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Recovery is a major factor in sports performance and everyday life. Outside of sleep and rest, nutrition plays a pivotal role in recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Supplements are a big question mark for many coaches and trainers, as the science is always growing and the administrative burdens are problematic for professionals.
In this Academy Guide, we cover the key supplements that nutrition science research shows have potential for the repair and regeneration of the body. In addition to science, the outline will cover up-to-date information on purity and other considerations important to supplements, such as budgeting. Education is the first step for all applications in sports and training, but taking action requires far more than just knowledge. This guide covers compliance and logistical information that enables the reader to make better choices and smarter investments in nutrition.
Strategic Benefits of Supplements
Supplements are measured allotments of nutrition, whether a micronutrient or macronutrient. Some supplements are hard to distinguish from conventional foods, but due to their application are considered functional foods when applied in sports. Supplements are a convenient way to ensure nutrition is supported. The entire industry has expanded to include new options for enhancing athlete potential.
Dietary supplements are exactly what they sound like: a complementary part of a sound diet and not a replacement for poor nutritional practices. What makes supplements popular and effective is that they are practical for many reasons, such as the potency of some vitamins or nutrients that can’t be easily acquired in typical diets. An example of this is vitamin D, a hormone that supports an array of bodily functions beyond bone health. Creatine administration is another example of the practical value of supplements, as the intake of natural sources isn’t realistic no matter how dedicated an athlete is to their diet.
Supplements may be ethically required in some settings, as anemia and other health risks are prone to affect more than just performance with athletes. Quality of life, not just athletic potential, is part of the responsibilities of support staff. Athlete care for traumatic brain injuries (TBI), as well as general well-being, should be considered when supplements are discussed in practice.
Purity and Efficacy with Supplements
Several organizations exist that improve the quality and purity of products for sport, and they are NSF, Informed-Sport, and Informed-Choice. While they are excellent for regulating the purity in elite sport, not all products are tested and this is why contamination may still result in an athlete testing positive for banned substances. It is imperative that coaches and professionals be fully aware of the current status of every order or recommendation before implementing a supplement program. In addition to the purity of the product, the handling and safety should be examined by reviewing the national body that monitors the health and safety of the product.
While purity is important, the products may not have a scientifically sound benefit or the formulation may have little efficacy because of the dose or recommended method of administration. Having a pure supplement is not an assurance that the application or formula is effective. Many products have proprietary formulas that don’t list active ingredient dosages, so using supplements that list what is actually included in the product is essential.
The nutrition facts on a supplement label are also estimated because uptake, not intake, is what determines the efficacy of a product. With nutrients that sometimes compete with one another, even vitamins and minerals that are consumed may not end up improving the nutritional status of athletes. Functional foods are not considered supplements, but label claims are very important and sometimes a certificate of analysis is available for the potency of nutrients contained in the package.
Promising Recovery and Regeneration Supplements
Defining a supplement today is difficult, as many foods are fortified. Even basic food products are sometimes considered functional foods because a simple manufacturing or preparation process is involved with the product. Most commonly, a supplement is an artificial product that is a powder or pill, but foods that resemble household groceries or beverages are now considered part of the family of supplements.
This vitamin is actually a hormone that has other roles outside of bone health. Based on screening data in the NFL, athletes with low levels of vitamin D have higher rates of injuries to their muscles. Genetics, environmental conditions, lifestyle, and nutritional pattern all determine an optimal dose for vitamin D, as sunlight and ethnicity play a role with vitamin D levels in the body.
Protein in powdered form is convenient for those who have growth needs or are pressed for time. Technically, protein powders are macronutrients, but some types of protein, such as whey protein, have other potential health benefits. The market for protein is understandably high as muscle repair is a common theme with supplements, but technically, powders are used for their versatility and practical benefits.
Seen as a muscle enhancer, creatine monohydrate is mainly used for speed and power events. With health benefits to the brain, there is high interest today in creatine for treating and preventing concussions. Creatine is inexpensive and safe, and it helps with both muscle growth and the ability to produce more output during high-intensity exercise. Hypertrophy, for athletes with specific size requirements or anyone needing to accelerate growth (such as athletes navigating atrophy after surgery), can benefit from creatine supplementation.
Much of the resurgence of healthy fats stems from concussion research, and omega-3 supplements are currently recommended. Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3s, but other options besides marine sources are also effective in improving blood profiles.
While technically not researched for muscle repair directly, restoration of the microbiome of the human body is an emerging area that nutrition and sport science are investigating. The common challenges with sport, specifically illness and gut health, may be improved with specific probiotic strains. Until research is conclusive, the impact of probiotics seems to be positive, with more irrefutable information coming in the near future.
Tart Cherry Extract
Muscle soreness is a common challenge with elite athletes and those that train heavy. Current research on subjective indicators of non-clinical pain shows that tart cherry extract in juice or supplement form can alleviate the discomfort of intense training and competition. In addition to subjective indicators of soreness, sleep and cognitive function, improvement looks promising with athletes and the general population.
Questionnaires can streamline this information gathering process. Other “supplements” such as energy bars, functional sports beverages, protein products, and nutrient-dense food products are gray areas with supplements. Stimulants and other muscle enhancers are available, but caffeine is often consumed in coffee and considered a functional food. Due to the labelling, the previously listed products are technically considered foods and not supplements, but are typically constructed and packaged for convenience and positioned as a measured nutritional option for sport or health.
Budgeting for Supplements and Functional Foods
Supplements and functional foods are consumables, so they must be replenished and budgeted for carefully. Cost and compliance are two areas that determine the success of a supplementation program, and compromises must be made. In addition to the budgeting of the supplements, the time investment to ensure that athletes understand the pitfalls of using lesser quality or unknown brands is important because of the risks of contamination. Therefore, a budgeting plan needs to account for time and the human resources necessary to properly administer it.
A data dashboard can display the necessary data to increase efficiencies. Nutrient density and priorities with caloric intake have precedence over more esoteric supplements or performance enhancement due to the needs of recovery and health maintenance. While it’s illogical to focus on stimulants or muscle-enhancing products, it’s common to see priorities favor performance over recovery and health. Thus, an organization or coach should make foundational products the cornerstone of their nutritional program, including prepared meals and functional foods that are not commonly seen as supplements but can be viewed as supplemental.
Creating an Action Plan with Supplements
Administering a supplement plan requires organization, a budget, and, more importantly, a way to evaluate a cause and effect relationship with the intervention. Athlete nutrition isn’t easy to quantify, but simple measures such as body composition, biomarker status, internal physiological monitoring, and performance testing all help evaluate how sports nutrition and supplements are working. Using an athlete management system with the latest sports nutrition practices is a clear advantage for teams, and a viable solution to help the regular population of trainees as well.
When designing an action plan, the priorities should be on what is the most realistic and the most impactful, such as simple changes that are easy to execute tactically and can be evaluated later for compliance. Comprehensive nutritional interventions such as diet plans, meal preparation, and other approaches are far more demanding than supplements, but they are likely to be more successful when small behavior modifications are made. The use of supplements as a springboard to more holistic and complete sports nutrition applications is an effective strategy in making change for the better.
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