Disclaimer

Any substance you ingest can cause an adverse reaction in some people. Sometimes those reactions can be quite extreme. Any advice we give on particular supplements comes with the warning that you may find it produces unpleasant side-effects for you. The advice given here is for information purposes and does not constitute medical advice.

Dietary supplements – do they work, or are they just an expensive scam?

I could write a book about dietary supplements and still not cover everything; this is a huge topic. But here’s some of the key things you need to know about those pills and potions that promise the world.

Most dietary supplements contain something that has a physiological use or effect so in that sense you could say they “work”. But what we really want to know is whether they live up to the claims and in most cases the answer is probably…no.

You need to read the claims very carefully indeed. Frequently, there is actually no direct claim made at all – instead an association is made, often fairly valid, that then supposes a particular physical outcome….which is often not valid.

For instance; you can buy supplements containing iron and B vitamins that claim to help overcome fatigue. It’s perfectly valid to say that low levels of iron will leave you feeling sluggish; but it’s more likely your fatigue is due to poor sleep, stress, physical tiredness or a range of other causes. If your iron levels are fine, then taking iron supplements will do precisely nothing to help you out.

The same applies to things like multivitamins; unless you have a vitamin deficiency or a particular condition that requires vitamin supplementation, taking multivitamins will have no useful physiological effect whatsoever. Those vitamin C drinks that make you feel a bit brighter? That’s more to do with the large glass of water you’ve just drunk, than the vitamin C you put in it.

So they’re all a scam right?

Not all of them, but you do need to read the labels closely and work out how much is just marketing hype. Pretty much all supplements follow this marketing process:

“There is a connection between ingredient X and a desirable effect – therefore if you take ingredient X you will get that desirable effect”

But the human body doesn’t work like that. If you don’t *need* a vitamin for instance, taking more of it will have little, or no effect. Often, the link between the ingredient and the supposed effect is quite tenuous, or the actual evidence base is quite weak, or the actual dosage of the ingredient is nowhere near enough to have the desired effect. Creatine for instance, a very useful sports supplement for certain types of sport, only really provides benefits in doses of at least 2g per day and ideally, 3-5g per day. If your sports supplement only gives you 0.5g per day then you won’t get any benefit whatsoever from the creatine. This doesn’t mean all supplements are useless, but it does mean the list of supplements that are actually useful is a lot smaller than the industry would have you believe.

There’s also another issue; are you training hard enough to actually need the small extra edge that most supplements will give you (and to justify the often significant extra cost)? For many people, sports supplements will do nothing they can’t achieve with better nutrition and training (which is usually cheaper).

The take away message here is this; some supplements do work, they will absolutely produce the desired outcome, but it depends entirely on two things; whether your body requires, or can use, more of whatever magic ingredient is in there and whether there is enough of it to produce that effect. If it doesn’t fulfil at least those two criteria; it’s a waste of money. 

So what supplements are useful for climbers?

Sports supplements can be broadly grouped into weight control and performance gains. Supplements for weight control tend to be either “fat burners” or appetite suppressors (or both). Climbers in particular, looking to increase their strength to weight ratio, perhaps by lowering their weight, may find weight control supplements attractive. However, I would advise against them. So called ‘fat burners’ are just stimulants, some of them quite dangerous, that increase overall metabolic rate, potentially increasing the amount of body fat lost in a calorie controlled, weight loss diet. But there’s a cost; they can impact your sleep patterns (which will work heavily against any weight loss or performance improvement training you’re doing), dehydrate you and in some cases leave you feeling jittery, uncomfortable and a lot more wired than you bargained for. There are far, far better ways to control weight loss without the host of unpleasant side-effects that these supplements can bring.

Supplements for performance gain are a whole industry in themselves. For instance, for men we have a range of so-called ‘testosterone boosters’, which allegedly increase natural levels of testosterone, thereby enhancing muscular strength and performance. (In case you’re wondering, absolutely none of them actually work in any meaningful way. No really guys…they don’t, save your money).

Others claim to give you an energy boost (often called “Pre-workouts”) which again are either caffeine, or some other stimulant that may leave you with undesirable side-effects (although pure caffeine itself is actually a good supplement if you tolerate it).

And then there are a whole host of supplements that claim to improve some particular aspect of muscular development, performance or recovery from exercise. Some of them are well studied and have a solid evidence base behind them, a lot of them don’t. So how do you know what to take if you’re considering sports supplements? Well – here’s our list of ingredients worth considering…but before we show you the list it’s worth noting that you don’t *need* any of these. If you’re training hard or looking to push through a tricky training plateau then these supplements may help, but for most people it’s worth saving your money and just focusing on your overall diet and training.

