The science backing of sports nutrition has come along a distance of light years from when I was a (not very promising) high school athlete. Actually, I flatter myself. Tackling dummy was more like it.
Folklore, not science
Back in the day many coaches had little nutrition information to go on, and what notions they did have were based on folklore, not science. It was thought, for example, that drinking during training sessions in hot weather led to stomach cramps and so should be avoided. It was also thought that leaning to perform while dehydrated was a necessary element of proper training.
It wasn’t until the early work done on the proto Gatorade product at the University of Florida that modern notions of proper hydration started to take hold. Now millions of athletes can exercise safely and perform well in hot weather and have dozens of products from which to choose to help them do so. And even some hard-man sports, like professional soccer with its uninterrupted 45-minute halves, will incorporate hydration breaks when it gets too hot.
So, too, have notions of proper fueling evolved. The training tables of college and pro sports teams back in the day usually just consisted of lots of food in no particular order.
Early nutrition successes
But early on some athletes seemed to have understood intuitively that proper nutrition held the key to success. For example, Adrian Dantley, a longtime NBA forward back in the 1970s and 1980s, got a huge amount of mileage out of a good but not great level of talent (on the NBA scale, mind you) via an almost monastic devotion to training and diet. Dantley, who said he weighed 245 pounds as a high school freshman, played most of his time as a pro in the 210 to 215 pound range and rode his regimen to a 15 year career and a spot in the Hall of Fame. He eventually evolved to following an exclusively vegetarian lifestyle.
Following Dantley’s example, NBA players and athletes in other sports started devising personalized nutrition plans that included metabolic testing as well as training plans based on physiographic measurements. Gifted trainers have always understood that what works for one athlete might be detrimental for another, but years ago these judgements were based on a gut feeling, not on data, which is starting to become the case.
Nascent field accounts for range in quality of studies
But with all of that newly reported data comes a challenge of separating the wheat from the chaff. For one thing, the field is still relatively young. Research into vitamins and minerals stretches back more than a century. Some dietary ingredients, such as fish oils, have been on the market for much longer than that. And some formulas developed along TMC or Ayurvedic lines rest on a base of knowledge that stretches more than a thousand years in some cases.
The science of sports nutrition is at best decades old by comparison. Many sports nutrition studies are funded on shoestrings, which leads to small sample sizes and short durations, and, perhaps, a temptation to read a bit too much into the results. And as with any nascent avenue of knowledge, some roads have led to dead ends.
For example, take the case of one of the more widely researched ingredients in the space: branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs. The PubMed database maintained by the National Institutes of Health lists 321 studies published in the past decade using ‘BCAA supplementation’ as the search term. But according to the authors of a recent study on a commercially available BCAA formula, it’s hard to say what all those studies add up to.
“[D]ue to the great heterogeneity of the experimental protocols and formulations used, the results of these studies are not always unequivocal; hence, the actual efficacy of BCAA — used alone or combined with other components — remains a much debated issue,” the authors wrote.
Sports Nutrition Summit
Delving into the scientific backing of ingredients and product categories is one of the raisons d’être for NutraIngredients-USA. At our Sports Nutrition Summit, which takes place Feb. 3-5 in San Diego, we’ll look into questions surrounding the veracity of research backing the field. The event marries reports on the latest science with sessions on how these products are marketed through to how they are used, which includes information from experts connected to pro sports teams and international sports bodies. For more information on the event, visit the event homepage.