How many of you have been to a supplement store? My guess is the vast majority. Supplement shops and “cure all” remedies aren’t new concepts. Magic potions, elixirs, tonics and the like have been doled out for as long as apothecaries have been a thing (a quick google search tells me the term has been around since the 13th century, my guess is actual magic-potion-peddlers have been around since well before the common era).
Please know when I refer to supplements here, I will always be speaking about legal substances. Supplements are meant to enhance something, whether that’s performance, recovery, weight loss etc. is up to what you’re looking for. Lately it feels like there’s a new magic remedy for any and every ailment that could potentially come your way advertised on TV, radio and now by your favorite Instagram accounts! This is as true in the athletic performance world as it is for the rest of the population.
While I certainly won’t bash supplements (I believe a lot of them can be super helpful for various athletes). I think it’s important to address what really happens with recovery and subsequent adaptations that come from training, in order to better understand when and why to use legal supplements.
Most of you are aware that a workout is simply a catalyst for change. You, a human organism, are in a homeostatic state, exercise is nothing more than a planned deviation from that homeostatic state. That deviation is ultimately a catalyst for change within the body, and that change comes in the form of adaptation to a given stimulus.
Our bodies, through centuries upon centuries of evolution, have become extremely efficient at this adaptation process. Give it a stimulus, go recover, and attempt that same stimulus the following week and what happens? You’ve gotten better at that task. This is why progression is programmed into good training. Supplements came along to help expedite that process, help give a slight advantage in recovery. Because, after all, recovery is where the adaptation takes place, the stimulus is simply the training session. And those supplements can be helpful! But maybe not year-round…
Let me put it to you this way: in the same way your body adapts to a certain stimulus, it will also adapt to a given supplement. It will become less sensitive to the stimulus in the same way it will become less sensitive to the supplement. That’s problem #1, year-round supplement use won’t reap any great benefits because your body eventually will stop responding to it. The answer isn’t more, by the way.
The second problem, and perhaps the bigger one is this: your body needs to learn how the hell to recover properly on its own! It needs to feel like garbage sometimes so it can learn to heal itself, so that you can learn to take care of it. This is where true adaptation takes place. Your body’s ability to recover will ultimately be what dictates your success from training sessions to tournaments. The faster you can recover, the faster you can get back to training at 100%.
But your body has to learn how to do this without the help of any external substance first."
Henk Kraaijenhof is a Dutch sprint coach and author. He wrote “What We Need is Speed” and made a similar point in the book. Essentially, your body needs to adapt to change and stimuli as efficiently as it possibly can before you assist it with any supplements. Make sure you learn how to take care of yourself first through proper warm-ups, training sessions, mobility sessions, and nutrition long before you ever think about taking a supplement for assistance.
A healthy body is one that learns to adapt to stimuli efficiently and keep on training hard. Save the supplements for specific times of your training and make sure you consult someone who knows what they’re talking about and knows how to make sure the supplements aren’t contaminated with any illegal substances.
A quick side note here: the IOC (International Olympic Committee) funded a study (Geyer et al. 2004) that considered the prevalence of contamination in dietary supplements. Of the 634 non-hormonal supplements they tested from 13 different countries, they found a 15% contamination of WADA banned substances. A 15% contamination. Let that sink in. And make sure you are very careful when you select and then take a dietary supplement. Regardless of who led you to whatever you’re taking, ultimately YOU are responsible for what goes into your body, and should you ever be drug tested, you want to be absolutely sure that you’re going to pass with no doubt in your mind.
Ultimately, I want you to understand that your body is a machine built to adapt to change, so let it do its job, let it become extremely efficient at recovery and adapting. Only then should you head to the apothecary man with his magic elixirs. When you do eventually consider supplementation be very, very careful with what you’re putting in your body. Let your body do its thing, then you can look for boosts in recovery, sleep, performance etc.