intense exercising. Supplementing magnesium may also be beneficial for preventing muscle fatigue, especially if you’re among the many people in the UK who have a low intake.

    Certain multivitamin and mineral complexes are specially formulated for sports and active people. These may be particularly helpful as they often include higher amounts of specific nutrients your body needs when you’re exercising.

Muscle building

  • BCAAs
    Branched-chain amino acids are the amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine (the name stems from their particular molecular structure). These amino acids are considered essential, meaning they cannot be made in the body and must be provided in the diet via protein-rich foods. They are used by the body to build protein and are found in high quantities in muscle tissue. There is some evidence that you may need more BCAAs than usual when you participate in strength training and endurance exercise (ii). Other evidence suggests BCAA supplementation may help reduce muscle damage after exercise (iii).

  • Other amino acids
    Besides BCAAs, other amino acids are often used by sports and active people, sometimes individually and sometimes in combination. Arginine, for instance, may help boost blood flow to the muscles during exercise as it increases levels of nitric oxide in the body. Arginine is also thought to help with the production of growth hormone, which promotes protein synthesis – that is, the process by which cells generate new proteins.

  • Glutamine, meanwhile, is considered important for muscle repair. The most abundant amino acid found in the body, glutamine is mostly made and stored in the muscles. However prolonged periods of intense training are thought to cause significant drops in blood glutamine levels. This may be linked to the fact that endurance athletes such as marathon runners are often susceptible to catching colds and other infections after competitive events, since glutamine is thought to help with immune function.

  • Taurine, on the other hand, is believed to boost muscle contractility, which helps with muscle strength, contraction speed and fatigue prevention. And a lysine supplement may be beneficial to vegetarians and vegans, as eating little to no animal protein may mean they won’t get the amount of lysine they need while exercising (lysine is an essential amino acid, so you can only get it through your diet).

  • Creatine
    A naturally occurring nutrient sourced in the diet from meat and fish, creatine can also be made in the liver and pancreas from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. Around 95 percent of the body’s creatine is stored in muscle – mostly in the form of phosphocreatine – where it provides the muscle with energy. Taking a creatine supplement is thought to help your muscles to work at higher intensities for a longer time, which may explain why it is currently one of the best selling sports supplements on the market. Most of the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of creatine focuses on forms of exercise that require repeated short-term bursts of high-intensity movements (iv), but some studies also suggest it may be useful for resistance (strength) training (v).

  • Whey protein
    One of two main proteins found in milk, whey is found in protein powders designed to be mixed with liquid to make a pre- or post-training drink. Using whey protein in this way is thought to boost muscle building as well as improve muscle recovery after exercise, possibly due to the fact that it contains good amounts of BCAAs. And while there are other types of protein, one study suggests whey is superior to casein and soy protein in stimulating protein synthesis after resistance training (vi). Another study claims taking a mixture of whey protein, amino acids and carbohydrates in a drink after resistance training may stimulate greater muscle protein synthesis than carbohydrate alone (vii).

    Other types of protein include pea protein, which may be useful for vegans and others who don’t include milk or other dairy foods in their diet. Pea protein is also particularly rich in BCAAs and arginine.

Weight loss

  • Carnitine
    Produced by the body in the liver and kidneys, this amino acid helps break down fat and convert it into energy. It does this by helping fat cells to be transported into muscle mitochondria, where the cells are oxidised to provide fuel. Since it’s thought to be so useful in helping the body to burn fat, it’s no wonder carnitine is widely used as a weight-loss supplement today. There’s also some evidence it may help improve muscle building. One study involving healthy elderly people suggests taking carnitine may reduce total fat mass and increase total muscle mass, as well as help with muscle fatigue (viii).

  • CLA
    Conjugated linoleic acid is thought to help reduce body fat, which explains why it has become a popular supplement among fitness competitors, body builders and anyone else who wants less body fat for a leaner look. There is some evidence to back this up, with a meta-analysis of 18 studies concluding that CLA produces a modest loss in body fat in humans (ix). CLA is found in beef and full-fat dairy foods, which means many people who avoid these foods may not be getting enough.

  • Green coffee extract
    Green coffee beans are beans that haven’t been roasted. But since the process of roasting alters the chemical composition of the beans, there is currently a lot of interest in unroasted beans and the health benefits they may offer, including that of weight loss. The main ingredient in green coffee bean extract currently being studied for weight loss benefits is chlorogenic acid.


Improved energy and endurance

  • Carbohydrates
    Carbs are found naturally in foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes and dairy foods, but you can also get them in manufactured sports supplement products such as energy drinks, bars and gels. If you’re physically active, it’s important to have some good-quality carbs with each meal. But you may also find it useful to use energy products if you’re doing prolonged intensive training to help boost your endurance. Common sources of carbs in energy sports supplements include slow-burning carbs such as fructose, galactose and amylose and fast-burning ones including sucrose, maltose and maltodextrin.


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  7. , et al. . Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). ;107(3):987-92.

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  9. , et al. Levocarnitine administration in elderly subjects with rapid muscle fatigue: effect on body composition, lipid profile and fatigue. Drugs Aging. ;20(10):761-7.

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Our Author - Keri Filtness


Keri Filtness has worked in the Nutrition Industry for 19 years. She is regularly called upon for her professional comments on health and nutrition related news. Her opinions have been featured by BBC3, Prima, Vitality, The Mirror, Woman’s Own and Cycling Weekly, amongst others. She has also worked one to one with journalists, analysing their diets and health concerns and recommending changes and additions, where appropriate.

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