Friday, November 5, 2010

Fuel for Competition (and Life).

There's a huge industry in the U.S. dedicated to producing products that are designed to make you perform better - or so the manufacturers would like you to think.  Run a search on Google for 'sport supplements' and you'll get over a quarter million hits. Generalize the term to 'supplement' and the return is nearly 70 million.  So, what do supplements do for you and are they actually worth the money and hype?  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

I was recently talking to a friend that wanted to know what kinds of supplements I take.  He knows I've been training full-time for several years and have been an athlete for most of my life.  His perception was that I must be taking lots of special pills.  When I told him I don't take any supplements except for utilizing a PowerBar product here and there during and after training and racing, he wouldn't believe me at first.  So I'll give you the explanation I gave to him.  Every athlete in the U.S. (and most abroad) that are pursuing professional athletics in a sport that appears in the Olympic Games is required to submit to random drug testing.  In the U.S. we have USADA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and most other countries have a similar program, all with the goal of ensuring drug-free sport.  In the U.S., we compete clean because we want to win on the merit of our hard work and not on that of a drug concocted in somebody's laboratory. There is also WADA, which is the World Anti-Doping Agency and they oversea the international anti-drug effort.  I'm required to update USADA with my general daily whereabouts so they can find me if my name is drawn for a random urine or blood test.  

What does all this 'ADA' stuff have to do with supplements then?  The short of it is that I'm responsible for any 'banned substance' (there's a list a mile long) that shows up in my samples.  Testing positive for a banned substance gets you kicked out of your sport for two years and perhaps indefinitely.  Don't forget that doping scandals also jeopardize the integrity of your teammates and country and in the case of cycling, the entire sport.  Not the way most of us envision our careers ending.  One would expect that going down to the local health food store and buying something off the shelf is a safe experience. It's true that most of the items on the shelves are fine to ingest, but only a small percentage of the manufacturers will guarantee to consumers that their product is clean.  In a world where commodities flow freely around the globe it's possible to get a product that contains ingredients from several different countries.  That free-flow of commodities guarantees that most manufacturers don't know where their ingredients are coming from.  The whey powder in your protein shake might come from Sri Lanka today and Mexico tomorrow.  You can't be certain!

Now, I'm not suggesting you become paranoid if you're taking a supplement, but it's worth thinking about where it may have come from and the potential for other ingredients to have found their way into your bottle.  Taking supplements is too much of a gamble for me.  It's likely that I could ingest most products in a health food store or GNC shop and not get a banned substance, but why chance it? Rather than risk it, I choose to eat a well-balanced diet.  I know that may sound corny since all of our engineered and fortified foods are marketed as though they are well-balanced and surely must be superior to lowly 'peasant food', but seriously?  What do people think our ancestors ate for thousands of years?  Sure there were illnesses in the 'old days' that were caused by dietary deficiencies, but that's exactly the point. Cultures eating a well-rounded Mediterranean diet, for example, tended to live healthy, long lives - and still do.

We have year-round access to a plethora of fresh, healthy foods so there's no need to choose vitamin-fortified and uber-processed products when you can readily get superior calories (more vitamins, minerals, phitochemicals, etc.).  As often as I'm able I go for fresh fruit, both raw and cooked vegetables, fats from unprocessed nuts, olive oil, and fish, some red meat and poultry, some dairy, some vegetable protein, and plenty of whole grain rice and other grains. Eating broadly and well insures your body has the building blocks necessary to maintain health and vitality, whether you're an athlete or not.  Don't get me wrong, I love sweets and treats as much as the next guy so I'm not suggesting you always forgo cookies or pie or chase a fad vegan or protein diet.  You have to be smart about your choices and that requires, among other things, a commitment to continued education on the subject.  As I mentioned above, I routinely use PowerBar gels or bars (notably processed products) during long and/or intense sessions for the quick sugars they offer, but I will just as readily down a piece of fruit or some raisins and nuts.

Something to ponder.  The average car has around 3 thousand moving pieces and breaking only a few of them through poor maintenance or putting the wrong fuel in the tank will render the entire machine useless. In contrast, the human brain has over 100 billion neurons alone and comprises only a few percent of the body's weight.  The take-home message: Spend time to re-consider the items you're using to fuel your system because there's always room for improvement.

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