A Beginners Guide To Sport Supplements: Knowledge Is Power And Power Is Awesome!

It goes without saying that the nutritional demands of an active lifestyle are far greater than a sedentary one, so if you have made the decision to become more active or you want to maximise the results of a training routine which is already in place then you may require the help of sport supplements!

Sport supplements are highly refined nutrients which come in a variety of forms (powders, gels, capsules etc) derived from the best sources possible. They offer a convenient, delicious and efficient way for athletes and fitness enthusiasts to meet the demands of an active lifestyle. Supplements are not magical potions which will eradicate any damage done through poor diet, but what they can do is compliment a healthy diet to help you optimise your nutritional intake and promote health, enhance body composition, increase training capacity and speed up recovery.


The best known nutritional sport supplement on the market is protein. The most popular protein supplements are whey based although egg, soy, hemp and pea protein are also great options. Protein supplements are taken to encourage the growth and repair of muscle to promote lean muscle development while limiting muscle breakdown which is a result of intense training.

As previously stated, there a many sources from which protein can be derived and each has its own benefits.

Whey Protein:

Whey is a constituent of cow’s milk accounting for ~20% of its protein content. The majority of whey is produced as a by product of cheese manufacturing which makes it an abundant and therefore cost effective way to consume protein. Whey has an excellent nutrient makeup which includes all of the essential amino acids and a high branched chain amino acid content making it key for muscle protein synthesis.

Whey is considered a ‘fast’ protein source which causes a rapid increase in amino acid levels (the building blocks of protein). This peak lasts for ~60-90 minutes in duration and so is best utilised when consumed prior to training or immediately afterwards. There are various forms of whey available and the majority of brand products consist of a whey blend which is a combination of two or more.

Whey Protein Concentrate – This is the least processed of the whey forms and typically contains 70-85% protein. This is the most cost effective whey protein choice. In general, whey protein concentrate is 4-6% lactose and therefore is not a good choice for those who lack the enzyme necessary for lactose digestion.

Whey Protein Isolate – This is a more purified whey protein which is produced through membrane filtration/ion exchange resulting in a powder which is ~90%+ protein by weight. This option contains fewer carbohydrates and fat than concentrate, typically only 1% of this protein form is lactose. Isolates are considerably more expensive to purchase than concentrates.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate – This is an isolated whey which has been partially pre-digested which makes it faster to absorb and digest. The nutrient content of hydrolysate is almost identical to isolate aside from the fact it contains less branched chain amino acids.

Casein Protein:

Casein is the most abundant form of protein in cow’s milk, accounting for 80% of its protein content. Milk caseins exist in fractions known as micelles which are small spheres of assembled protein chains. Casein is identified as a slow digesting protein as it produces a stable elevation of amino acids that lasts for up to 7 hours post ingestion.

Casein is an ideal choice for before sleep, when meals will be unavailable for more than 3 hours or for those with particularly fast metabolisms who are looking for a greater overall positive protein balance.

Micellar Casein – This is an undenatured form of isolated casein protein and has the largest percentage of active protein fractions. It is ~85-92% protein with low levels of fat. Its quality makes it the most expensive form of casein available.

Calcium Caseinate – In this from the micelles have been broken down to form a calcium salt while maintaining high quality nutritional value. Calcium caseinate is typically 90% protein and considerably cheaper than micellar casein. Casein protein also comes in the forms of potassium caseinate and sodium caseinate which have an almost identical nutrient makeup to calcium caseinate with the only difference being the way in which they mix and thicken solution.

Egg Protein:

Derived from egg whites, egg protein contains all of the essential amino acids (complete) and is a great option for those who are lactose intolerant. The body does not utilise the amino acids from egg whites as completely as it does from milk proteins which makes it a less popular choice than whey. Nevertheless, it is a great alternative supplemental protein.

Soy Protein:

Soybean is a rich vegetable source of protein. It is high in both essential and non-essential amino acids, although the balance is less ideal than in milk proteins. However, soy protein has a significantly higher glutamine content which is an amino acid abundant in skeletal muscle and thought to be highly important for muscle protein anabolism. Isolate forms are ~90% protein.

Hemp Protein:

This protein is rich in essential amino acids which are easily digested and readily absorbed by the body. Hemp protein is lactose free, contains a good amount of dietary fibre and is suitable for vegetarians and vegans. This protein powder can be added to juice, smoothies and sweet or savoury foods.

