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Supplement Savvy

By Bob Seebohar

Do you take a supplement?  I am willing to bet the majority of triathletes take a supplement.  Interestingly, every time I speak to a group of triathletes or triathlon coaches and ask that question, I only have about half of the audience raise their hands. The rest are not being truthful and quite often, it is due to a lack of knowledge.

You see, supplements can be classified in three different categories, which is why I am so certain almost every triathlete takes a supplement some time throughout their training year.  You may not think you are taking a supplement because most athletes think these are all performance enhancing and may even border on the lines of being illegal and they want nothing to do with that.

Many supplements are not scary by any means.  Sure, there are some out there that fly under the drug testing radar and challenge the ethics of sport but the fact of the matter is that not all supplements are illegal or bad.  In fact, some supplements are extremely beneficial to an athlete.  Let me discuss this in a bit more detail.

Supplement Categories

The three categories of supplements are 1) dietary, 2) sport and 3) ergogenic.  All serve slightly different purposes in certain athletes.

Dietary supplements are typically taken by athletes for insurance reasons or for micronutrient deficiencies that are known from lab testing.  Examples include multivitamins, iron, calcium and zinc.  These dietary supplements are taken for a specific reason and normally are consumed on a daily basis to help improve mineral deficiencies in the body.

The second category of supplements can be classified as sport. This is why I am fairly confident that almost all triathletes take a supplement at some point throughout their training year.  Examples of sport supplements include sport drinks, energy bars, energy gels, gummies, beans and electrolytes. These are normally taken for very specific reasons surrounding a training session (before, during or after).  They are typically not consumed outside of training sessions.

The last category of supplements are ergogenic, meaning performance enhancing.  These are the supplements that athletes often shy away from for fear of illegal contaminants or having positive drug testing results.  There are a host of ergogenic aids on the market.  Unfortunately for athletes, many of these do not have any scientific evidence that support their benefit.  Refer to my past article on choosing a supplement for specifics on that topic. 

In the sport of triathlon, or any endurance event, there are a few ergogenic aids that athletes do take that actually may have a performance or recovery benefit.  The ones that come to mind are caffeine, creatine and adaptogens.  I am hard-pressed to find an endurance athlete who does not consume caffeine but most athletes do not use caffeine as an ergogenic aid. Just like any ergogenic aid, specific amounts and quantities must be consumed to truly benefit athletic performance. Look for a future article analyzing the benefits and use of these but the take-home message is that there is abundant research on the use of caffeine and creatine and there is emerging data coming from the scientific community in terms of adaptogens.

Whether or not you admit to taking a supplement is not the point at hand.  The important aspect for you to understand is that supplements do fall in different categories, they should not all be viewed as dangerous and most importantly, supplement use should be periodized throughout the year based on your training cycle and training load changes.

As I always tell athletes, be sure that you know what you are putting in your body, that it is safe and that you have a clear understanding of the “why” behind using a specific product.

metabolic efficiency recipe bookBob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a Sport Dietitian, USAT Level III Elite Coach, USAT Youth and Junior Coach and an exercise physiologist. He was on the coaching team of Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist, and was the head coach of Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympic triathlete, and Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion. Bob was previously a sport dietitian for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the 2008 Olympic triathlon team. Bob has worked with hundreds of age-group triathletes and professionals to help them lose weight and body fat while optimizing performance through nutrition periodization and metabolic efficiency. Bob recently published a Metabolic Efficiency Recipe book with over 100 recipes that provides athletes even more options to follow metabolic efficiency training. Visit for more information.

For information on substances on the WADA prohibited list, click here.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.