Myth Busting: The Truth Behind Supplements for Athletes

About the author : Tim DiLeo

MS, RD, LD, CSSD, ISAK Level 1

Published on : 2/24/22

Supplements are popular among athletes for building muscle and improving performance, but they are often misunderstood. What do supplements contain? How do they affect performance? Misconceptions about supplements are pervasive, and it can be hard to determine which supplements are effective and which may be harmful.

Here are some of the most common myths surrounding supplements, along with facts that will help consumers make informed decisions.

Choosing Supplements

Shopping for supplements can be tricky. Store shelves are full of different options, with new products popping up all the time. Athletes must be cautious of what they put into their bodies. However, this doesn’t mean athletes should avoid all supplements and miss out on potential benefits.

Myth: Supplements are on store shelves, so they must be safe.

Reality: Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, which means labels may be inaccurate or the product may contain traces of banned substances or hidden ingredients. As a result, collegiate and professional athletes may end up failing drug tests. To ensure supplements are safe and free of banned substances, look for a third-party certification sticker on the label. These include NSF for Sport and Informed Choice/Sport.

Myth: Supplements are bad, and I don’t need them for injury recovery.

Reality: Getting an athlete back in action after an injury typically involves rehabilitating and strengthening their body. Nutrition plays a key role in healing but is often overlooked by medical professionals and athletes alike. Depending on the type of injury an athlete sustains, nutritional supplements can assist with the healing process and help get the athlete back to 100% a little faster.

Myth: Any supplement can help an athlete heal from injury.

Reality: It’s essential to choose the right supplement for different types of injuries. Examples include:

  • Soft tissue/ligament or tendon injuries: Collagen Peptides, Omega-3s, Vitamin D, Creatine
  • Bone injuries: Vitamin D, Calcium, Collagen Peptides
  • Concussions: Creatine, DHA, Omega 3
     

Myth: Collagen protein is better than whey protein.

Reality: These two supplements serve different purposes; neither is better than the other. Collagen is a type of protein similar to whey or casein protein. Hair, skin, nails, ligaments, tendons and bone are made up of mostly collagen proteins. Therefore, collagen protein can support growth of these tissues. For general health, collagen protein can be taken at any time of day in a dose of 10-20 grams. When used as part of a nutrition plan for injury rehabilitation, collagen protein should be consumed 45-60 minutes prior to a rehab or strengthening session. This allows the collagen protein to get into the bloodstream, where it can be used by the body to “remodel” or rebuild tissue during the session. To build collagen in the body, vitamin C is necessary. Look for collagen brands that contain at least 45 milligrams of vitamin C.

 

Creatine Supplements

Creatine has been used for decades by athletes trying to gain weight, build muscle and improve strength. It remains one of the most researched supplements on the market and has been shown to be very safe and effective when used appropriately. However, there are still many misconceptions regarding its use.

Myth: Creatine is all athletes need to gain weight and muscle.

Reality: Being in a calorie surplus— eating more calories than you burn each day — is ultimately what promotes weight and muscle gain. If you do not eat adequate food each day, your body will not grow, even if you use creatine. When you are in a calorie surplus, creatine can help support muscle growth.

Myth: Creatine weight gain is all water weight.

Reality: This is partially true. Creatine requires water to shuttle it into the muscle cell. Therefore, when athletes begin taking creatine, there is an increase in the amount of water being stored in the muscle. This will result in some water weight gain initially (2-3 pounds) depending on the size and muscle mass of the athlete. Creatine also works by providing energy for short, intense exercise, such as weightlifting. Being able to lift a little more weight or do an extra rep or two of an exercise will lead to increased muscle gain over time. This is real muscle weight, not water weight.

Myth: Creatine causes muscle cramps.

Reality: Many athletes believe that taking creatine will give them muscle cramps. In fact, the opposite is true. Because extra water is shuttled into the muscle when creatine is used, it actually helps to prevent cramping. A well-hydrated muscle is at much less risk of cramping than a dehydrated muscle. Several research studies have shown that creatine improves hydration and does not cause cramps.

Myth: Athletes should “load” creatine.

Reality: Creatine loading was a popular tactic among bodybuilders decades ago. Athletes would often take four 5-gram doses throughout the day, for a total of 20 grams per day. Newer research has shown that while this method can rapidly increase muscle creatine stores, it is unnecessary for athletes who are going to be using creatine long term. Five grams per day is sufficient.

 

Supplements for Strength Training

Adequate protein intake is important for muscle building and recovery. But not all protein supplements are effective, and protein alone may not be enough to achieve desired results. It can be difficult to understand the vital role protein and other nutrients play in nutrition and athletic performance.

Myth: Protein supplements are all I need for weight gain/muscle mass building.

Reality: The only way to gain weight and muscle is to eat a calorie surplus each day. However, some supplements can support muscle building:

  • Whey protein powder contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle building. Protein powders are an easy, convenient way to increase protein intake. They can be used as a post-workout drink or added to other dishes, such as oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies or pudding, to give them a protein boost.
  • Creatine is found in most animal-based protein sources (beef, chicken, fish, eggs), but supplements can help improve muscle strength and power. Adding weight to the bar and doing a few extra reps will help add muscle over time.
  • Zinc is a trace mineral, but many athletes may still be deficient due to poor eating habits. Low zinc levels can cause a loss of appetite, which is detrimental for athletes trying to eat enough calories to build muscle. Adding 20-30 milligrams of zinc daily can help increase appetite. 
  • Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. To gain weight, athletes must consume a lot of calories each day, which may be a significant change to their regular eating routine. The body must work harder to digest and break down a larger amount of food. Probiotics make it easier for athletes to consume more food without experiencing common digestive issues like bloating and constipation.

 

Energy Drinks and Pre-Workout Supplements

Energy drinks and pre-workout supplements offer the stimulating effects of caffeine, making them popular among athletes. The second most common ingredient in these products is taurine, which is an amino acid that plays a role in many brain functions. Although these ingredients may seem harmless, it’s important to carefully consider their health effects.

Myth: Energy drinks and pre-workout supplements are harmful to health.

Reality: This is not a myth and is actually true. Current research has shown that the combination of caffeine and taurine found in these products can be detrimental to health. They can impact brain development in adolescents, alter behaviors and decrease cardiac function. Regular consumption of energy drinks also increases blood pressure and can cause problems such as hypertension, rapid heart rate, anxiety and nervousness, all of which can lead to cardiovascular disorders. Additionally, these products have inconsistent ingredient labeling and are not FDA regulated. Athletes looking for a quick boost of alertness should opt for single-ingredient caffeinated drinks like coffee or green tea instead.

 

Good Nutrition: The Key to Performance

Ultimately, proper nutrition is not founded on supplements. Athletes require the right balance of foods to support their performance. Supplements are convenient and readily available — and they’re not all bad. But it’s important to be aware of what you put into your body in order to boost your next workout.