Supplements to consider

WHEY/PLANT PROTEIN POWDER

Without a doubt, this is the most useful supplement for athletes involved in any kind of strength related exercise. Supplementing with a good quality protein powder helps you hit your protein target for the day, helps to control hunger pangs if you’re in a calorie controlled diet, can aid exercise recovery times and of course, they increase the available amino acid pool for muscular repair and adaptation following intense exercise.

Just make sure you buy from an established, reputable, brand and check the label to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of amino acids. (See our Protein blog post for more information about the benefits of protein)

Oh and if you’re worried/hoping that protein drinks will make you big and muscular – they won’t. It takes a whole lot more than just protein to build muscle.

 CREATINE

Creatine is one of the most well studied sports supplements, widely used by professional athletes involved in sports that require bursts of high intensity movement (sprinting, weightlifting etc). It’s a naturally occurring substance that is needed to replenish the fuel reserves our muscles use in the first few seconds of exertion.  Your body will make about half your daily requirement of creatine itself, the rest has to come from your diet.

Sadly, for those following a plant-based diet, there are no natural plant sources for creatine. We get it in our diet via red meat, oily fish (salmon, tuna etc). However – the good news is that creatine supplements are synthetically made and as such, 100% vegan (obviously, if it’s in capsule form you may want to check the label to make sure there’s no gelatine in there).  The (possibly) better news is that vegan and vegetarian climbers are more likely to benefit from using creatine supplements due to the likelihood of having low levels to start with.

In some people it can cause digestive issues and/or water retention and in rare cases it is believed to cause muscle cramps. Like all supplements, take too much and it’s more likely to have an adverse effect. However, it’s generally considered a safe supplement in typical doses. If you do find you’re having issues, try spreading your dose out throughout the day.

You’ll see there’s a whole host of different types of creatine available; pretty much all of them are marketing hype and wholly unnecessary. Plain creatine monohydrate, by far the cheapest and most widely available form, should be just fine.

As for how much to take, some people suggest a “loading phase” of 10-20g per day for 5 days, before reducing to a maintenance dose of 5g per day. The evidence behind the idea of a loading phase is fairly limited and to be honest most people won’t notice any difference. Three to five grams per day should be enough for most people to notice the difference…assuming you respond to it at all of course. Some people just don’t see any difference because they already have enough naturally.

BETA ALANINE

This is a similar supplement to creatine in many ways and there is some evidence that they work well together. The primary difference between them is that, whilst creatine helps fuel short-burst, high energy muscular output; beta alanine helps to buffer fatigue in longer term muscular output. Essentially; beta-alanine helps to raise levels of muscle carnosine, which in turns helps buffer the onset of muscular fatigue. Or to put it another way…if you’re training for power endurance – this could help.

This is obviously an interesting supplement for climbers, but whether it works for you is something you would need to explore – not everyone responds to it. But like creatine there is a wealth of study evidence around the use of beta-alanine and certainly enough to consider trying it if you’re looking to really push those performance gains or training quite hard.

To date there are no known harmful side-effects, however some people notice a tingling feeling when taking it (known as parethesia). This is completely harmless but if it bothers you, simply spread your dose out in to smaller amounts during the day.

Aim for around 2-5g per day to get the best results (if you respond to it), but you can probably go up to 8g per day if you’re training super hard. Just be aware that, like creatine, it can take a week or so before you really notice anything.

HMB

This one is a bit of an outlier; there is no research around HMB in climbers or gymnasts to speak of, but there is a wealth of research around the use of HMB by those doing high intensity strength training. Essentially; HMB appears to reduce recovery times from exercise, improve adaptation to high intensity strength exercise (ie more muscle or getting stronger, depending on your training programme) and appears to help promote lean body mass generally.

It would appear that the effects are at the best when taken for two weeks at around 3g per day, prior to the training starting – obviously that won’t apply to those of you already training hard, but you should still notice benefits if it is going to work for you.

Around 1-2g per day, ideally 60 minutes prior to a training session, should show some effect within the first 2-3 weeks.

OTHER SUPPLEMENTS

There are other supplements that could be of interest to climbers, but truth be told, almost none of them have enough solid evidence behind them to recommend. The marketing hype is generally just that…hype. If your diet is good enough then you really shouldn’t need supplements for the most part. But for those of you training quite hard, you may find the above supplements useful to help push you through any plateau.

Final word

If you're training hard and eating right but you want to explore some other possibilities for improving performance, then the above list should give you a start. I would recommend trying each one in turn rather than one of the many all-in-one protein drink options that contain all the above list (and sometimes more). If one of the ingredients doesn’t agree with you, you won’t know which one it is if you take them all together. But if you’re all good with them, then the all-in-one drinks could be a great cost-effective option, but as always – check the label, especially for ingredient dose. Each serving should contain at least half of your intended daily dose.

BUT - and this is worth saying again; supplements are just that, an addition to a healthy diet. If your diet isn’t right to start with (and/or your training), then no supplement will make up for the shortfall. Get those things right first.

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