AIS Sports Nutrition

Sports Supplements in Junior Athletes

Good eating and drinking practices are one of the foundations of optimum performance. This, and certain elements that maximise performance, such as talent, training, conditioning, motivation, commitment and adequate sleep and recovery, cannot be replaced by a pill, powder or potion, no matter what level of athlete you are. Unfortunately it’s easy to become distracted and ‘caught up’ in the range of specialised sports nutrition products and supplements marketed by the multi-billion dollar supplement industry.

Ergogenic aids, dietary supplements, sports foods... what’s the difference?

Sports supplements can be divided into three main categories, they are:

  • Sports foods
  • Dietary supplements
  • Ergogenic aids

Sports foods can provide a practical or convenient alternative to food. They contain nutrients found in everyday foods and help athletes achieve their nutrition goals during busy days or around exercise sessions. Such products include sports drinks, bars, gels and liquid meal supplements.

The process of eating well to achieve the nutritional goals of training achieves the most important benefits.

Figure 1. The process of eating well to achieve the nutritional goals of training achieves the most important benefits.

Dietary supplements may be necessary to treat or prevent a known nutrient deficiency.  Vitamin and/or mineral supplementation, if required, should be part of a total management plan and prescribed by a Physician or Sports Dietitian. Dietary supplements should never be taken ‘just in case’ you need them – some dietary supplements, when taken at the wrong time or in large amounts, can actually hamper performance and adaptation to training.

Ergogenic aids contain certain nutrients or food components in larger amounts than what’s typically found in everyday foods. They are reported to directly affect performance by enhancing certain pathways involved in exercise metabolism and biochemistry. The most common ergogenic aids include creatine, caffeine and buffers but also include isolated proteins and herbal preparations. A few of these products have good scientific evidence to support their use in well-trained, fully developed athletes. However, like dietary supplements, they should only be taken under the supervision of a Sports Physician and/or Sports Dietitian.

Build yourself a solid base

The 1-3% performance improvements that may be seen with proven ergogenic aids are likely to go unnoticed in young athletes who have not established optimal training and nutrition habits and who are still growing and developing. As Figure 1 indicates, the most important foundation is good eating through the training and development phase of an athlete.

To get the biggest ‘bang for your buck’ with sports foods, you should first ensure you’re carrying out the following recommendations:

  • Eat regularly – a nutrient-rich breakfast, lunch and dinner every day is essential. In some cases the addition of 2-3 between-meal snacks is appropriate. Skipping a meal or snack is like skipping a training session. Don’t forget that this includes weekends!
  • Support your training – strategic pre- and post-training snacks that include a combination of carbohydrate, protein and fluid will help you get the most out of your sessions and ensure you recover in readiness for your next work out.
  • Give it time – changes from being a developing athlete to an Olympic gold medallist won’t happen overnight, so have realistic expectations regarding the time it will take to achieve your nutrition-related goals. Some changes like body composition or physiological adaptation to training interventions are brought on through hard training and natural growth/development, and cannot be replicated by a pill or potion.   

Following this, it may be appropriate for certain athletes in specific situations to consider ergogenic aids. These athletes looking at using ergogenic aids need to first answer these questions:

  • Is the product legal (i.e. is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) prohibited list?
  • Is there a sound body of evidence with a physiologic basis for action that supports the claims made by the product?
    • Are they specific to your training/competition needs?
  • Are there any side-effects?

For this reason, it’s best to discuss the potential benefits and risks of specialised sports nutrition products and/or ergogenic aids with a qualified Sports Dietitian who can offer advice based on your individual needs and goals. The AIS Supplements Program also provides useful information (www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/supplements).

Are there risks associated with the use of sports supplements in young athletes?

The safety of sports supplement use, particularly ergogenic aids, in individuals under 18 years of age is unknown due to the lack of studies performed with this age group and the paucity of information available on their long-term effects. The American Academy of Paediatrics (2005) currently recommends against the use of any ergogenic aids in children and adolescents.

In addition, there is the potential for supplements to contain illegal substances and lead to a positive doping test. The way in which the supplement industry is regulated may put athletes at risk of consuming a product that does not disclose all of the ingredients or that may include contaminants.

What’s the verdict?

Sports foods and dietary supplements, when indicated and used as directed can assist to meet the needs of athletes. These, as well as ergogenic aids should be seen as the ‘icing on the cake’ rather than the main focus of any athlete’s training. Talent, hard work and time, together with a well-planned dietary intake are what young athletes require to make substantial gains in performance.  Ergogenic aids may have little or no effect if this fundamental base is not in place first.

American Academy of Paediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. (2005). Position on use of performance-enhancing substances. Paediatrics, 6, 115-1103.

Written by the AIS Sports Nutrition, last updated March 2010. © Australian Sports Commission.

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