How do your supplement habits compare to other endurance athletes?
Written by: Shawn Talbott, PhD
Surveys on dietary supplement use among the general population suggest that 50-75 percent of adult Americans are “regular users” of dietary supplements, primarily multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplements. Supplement usage rates among athletes are less clear, with some reports indicating 100 percent usage of dietary supplement among bodybuilders, and other estimates indicating 30-50 percent usage among elite and non-elite endurance athletes.
It is generally accepted that bodybuilders and weight-training enthusiasts consume dietary supplements at a significantly greater level compared to endurance athletes (runners, triathletes, cyclists, etc), but the reasons for this disparity are not well understood. Differences in supplement effects, marketing, and mode of education (e.g. where/how athletes get their information) may account for some of the differences in supplement usage between strength and endurance athletes.
My research group, SupplementWatch, conducted a study entitled “Dietary Supplement Use Among Endurance Athletes” that was presented at the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN). Our overall conclusions were:
- Triathletes at both Olympic and Ironman distances are avid users of dietary supplements (almost 100 percent in some cases).
- Primary sources of information about supplements are the Internet (95%), friends and training partners (89%), and coaches (83%).
- Longer-distance triathletes appear to take more supplements for recovery and endurance and also tend to report greater supplement usage after exercise, as compared to shorter-distance triathletes.
In our study, we recruited 326 triathletes from events in California, Texas, and Oklahoma (174 were Iron-distance triathletes with 103 men and 71 women, and 152 were Olympic-distance with 89 men and 63 women). Triathletes reported that, on average, they consumed dietary supplements five days per week and spent $51/month on their supplements (range $15 to $140).
Interestingly, we also found that despite the widespread use of supplements among triathletes, they also felt that they needed more information about supplements (90 percent) and they had difficulty in finding accurate/unbiased information (90 percent).
When we asked triathletes why they took supplements, 89 percent indicated that they felt they were not able to get the nutrients they needed from foods alone. Other reasons for taking supplements included:
- They give me energy (82%)
- To perform better (73%)
- General health (62%)
- To help me recover (61%)
- To lose body fat (41%)
- To prevent disease (28%)
When asked what types of supplements they were using, we found a wide range of endurance-specific products:
- Carbohydrate (beverage) = 98%
- Multi-vitamin = 93%
- Electrolyte (beverage) = 90%
- Carbohydrate (gel) = 78%
- Fish oil = 60%
- Antioxidant = 56%
- Recovery = 56%
- Endurance = 52%
- Fat Loss = 42%
When we looked at when supplements were consumed, we found that triathletes were avid users of dietary supplements before (95 percent) and during (88 percent) exercise, but less so after training (only 54 percent), despite the fact that some of the most proven sport nutrition supplements are post-exercise recovery enhancers.
Overall, we found that triathletes are avid consumers of a wide range of dietary supplements for reasons including endurance enhancement, general health, post-exercise recovery, and other benefits – but that they were in search of more information about supplements. While we did not survey runners, considering the wide degree of overlap between the two sports we would expect to obtain similar findings.
Future installments in this “Performance in a Pill?” series will attempt to give you the information you need to make informed decisions about the pros and cons of choosing and using dietary supplements as an endurance athlete.
Shawn Talbott, PhD, is a multiple Ironman and ultramarathon finisher and nutritional biochemist based in Salt Lake City. For more information visit www.ShawnTalbott.com.