As an emerging elite athlete, you’re constantly trying to find ways to improve your game. Maybe you can get a step faster, a few pounds heavier or lighter, jump a bit higher, or even make it through the third grueling workout of the day. And believe me - the supplement industry knows this. They take full advantage of your emotional investment in your sport and sell, sell, sell, often with little regard for the rules and regulations. Because yes, a lot of time their stuff does work.
But some of these things are definitely NOT good for you, and absolutely not worth the risk. So how do you know which ones to take?
In the world of elite sport, everyone is the best at what they do. An extra 1% advantage really can make a difference. But the penalty for a positive drug test can ban you from competition for years, whether you meant to dope or not. Therefore, without further ado, let’s talk about navigating this complicated minefield without getting blown up.
A small note: supplement use in elite sport is something highly monitored and measured, and in no way should you take what I say here as permission to take something that could put you in jeopardy. This is meant to serve as an informative guide so you can better navigate the waters on your own. No matter who tells you anything, always, ALWAYS do your research, stay informed, and triple check with the authorities.
STEP ONE: Make sure you really do need a supplement
Nine times out of ten, we can get the benefits of a supplement from something that could be classified as “real” food - lean meats, fibrous vegetables, good fats, whole grains, etc. Sure, supplements are easier. You don’t have to cook them, most of the time they’re flavorless or even taste good and provide a quick fix to your nutrition. But trust me, your body wants real food, not chemicals. Assess your diet first and foremost and see if you can get what you’re looking for by changing the way you eat.
For example, if you’re feeling less energized, you may need to eat more carbs full of B vitamins. If you’re not recovering well, make sure you’re getting a carb + protein drink immediately following training as well as enough good fats in your diet. Don’t be fooled by the marketing (or the fact that your buddy put on 10 lbs of muscle in a week by taking something you can’t even pronounce).
Get your bloodwork done and consult with a doctor to see what you’re really lacking. Chances are, there’s a food for it. And guess what? You’re not going to test positive for eating broccoli… at least, not yet.
STEP TWO: Read, know, and understand the guidelines for your sport.
If you’re an international or collegiate athlete, chances are you’ve been through enough anti-doping training that you could teach the class yourself. But even aspiring Olympians and up-and-coming collegiate stars can never be too careful. If you’re on the cusp, are a recruit, or plan to play elite sport in the future, get educated now. Check the prohibited list for WADA, CADP, USADA, NCAA, or whatever organization your sport falls under. Before you buy anything or ingest a supplement, read the label and check for any of that stuff. There’s even an app for that.
Every sport is different, however, so be sure to double check with your governing body as well as the specific competition. The rules for a domestic friendly match might not be the same as the rules for a World Cup, and things are constantly changing. Stay up to date. Also, know whether you’re required to report your whereabouts to WADA because just messing that up can cause big issues. Oh yeah, and there’s an app for that too.
STEP THREE: Only take something that is third party tested and certified
By third party, I don’t mean your third friend. I mean a nationally recognized and accredited organization that specializes in testing substances AND has zero investment in the parent company of the supplement.
Because sometimes - even if the specific supplement you’re taking doesn’t have anything prohibited in it - that doesn’t mean it isn’t manufactured at the same place as something that IS prohibited, and a little bit might have snuck in your batch. It’s the same reason they put “may contain traces of nuts” on items that have no nuts in them. If they’re manufactured at a peanut plant, it’s possible a bit of nut got in it and could kill someone with a severe nut allergy.
NSF is a great international, third-party organization with an extensive list of products they’ve tested. If you’re looking to get a protein, creatine, fish oil, etc., I’d start with that list and go from there.
STEP FOUR: Conquer the world.
Look, I don’t mean to scare you away from supplements. They can definitely help, but only if you’re already doing everything else right. There’s no use in adding icing to the cake without an actual cake underneath it. Sure, the icing tastes good, but if you have to choose between an iced cake or just icing for your birthday party… chances are the whole cake will win.
That’s how it will be in competition - when it comes down to two athletes with equal skill, size, speed and strength, the athlete who has complete control of his or her diet will beat the one who just took a pill and hoped for the best. If you’re among the top 1% of you who are doing everything right (congrats for making it here, by the way), the AC can help you take the next step.