Supplements by Sean Burke
When people find out that I am a cycling coach who also teaches college level nutrition, they frequently ask me about supplements. Primarily: Do I take them and do I recommend them to my athletes. In general I’m not a big supplement guy, and I believe that the majority of your nutritional needs are best met by having a well balanced diet. But I do have a few recommendations for various populations. Some of these are for health reasons and some for performance reasons.
For starters, all women should take a calcium supplement to help ensure strong bones. Calcium us important for all women, but especially for a cyclist that doesn’t do any weight bearing activity. Cycling is great for your health, but it doesn’t help build strong bones the way running or weightlifting does. While there is no substitute for incorporating some weight bearing activity into your fitness regime, a little calcium supplementation can guarantee that you have the nutrition part covered, so I recommend a supplement of 500mg of calcium per day . Those chocolate flavored chews that you can buy in most pharmacies or grocery stores will do the trick. They have 50% of the RDA for calcium and the chocolate taste makes them feel I little bit indulgent, even though they have only around 20 calories. A little calcium supplement wouldn’t hurt most male cyclists either, as male cyclists can also be at risk for low bone density. Top that off with the fact that calcium is lost through sweat, and you have yet another reason to buy those calcium chews. Another supplement that is important for women of childbearing age is folate, or folic acid. This is important for proper fetal development, so it is recommended for all women of childbearing ageeven women that aren’t planning on getting pregnant.. Folate is inexpensive, and it and can be found in most multivitamins or women’s vitamins as well as many fortified cereals.
Vitamin B12 is another supplement that is recommended for certain populations, primarily vegans and vegetarians. B12 Is important for brain and nervous system function, but it is only found in animal product, and fortified foods. Most meat eaters get plenty of B12, and it is possible for vegans to get enough B12 if they eat enough fortified grains. But I usually recommend a supplement for vegans and vegetarians, just to ensure they get enough. B12 is a water soluble vitamin, and excess is readily excreted. Since long term deficiency can actually cause permanent neural damage, t his one seems like a no brainer for any herbivore.
The supplements mentioned previously were more for health than performance, but there are a few I recommend for performance as well. When I’m asked about supplements for performance, I usually tell people that my primary concerns are:
“Will it make you fail a dope test?”* and “ Is it ridiculously expensive?”
as well as “Might it help your performance?” and “Is it safe?”
If the answer to the first two is “no”, and the second two is “yes”, then the supplement may be worthwhile. There are two readily available supplements that I personally take, as well as recommend that my athletes examine, in order to make the ultimate determination for themselves.
The first one of these is quercetin. Quercetin occurs naturally in some tea leaves as well as red onions and apple skins. There is some evidence that quercetin supplementation can increase mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are “ the powerhouse of the cell” so increased mitochondrial function can mean better endurance performance. It definitely works in rats, but we need more human studies to be sure. I personally supplement with quercetin, because I believe there is a good chance it works, it is harmless in reasonable amounts, it isn’t on the banned substances list, and a 6 month supply is under $100. I personally buy Jarrow Formulas Quercitin in 500 mg capsules, and take 1000 mg ( 2 capsules) daily. A quick web search will turn up plenty of vendors that will ship it straight to your door.
The other supplement that I regularly take is beta-alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid, and supplementation can help with high intensity exercise performance. It is more likely to help with events that require repeated high intensity efforts such as criteriums or track type racing rather than steady events such as a 20K, or a triathlon. Beta-alanine supplementation promotes higher levels of carnosine in the muscle and helps keep muscle ph ( acid levels) within appropriate ranges, thereby enhancing performance. While quercetin is a something I take all year around, beta -alanine is something I take only during the height of race season. Beta –alanine supplementation should start 10 weeks or so before a big event, so it does take some planning ahead. The recommendation is usually to take 1600 mg twice a day for the first 4 weeks, and then cut back to once a day after that. I take Powerbar brand Beta-Alanine for several reasons. One is that Powerbar makes it available as beta-alanine all by itself, without any extra stuff in there. But perhaps more importantly, is the fact that it is NSF certified. This means that the product has been independently tested to make sure it isn’t contaminated and you won’t fail a dope test. Beta-alanine is a little more expensive than the quercetin, and can cost up to $40 a month, but because I take it only part of the year, I still spend less than $200 a year on the stuff.
Ultimately, the decision to take ( or not take) supplements is your own. As a coach, I try to inform my athletes, but encourage them to make their own decisions. Before you take any supplement, I encourage you to think about the questions posited earlier, and in general err on the side of caution before you take anything
Sean Burke is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA.
*According to USADA and WADA code, anyone with a racing license can be tested for performance enhancing substances. I’ve seen cat 4 riders get tested, so it really can happen to almost anyone. USADA code and athlete responsibilities are a great topic for another column, but just note that you can be tested and you are responsible for whatever is found in your body, no matter how it got there.