Pea Protein:

Pea protein is a surprisingly excellent source of protein and is lactose, dairy and gluten free making it ideal for those with nutrient intolerances. It is 85% protein by weight and has a great amino acid balance. Pea protein is produced through solvent extraction from yellow split peas using a natural process of purification, concentration and drying. This supplement is suitable for vegetarians and vegans.


Mass gainers are pretty much self explanatory. They pack in a great amount of calories into one shake from an ideally balanced mix of protein, carbohydrate, fat, fibre, creatine (in some cases) and vitamins and minerals. They are designed to promote muscle mass gains and an ideal body composition in conjunction with regular training. Mass gainer calorie content per serving can vary quite drastically from 500kcal to as much as 2000kcal so make sure you keep track of your calorie intake per day to ensure you are not overdoing the calories!

Mass gainers are a convenient and efficient way to increase calorie intake without having to force extra meals down or causing a macronutrient imbalance. These supplements are ideal for those who are underweight and trying to put on weight for health reasons, bodybuilders and athletes who are looking to move up a weight class or two. Once you have achieved the ideal size, it is a good idea to move on to a whey protein shake to maintain muscle while cutting body fat.


All in ones are a cost effective way to benefit from a supplement stack. They are similar in ingredients to mass-gainers, however, the calorie content per serving is far less and all-in-ones come with an abundant array of health promoting vitamins and minerals. These supplements generally contain complete proteins with all of the branched chain amino acids present. All-in-ones can be used as meal replacements although they are predominantly utilised alongside a healthy diet to increase calorie intake, enhance protein and amino acid intake, improve training capacity and promote overall health and vitality.


Creatine is one of the most widely used sport supplements to increase muscle size, power and enhance exercise performance. Creatine is an amino acid derivative which is directly involved in the anaerobic energy cycle. ~95% of the creatine found in the body is present in skeletal muscle and the body is able to manufacture ~1g per day. Although it is not considered an essential part of the diet, it is integral in energy metabolism, protein balance and cell membrane stability.

Anaerobic energy:

In a reversible reaction, creatine ‘borrows’ a phosphate group from ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to form PC (phosphocreatine) and ADP (adenosine diphosphate). When energy is required in the first few seconds of activity, PC will return the borrowed phosphate group to form ATP. This cyclic process allows the muscles to rapidly expend and replenish energy but this maintenance of maximum energy output is short lived. During high intensity/power training, ATP resynthesis fails to keep up with demands resulting in muscle fatigue. Supplementation of creatine raises the level available in the muscle for this energy cycle which enhances energy output during anaerobic exercise.

As well as this, creatine produces a shift in osmotic balance. In other words, the muscle cells pull in water from the surrounding environment to establish balance. This effect causes weight gain and an increase in muscle size in the first week of supplementation. As the water is retained in intracellular compartments, it is not associated with bloating or loss of definition. Creatine also produces significant muscle hypertrophy in the later stages of supplementation.

The body has a maximum threshold for creatine retention in skeletal muscle, and therefore creatine is taken in a loading, maintenance and rest cycle (although some studies report no benefit of a loading cycle). The loading phase equates to ingesting 15-20g creatine per day for ~5 days. This is followed by a maintenance period of ingesting 3-5g per day for ~2 weeks and followed by a week of rest period as there is no benefit to ingesting creatine after saturation levels have been reached.

Endurance Energy

Energy supplements for endurance athletes come in various forms from energy gels and energy bars to energy powders which make up a perfect recovery shake. Energy gels and bars are perfect to compliment an active lifestyle as they are easy to transport, consume and digest so can be implemented into a marathon, triathlon, football game and the like.

The ingredients include both simple carbohydrates for instant energy and complex carbohydrates for a sustained and slower release of energy. You will also find that the majority of these supplements contain electrolytes, sodium and potassium which are essential to maximise fluid and carbohydrate uptake even during long duration intense exercise.

Carbohydrate powders are ideal for athletes who are in their carbo-loading phase prior to a big event or competition. It can be difficult to consume a large enough amount of carbohydrates from food forms such as pasta, rice and potatoes following a low calorie (usually no carb) diet. These shakes enable athletes to increase their carbohydrate intake and therefore enhance glycogen stores prior to their endurance event.

