How Olympians Choose Which Sports Supplements Are Worth It

November 9, 2016

Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg are Olympic distance runners headed to Rio this summer, and, as such, theyre ridiculously inspiring. Flanagan has madethe Olympic squad four times; Cragg beat Flanagan in a harrowing trials marathon in February. Theyre also endorsingHotshot, a drink that purports to prevent muscle cramps before, during, and after workouts. Since I started taking Hotshot, I havent had any cramping, says Flanagan.

Like many supplements that claim to enhance performance, Hotshot comes witha science-based explanation (muscles don’t cause cramps; nerves do), a Nobel laureate inventor, and an aggressive marketing campaign. It’s hard not to be skeptical: Maybe its the placebo effect or a fluke, correlation doesnt imply causation, and so on. But many elite, successful athletesuse dietary supplements, aspirational taglines and all. Sohow do Olympians choose which are bunk, and which are worth it?

Carefully. The supplements industry is a multi-billion dollar business, and its sketchy: Products arent approved by the FDA, so its hard to know whats in them. Sometimes, athletes will take a companys proprietary blend, then fail a doping test becausethe supplement contained a banned substance. More often, says Bill Campbell, director of the University of South Floridas Performance & Physique Enhancement Lab, the blends contain effective ingredients, but at dosages too small to do anything. I always assume supplements dont work, hesays, because most dont.

So why takesupplements? Because some of themprecious few, but stilldo help performance. In the supplement world, if you see huge effects, somethings wrong, says Abbie Smith-Ryan, a sport nutrition scientist at UNC Chapel Hill. Instead, supplements have small effects even if theyre working properly. Maybe the creatine you take will help you heft a weight a tad longer, or that caffeine will get you off that starting block a smidge faster. Thatcanmean the difference between a gold medal and no medal. You try to control what you can control, Flanagan says. And if everyone else is taking them, why not you? Its an arms race as much as it is a legs race.

Some supplements actually have some science behind them. Researchers can test products with randomized double blind studies to control for the placebo effect, and try to keep the subjects schedules as similar as possible.


Often, though, they perform the studies on college students, whodon’t always stick to a regimen or, say, refrain from drinking. (Elite college athletics also is big business, and coaches might be wary of usingplayersasguinea pigs, saysAndrew Jagim, a sport scientist at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.) The subjects of a given study are similar, of coursemembers of a football squad, perhapsbut then its hard to say whether the results apply if youre not a 20-year-old running back. Extrapolating to a higher level is kind of a leap of faith, Jagim says. And no supplement is a panaceawhat works for a weightlifter might not help a distance runner.

So whats a pro athlete to do? Be very, very pragmatic. My job is to cover a lot of miles really fast, Flanagan says. I dont get too bogged down in the science.

Thatmeans take whatever works. Cragg checks the labels of anythingshe tries to make sure the ingredients are as natural as possible. But its largely a matter of trying something before a run and seeing how she feelssupplements are so individualized that she essentially mustexperiment to see what works. Taste is also key: I pick what tastes good two hours into a run, Cragg saysotherwise, its hard to get whatever shes taking down at all.

So where does that leave Hotshot? Both Flanagan and Cragg say they were initially skeptical, but the drink’s promiseno more debilitating, race-losing cramps!seemed too good to pass up. Hotshot contains spice extracts, which the inventors say activate certain nerve receptors in the mouth that signal the spinal cord to stabilize the overexcited nerve causing a cramp. That mechanism is plausible, says Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who studies the ion channel Hotshot supposedly targets. “The role of sensory feedback in many physiological processes has been under-studied and under-appreciated,” he sayscramping included.

More studies—beyond theones the company has run on its own—might bear this out. But for Cragg or Flanagan (who are also, by the way, being paid to promote Hotshot), the spicy supplement is good enough. And if either of them win in Rio, they’ll probably thank Hotshot because, hey, something worked.

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