Many athletes want to improve how well they train or perform. Eating a balanced diet based on Canada’s Food Guide is one of the best ways to help you train and perform at your best, but can sports supplements help? Read on to learn about four sports supplements and whether they can help you improve your performance.
Protein powder is one of the most popular sports supplements for athletes and people who want to gain muscle mass. They can be a convenient option when on the go, or if you struggle with appetite after training. However, if you eat enough protein-rich foods at meals and snacks, you likely do not need a protein supplement.
If I do use protein powders what should I look for on the label?
Look for a protein powder that has a mix of protein sources. Some proteins are digested more quickly than others. Find a protein powder that has whey (milk), casein (milk), soy, hemp or pea protein.
Whey protein is absorbed more quickly than casein or soy but over the course of the day, these proteins are just as effective at repairing and building muscle.
Check that the protein powder has enough leucine. Look for 1.8 to 2.0 grams of leucine per serving. Leucine is an essential amino acid important for building muscle.
Read the label: try to avoid extra fats, sugars and artificial sweeteners in protein powders.
Remember, more protein powder is not better. Eating more protein than your body needs will not help you build more muscle. To get the most from your protein, make sure to also get enough carbohydrates and calories during the day otherwise your body will use protein as energy instead of repairing and building muscle. Connect with a dietitian to get personalized advice on how much protein you need. Read more about your protein, carbohydrate and fat needs when training here.
Creatine is naturally made by our liver. It is carried throughout the body in the blood and provides energy to your muscles.
Your body makes most of the creatine you need, but it is also found in meat, poultry and fish. Creatine supplements have a much higher dose than what is found in foods.
Can creatine supplements help me train or play sports better?
Creatine has been shown to improve how well a person can play sports that require short bursts of energy. You may benefit from creatine supplements if you do activities like:
Running or biking sprints
Team sports like hockey, football and basketball that require short power bursts
Weight-lifting and strength-training
If you participate in endurance sports like long-distance running, creatine may not give you a lot of benefit.
Are creatine supplements safe?
Research on creatine supplements have not shown any health risks in healthy adults when taken in recommended amounts. However, the effect of long-term use of creatine supplements is not known.
How much creatine should I use?
As with all supplements, getting more than you need is not helpful. The amount of creatine that is shown to help with sport performance is:
Some people get side effects such as bloating, nausea and muscle cramps when taking creatine, especially at high doses.
What do I look for on the package?
Look for a creatine supplement that contains creatine monohydrate. This is the form of creatine that has been studied the most and is the recommended type to use. Creatine monohydrate combined with a carbohydrate (like dextrose or other sugars) is best absorbed by your muscles. Creatine works best if taken separate from caffeine.
If you are buying a creatine supplement, look for a natural product number (NPN) or drug identification number (DIN). These numbers tell you if the product has been reviewed by Health Canada and is safe to use.
Creatine supplements are not recommended if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are under 18 years of age and want to take creatine you should be monitored by a health care professional. Speak to a healthcare professional before taking creatine supplements. Always read and follow the instructions on the package when taking creatine.
Caffeine is a natural ingredient that acts as a stimulant (increases alertness). Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, some pops, some herbs, some energy drinks and sports bars.
Can caffeine help me train better?
Maybe. Caffeine helps you feel alert and may help you to play sports more intensely and improve muscle contraction.
Can caffeine harm my performance?
Yes. For some people, caffeine has side effects that can impact how well you can perform a sport. For people who are very sensitive to caffeine, too much caffeine can cause:
rapid heart rate
Caffeine can be found in energy drinks in very high amounts. Be careful that you don’t get too much caffeine when drinking these products.
If I use caffeine, how much is safe?
If you choose to use products with caffeine, stay within Health Canada’s recommended limits:
For adults: No more than 400 milligrams (mg) per day (equal to about 3 cups of coffee).
Pregnant and breastfeeding women: No more than 300 mg of caffeine per day (equal to just over 2 cups of coffee).
Research has shown that taking 1 to 3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight before or during exercise may improve performance.
Some sports bars can be a good choice if you need some energy before you train or play a sport, and can also help you repair your muscles after.
However, it is not necessary to use sports bars. You can get the energy you need from food before you play a sport.
If I use sports bars, what should I look for on the label?
Read the Nutrition Facts Table and list of ingredients. Here are some tips:
Look for ingredients like whole grains, soy, casein (milk) or whey (milk) protein, dried fruit and nuts.
Try to avoid artificial sweeteners such as sucralose since you need carbohydrate (sugar) for energy.
Avoid sports bars that have trans fats. The words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list means trans fat. Trans fat is also listed in the Nutrition Facts Table.
Look for at least 10 grams of protein per bar.
Look for lower fat and fibre if you are eating a sports bar before playing a sport to avoid potential gastrointestinal discomfort.
Read our article on Sports Nutrition: How Much Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat Do I Need?, for more information on other pre and post exercise food options.
How can a dietitian help?
A dietitian will consider your unique factors to give you personalized advice on what and how much to eat to optimize your exercise and sports training while getting all the nutrients your body needs. They will also give you advice on whether you would benefit from a sports supplement. Connect with a dietitian today!
Eating a balanced diet based on Canada’s Food Guide is one of the best ways to help you exercise and play sports at your best. There are pros and cons to different sports supplements and can affect each person differently. Check with your dietitian or health care provider about what supplements are right for you.
You may also be interested in:
Sports Nutrition: Facts on Hydration
Sports Nutrition: Facts on Sports Drinks
Sports Nutrition: Facts on Vitamins and Minerals
Sport Nutrition: Facts on Carbohydrate, Fat and Protein
This article was written and reviewed by dietitians from Dietitians of Canada. The advice in this article is intended as general information and should not replace advice given by your dietitian or healthcare provider.
Last Update – February 6, 2023