Science Examines Why We Supplement and If It Works

Two studies confirmed two things: first, supplement use is common in athletes, and second, the effects aren't always significant.

Two recent studies shed some light on the topic of supplement use and effectiveness in athletes. The first study, which was conducted on a group of runners in Brazil, aimed to find out if the athletes took supplements and why they did.

The second was an American study on lifters that was designed to see if supplements were actually effective. Both of the studies were published by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Brazilian Study

In this study, the most common reason cited by the runners for taking supplements was to boost energy. Thirty percent of supplement users reported this reason. Performance improvements and heightened endurance were two slightly less common reasons. In general, it seems most people use supplements, first, to feel better and, second, to perform better.

Among these runners, the typical supplement regimen revolved around nutrients like carbs, protein, and vitamins. More supplement-savvy readers probably look to boost energy by taking some form of pre-workout supplement, even if it’s just caffeine. Other common supplement ingredients include taurine, beta-alanine, and creatine.

As experience increased in the group of runners, so did supplement intake, although it was lower than in other sports. With more experience also came more road time for the runners. Not surprisingly, the more experienced runners were also more successful. Having a coach increased the likelihood that a runner would use supplements by almost five times.

American Study

In the American study, the lifters were tested for strength, power, body measurements, and mood prior to eight days of pre-workout supplement use before four scheduled workouts. After the training period, they were tested again to see if there was any difference.

The lifters had no significant effects from taking the pre-workout supplement. Nothing changed that could be attributed statistically to the supplement use.

Putting It All Together

We might look at this and say that although people take supplements to feel and perform better, they actually don’t do that. Indeed, the Brazilian researchers indicated that a balanced diet is most critical for meeting the needs of an athlete.

As true as this may be, the American researchers did find a trend toward improved lower body strength. Statistically speaking, the increase over placebo was too small to be considered anything other than a random chance. But remember, supplements are meant to provide a small nutritional benefit in addition to a healthy diet. Over time, this advantage might add up to statistically significant levels and substantial improvements in energy and performance.

So while these studies do a great job of pointing out the importance of a good diet, they also point out what many people miss. Supplements are an effective adjunct to a healthy diet that might give you a little edge here and there. That edge can add up to big results.


1. Jordan Outlaw, et. al., “Acute effects of a commercially-available pre-workout supplement on markers of training: a double-blind study,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:40

2. José Salgado, et. al., “Dietary supplement usage and motivation in Brazilian road runners,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:41

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