Sports Supplements – How big is the risk?

The majority of professional and age-group triathletes include some kind of nutrition supplement in their training regimen and during competition - some of those might actually contain banned substances.

| February 14, 2017 | Nutrition

Photo >Nils Flieshardt / spomedis

by Alicia Edge

We can confidently say that the majority of professional and age-group triathletes include some kind of nutrition supplement in their training regimen and during competition.

This isn’t surprising either, sports supplements don’t just include the obvious powders and capsules, but also everyday formulations such as sports gels, bars and even sports drinks. However, despite the commonality of use, nutrition supplements have often been to blame for inadvertent positive doping results by many athletes. Is this just a case of using this as an excuse, or could the supplements you are using actually contain banned substances?

A recent investigation released by LGC (an international supplement testing company) tested 67 supplement products from Australian internet sites and retail stores (all supplements tested were not part of any testing program). What they found was incredibly alarming – ONE in FIVE supplements showed contamination with a banned substance – with 2 of the 67 supplements showing such high levels of the banned substance that deliberate adulteration could not be ruled out.

The most common items found were banned stimulants and anabolic steroids ... 1 in 5 supplements tested showed contamination with a banned substance.

So what does this mean to you?

The levels in the majority of these products would have been enough to lead to a positive doping result. Now, you may read this thinking – "Why would this matter to me, I am not regularly tested for banned substance use." However, it should most certainly grab your attention and concern you. The items found in these substances come with a high risk of health issues and side effects, so it pays to really consider the supplements you are using and ensure they are as low in risk as possible.

How does this happen?

Unfortunately, the results are not surprising. Supplement manufacturing is often subcontracted to large companies that make a wide range of products and brands. Some of the products made onsite are known to include banned substances and as these are stated clearly on the packets of these products, that is ok – there are many athletes that do not need too keep to the WADA code after all. However, if other "safer" products are made in this same building, or with the same manufacturing equipment, traces of these banned substances can carry over to a product that would otherwise be deemed safe. It only takes one part per billion in a supplement to show a positive drug test.

To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of dissolving one teaspoon of banned substance in a 50m swimming pool.

How can I reduce the risk?

The only way to be 100% sure, is to not consume any dietary supplements at all. However, this is not very practical in a sport like triathlon and there are ways to reduce your risk to minimise any adverse outcomes.

Firstly, it is often the capsule and tablet supplements that are deemed the highest risk, as these are often packaged in medicinal areas with prescription products. Although sports foods still bring some risk, these are often packaged with food products, so cross contamination risk is reduced.

Also, too often I hear the sad story of an athlete, often teenagers, returning a positive test after a taking a supplement with a banned substance clearly stated on the label. Please do not assume that just because a product is in a health food store, it will be safe. Remember that what you put in your mouth is your responsibility only – well meaning health store staff, family or friends will not be the ones held accountable if they recommend a product to you.

Lastly, your best bet in reducing the risk is to select products that have undergone third party batch testing. These companies test each batch created by the supplement company and the supplement company pays for this service and the certification it provides. It is important to note that not all banned substances are tested for, but the majority and most common ones are – so the risk is definitely lowered! For a list of products that are part of this testing certification, check out the Informed Sport and Informed Choice websites.

Alternatively, you can also keep an eye out for either of these logos (above) on supplement packaging.

Supplements can provide a critical performance advantage and can be well integrated into any established triathlete’s nutrition intake. However, prior to selecting a supplement, it is important to first assess the need. If you decide you need it, then assess the risk: