Everyone else seems to be chugging on them. Do I need one too?
The fitness supplement industry is big business. Very big business. It’s also a largely unregulated business and there seems to be little restriction over the claims manufacturers can make on their product labels. Take a walk around any fitness expo or supplement store and the product labels from the various shaped bags, pots and tubes gleam at you, promising all kinds of performance enhancements, body composition changes and other mythical superpowers. Perhaps you really can become a pink unicorn, even if it’s just for one day.
So fitness/workout supplements are they bogus, or legit?
In many instances the individual ingredients of many workout supplements are indeed legitimate. At least to the extent that someone, somewhere has published a scientific study demonstrating the benefits of ingredient “x” for solving particular problem “y”. However, all scientific studies are not created equal in terms of the rigor of their methodology. There are also issues of bias (ie studies funded by supplement companies) and in many instances the studies have been performed on rats, or on other individuals who may not be like you. You may train more or less than the individuals studied, you may have been training for a much longer or shorter period than the individuals studied, your basic diet may be vastly different, other stressors can confound results and interactions with other nutrients may occur in a real world situation. If you go trawling the scientific journal archives on a particular topic, you will generally find inconclusive evidence for most popular workout/performance supplements ie. there are just as many studies saying that no changes were noted as a result of taking supplement “x” as there are saying there were changes noted.
The biggest elephant in the room when it comes to consideration of taking workout supplements is what an individual’s basic diet looks like away from the gym. A core principle we remind all of our athletes of is that you can’t out train a bad diet. This also extends to supplements, you can’t supplement your way out of a bad diet. So if you are considering taking a pre or post workout supplement, the biggest question you need to answer firstly is, “What does my food intake look like on a daily basis?”
You can pop all the potions, powders and pills you like, but if you aren’t meeting your body’s basic need for protein, carbohydrate and fat (as well as a myriad of other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) in the right amounts, from real food then you are essentially wasting your money and your time on performance supplements.
When I ask people what their eating habits/nutrition looks like, in 80-90% of cases I receive the answer good to pretty good. However, most people have no idea what “good” actually is and thus one person’s definition of good can be poles apart from another. Popular cereal brands would have us believe that if we are consuming their breakfast cereal every morning then our diet would be classified as “good”. However, on this point alone I would disagree. If you are eating any of the mainstream commercial breakfast cereals on a daily basis then I suggest it would be worth your while to devote more energy into learning about optimal nutrition for your body and your health, rather than expending energy looking into pre or post workout supplementation.
So, to answer the question of “Should I take a post-workout shake /drink / supplement?” It depends. If you have your house in order in terms of basic nutrition, then yes it is something you could consider for the minor potential improvements to performance and recovery. However, real food always trumps supplements and for 90% of the population who exercise for general fitness, then simply devoting your attention to improving the quality of your regular meals will produce more results for you than any outlay of time or money on workout supplements.
Other points to note if you do decide to start supplementing your diet with a pre or post workout drink:
- It still counts. Whilst control of body composition is not strictly about calories in and calories out, calories in do still count. If you chug down your protein/carb post workout shake in a minute or two and then go home and have your normal meal, you might find the body composition changes you desire remain elusive.
- Replacing real food with supplements is less than ideal. If taking a workout supplement means you drastically reduce your consumption of real food then you fall foul of one of the first principles of optimum nutrition – Eat Real Food. Workout supplements are heavily processed – even “natural” ones.
- Don’t necessarily trust what the sales rep in the supplement store (or some gyms) tells you. Do some research at home first (or ask our Trainers in the gym) to determine what it is you need before you go shopping. Otherwise you might find yourself walking away with the product that delivers the biggest profit margin for the store rather than the one that delivers the biggest bang for your buck for your body.
- Know that you are dabbling into the murky underworld of banned substances and contamination. With such poor regulation over the industry, there are little to no quality control measures enforced. Thus you might be buying more than just what is stated on the label. The supplement that you purchased today, might just have come off the same production line in China that was processing a substance that is banned in Australia. And whilst you might not have aspirations of competing in the Olympics, some banned substances are just downright bad for you.
- Read the label and know what’s (supposed) to be in it. Ignore the hype (seriously some of those labels are almost embarrassing!) and ignore celebrity endorsements (you are smarter than that right?)
- Be real. Continue to evaluate your diet. Getting caught up in the intricacies of peri workout nutrition, and then avoiding eating green things and chowing down on KFC regularly is a red flag that perhaps your dedication and commitment to your goals is not what you’ve told yourself it might be.