Fat Burners

Fat burners are a very popular supplement choice and the aim of these supplements is to promote fat loss and the development of a lean physique. The ingredients and dosage present in fat burners does vary between brands and in order to find the one most suitable for you it is important to know the key ingredients to look out for. Below are a few of the key ingredients in a fat burning supplement.

Conjucated Linoleic Acid (CLA) -  Conjugated – Linoleic Acid (CLA) is a mixture of isomers derived from linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid which helps to support general health and reduce serum lipids. By aiding the reduction of body fat and helping to promote muscle development, you can expect this ingredient to have a positive effect on your body composition.

Caffeine - Caffeine is a methylated alkaloid which has mild central nervous system (CNS) stimulating properties.  This stimulant is absorbed from the digestive tract and helps to increase energy, mental alertness and excitability by antagonising adenosine. By blocking adenosine, caffeine facilitates dopamine and acetyl-choline transmission which leads to increases in focus, energy levels and metabolism. Caffeine reaches peak effect 15-60 minutes post ingestion and continues to work for between 2.5-4.5 hours. It also has a mild diuretic effect.

Carnitine - Carnitine is derived from amino acids lysine and methionine in the body. It plays an important role in the muscle cell energy cycle where it aids fatty acid metabolism. Carnitine helps to remove short-chain fatty acids from the mitochondria which inhibit energy metabolism as they accumulate and has antioxidant properties which protect the body from free radical damage particularly during exercise. You will often see Carnitine paired with Tartrate which promotes hormonal balance. It is essential for good cardiovascular health and guards against fat build up around the heart and liver. Collectively they work to improve energy metabolism which aids healthy weight loss.

Green Tea Extract - Green tea extract is well known for its antioxidant properties, but there are many other benefits to gain from this ingredient. It is affiliated with boosting the metabolism and helping to promote healthy weight loss and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Green tea extract contains L-theanine, which is believed to reduce stress and improve the quality of your sleep too. Not only will you be reaching your weight loss goals, you will feel revitalised from all the great sleep you will be having!

Cayenne Pepper - Cayenne pepper is an antioxidant rich and delicious spice which helps to boost immunity and prevent degeneration in those suffering from diseases of that nature. Ingestion of spices has a thermogenic effect on the body which causes the body to increase metabolism in order to regain homeostasis (normal internal environment of the body). Capsaicin found in cayenne pepper is associated with suppressing appetite which makes this spice a great addition to any fat loss supplement.

Vitamin B6 - While other vitamins are often included in fat burning, vitamin B6 is one of the more popular choices. This water-soluble vitamin is involved in amino acid, lipid and carbohydrate metabolism, aids the regulation of blood glucose and increases thyroid activity which enhances the rate of resting metabolism. Vitamin B6 also helps to increase energy levels, support immune function and improve memory.


Pre-workout supplements are perfect for those who are looking to take their training to a new level. The ingredients in these potent formulas work together to stimulate your central nervous system to enhance focus and energy and dilate veins and arteries to promote improved circulation and oxygen delivery. They also contain ingredients to power up your muscles, prevent muscle breakdown during your workout and delay fatigue.

Typical ingredients of a pre-workout formula include caffeine, nitric oxide, branched chain amino acids, creatine, simple carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals. In powder form, they come in a range of delicious fruity flavours which should be consumed ~30 minutes before your training session for optimal results.


Hydration is highly important to everyone but even more so to athletes and those who participate in physical activity on a regular basis. It is vital that you keep fluid and electrolyte levels as optimum as possible before, during and after training sessions. Caffeinated beverages should not be included in your fluid count as they act as a diuretic and can contribute to dehydration more than hydration. The intake of water is vital to the chemical reactions that occur in the body to utilise energy, aid muscle repair and prevent damage to cardiovascular, skeletal and digestive systems.

Isotonic sports drink or energy tablets dropped into water are ideal for when training exceeds 90 minutes to help replenish electrolytes and fluid lost through sweat. These beverages contain simple sugars for immediate energy and contain sodium which helps to maximise fluid uptake even during long bouts of exercise.


Llewellyn W, Sport Supplement Reference Guide, 2009, 12-24, 62-8, 78-86.

Mann J, Truswell S, Essentials of Human Nutrition, Third Edition, 2007.

Applegate E, Effective Nutritional Ergogenic Aids, International Journal of Sports Nutrition, 1999, 9:229-39.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.
Post a Comment

Please wait...