Supplements – calories with benefits

Supplements are a new addition to my training program. I have been training for over 10 years and only recently tried supplements for the first time. I started out with some BCAAs from ‘MyProtein’ and, more recently, started using a recovery shake from Impact Sports Nutrition.

Why have I started taking them now? My training has stepped up a notch, as I’ve started to train for a half iron distance triathlon and I need to get more calories, vitamins and minerals.

I believe nutrition is a scale: the more in depth and the more dedicated you get, the more those marginal gains that Sir Dave Brailsford talks about come into play. Think of it as a bunch of steps/choices. The more we go on, the more up the steps we go, making healthier and better choices, choosing something that will give us more benefits. I used the following as a basic example in a presentation recently that looked at a simple way to reduce calories and not the protein, carbohydrate or fat content of the food. Each pizza is the same size and crust.


I’ll start from the beginning; I am a PT, S+C coach, fitness instructor, brother, son and boyfriend. Being in the health and fitness / sport and exercise industry, people always ask my opinion on foods and supplements – which ones are good? What should I be taking? I always advise the same thing. Get the basics right first. I didn’t take supplements for a long time, as I felt I didn’t need them for the training I was doing. I was hitting the gym on a regular basis and running or playing a sport, but I felt my diet alone was giving me everything I needed.

We have all seen the people walking around gyms and towns with their shakers and with their supplement drinks and yes, we do look at them and think why are you taking that? You don’t even look ripped! This may not be their aim and the supplement could be something other than protein powder, but a lot of the time I see people taking these drinks and they are simply not training properly, recovering correctly or even eating right. All the supplement is, is essentially additional calories, and instead of helping them improve their body composition, it is making it worse.

As I started training for my long distance triathlon, I had to ask myself: was I getting enough sleep? Was I hydrating properly? Was I training hard enough? Could I be making better food choices? Before I started to take supplements, I changed my diet. I starting off by taking out the chicken kievs, cheap pies, breaded fish and replacing them with chicken breasts, turkey breast, and fish with no bread crumbs. I know there are better choices still, but I am on a journey and am not looking to be competitive with others, just myself.

So why did I start taking supplements? I felt I needed them. Training for a half iron distance triathlon is tough: the race involves a 1.9km swim, 52 mile bike ride and 13.1 run. This means my steady training has suddenly increased from 3 or 4 gym sessions a week, cycling to and from work and an occasional run, up to 2 swims a week, 3 or 4 cycle sessions a week and 2 or 3 runs a week, as well as 2 or 3 gym sessions and cycling to and from work. When I feel I need it, I will miss out a session or two to aid my recovery. As you can see, my nutritional needs have hugely increased.

Before I start to take supplements, I had increased my food intake during the day by adding in an extra bagel and some Greek yoghurt with a trail mix. However, I was still losing weight – which for racing weight would be good if I can maintain energy, strength and speed – but not so good if I feel tired and lethargic and keep losing weight to an unhealthy level. So I decided to start taking supplements to help.

First I started with BCAAs – these are Branch Chain Amino Acids and are meant to help preserve our glycogen stores, so as I had increased my cardiovascular exercise, I would need help preserve these stores whilst training in the gym, so they were available for when I ran or biked. I then looked in to what was available to help me recover, and I came across ‘Impact Sports Nutrition’ and they were looking for people to try their products.

I got a discount code and after several weeks I finally got round to purchasing the ‘Impact Recover’ (chocolate flavour). Not only does this contain the BCAAs that I was consuming before (now I don’t take the BCAAs if I am having the recovery shake) but some additional carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.

How do I feel? I’ve stopped losing weight, I feel good and although training is tough and I feel after some sessions the ‘Impact Recover’ helps. I take it immediately after the session, as close to the session ending as I can. Depending on how I am feeling, if I am eating directly after the session (lunch or dinner) I may not have the shake, as I feel that whole food nutrition always outweighs shakes. This does not mean I won’t go to the shake later if I feel I need it. The way I see this recovery shake is that it is ‘calories with benefits’.

The taste is good; I either mix it with water or milk, with water it is drinkable, but with milk it tastes better. I wonder, as it’s mixed with milk is it better to just drink the milk and not worry about the shake? I have only tried the chocolate at present but am waiting to try the strawberry (the person I was meant to do swaps with forgot the strawberry flavour, d’oh!)

But will I continue to take the shakes post half iron man? I’m not sure. I guess this depends on how I train. At the moment I look to a client I have trained a regularly for the past two years and I have always taken a step-by-step approach with him. First, we made sure his training was good (the main reason he was coming to me). Then we started to slowly look at his lifestyle, and all the while he was asking about supplements. I educated him on how sleeping 8 hours or more is important, how eating healthier/the right foods is important, hydration and so on and that once these where in place then we could add some supplements to his plan. Now we need to decide how to move forward with him – should we simply make changes to the food he is eating, or add in more supplements? I will find it hard to suggest the latter.

And so after finally trying supplements for myself, do I recommended them? I’m sorry, but I need to sit on the fence for this.

No – if all other parts of your training (nutrition, recovery, hydration, training) are all falling short, then the supplement will be a waste of money. Improvements in the other areas will give the gains you’re looking for.

Yes – if you have improved your nutrition, recovery, hydration and training and increased your training schedule, then your nutritional needs will have altered and so you will benefit from a supplement.

I am not a nutritionist expert, but look to make changes to the foods you eat first and foremost: look to healthier options and those foods that will aid your training goals, giving you the correct amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. You may need to see a nutritional expert who would be able to make recommendations based on your individual metabolic make up – people like Lauren Bannock and other nutritional and exercise physiologists are available.

Mark Beresford

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