For as long as competitive cycling has been around, riders have been looking for ways to improve their performance, to gain an edge over their competitors. One popular method is the use of sports nutrition supplements. In this first part of a two-part series, sports nutritionist Alan McCubbin takes us through the life-cycle of sports nutrition supplements, from initial research to marketing and explains the role thatscience does and doesn't play in the process.
A couple of weeks ago Wade asked if I could write a piece on the scientific merits of beetroot juice, to see if the research matches up to the hype. Beetroot juice has been around for a little while now, but the research is continuing to evolve such that what I can write about it now is quite different to even 12 months ago.
But before we look at the evidence that supports or rejects any particular supplement, I thought it’d be good to start with an overview of how a supplement comes to exist, from concept to commercial product, with the science, marketing and ultimately profits that accompany it.
I’ve worked as a sports dietitian for several years now, and it’s quickly become obvious that there’s a typical pattern with which the latest supplement emerges on the scene. Many supplements don’t actually get conceived by the marketing gurus at first – rather there’s ascientific theory or proposed mechanism by which the supplement works, which has been discovered by the academic community. This usually involves a bright spark that’s thought laterally about the limits of exercise performance, and then tried to find a potential angle of attack.
The earliest studies of sports nutrition supplements often slip under the radar for most people — they’re basic science studies (often in petri dishes or with rats) that examine the safety of a supplement and how it works in the body. The point at which people start to sit up and take notice tends to be in the next phase. In this part of the cycle, the actual mechanism by which the supplement is proposed to benefit athletes is first tested in humans — often non-athletic uni students because they’re young, free of major health problems and easy to recruit as participants.
These early studies often provide the first bit of excitement about a supplement, and it’s here that manufacturers start jumping on the bandwagon and promoting the evidence that these supplements work. It’s important to realize, though, that at this stage no-one has shown that these supplements actually improve performance, because performance has not even been tested. But as mentioned in a previous article, a supplement manufacturer won’t wait for the performance studies to be done to start producing and promoting a supplement.
This is probably in part because they’re trying to beat their competitors to market which is fair enough. It may also be because they can convince people to buy a product simply based on studies that show changes in metabolism — and therefore imply a performance benefit to their potential customers — without having to wait another 2-5 years for studies to be conducted and published showing whether this is actually the case or not.
Cynics might argue that manufacturers do this deliberately, because they know that, historically, about 95% of supplements that show promise in these early studies fail to enhance performance when meaningful studies are conducted down the track. But my experience suggests that it’s usually because metabolic changes are enough to get the marketing team excited, and enough to get customers excited.
Sports Nutrition Supplements: Untangling The Science and The Hype
by Alan McCubbin | Photography by Bryan Christie