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Written by Reid Reale BHlthSc(Hons), MDiet – Sports Dietitian and BJJ black belt combatsportsnutrition.com. Reid works with many of the best judo, boxing, taekwondo and wrestling athletes in Australia, including commonwealth games and Olympic athletes. Reid Reale has released a great new book Combat Sports Nutrition, which covers what every grappler needs to know about sports nutrition, from how proteins carbs and fats affect your body to cutting weight properly.
The subject of nutritional supplements is a hot topic for most athletes and this is no exception when talking about fighters. Making sense of the science and advertising and evaluating claims reported by other athletes and sports stars (many who are sponsored by supplement companies) is confusing at the best of times. Add to that the popularity of supplement use, evidenced by the fact that the sports supplement industry is worth over 2.5 billion dollars per year in the United States alone, and it is no wonder that many fighters feel they need to take supplements to get every edge they can. In reality the vast majority of supplements are useless to fighters, many may be contaminated with impurities and many are straight up fraudulent. An important thing to understand is that the supplement industry is not regulated like the medical drug industry or even like the food industry. This means that supplement companies can literally say whatever they want when it come advertising their products, and few products ever undergo testing to even confirm if the product contains what it says on the label. So where does this leave us?
First, let me explain where sports supplements fit into your overall nutrition plan. The following figure displays our general diet as the basis of the sports/performance nutrition pyramid (note* I did not invent this pyramid, yet it eloquently displays where supplements fit into a fighter’s overall diet). If you are not meeting all your vegetable and fruit requirements, eating enough protein or carbohydrates or are training whilst dehydrated then this is the first thing you need to fix. Any small gain you can get from a nutritional supplement, does not compare with meeting your basic day to day requirements. For example, being dehydrated can affect anaerobic endurance by over 30%, whereas creatine supplementation may improve strength output by as little as 3%.
We basically classify supplements as either ‘sports food’ or ergogenic aids. Sports foods include products which are specially prepared or formulated food products which provide a convenient way to ingest macronutrients and or fluid to help meet basic day to day requirements. Often these products provide an athlete with a timely, easily digested and portable source of needed nutrients. Products such as protein powders, energy bars, sports drinks fall into this category and can help a fighter address their ‘basic’ nutrient needs. Usually real whole foods are preferable to supplements or sport foods, however there are certain situations where sports foods are preferable i.e. when you are time poor and in need of quick nutritional support (such as post training when other foods aren’t available or between training sessions) or when the added bulk of whole foods is not desirable either due to stomach discomfort issues or weight (such as in close proximity to training, on competition days, or when making weight).
Ergogenic aids refer to other substances , usually consumed in minor amounts, which can interact with a particular part of our physiology and can provide a small performance benefit, usually not attainable from ‘real foods’. There is clearly not enough space in the post to provide a complete assessment of all the supplements on the market, so instead of going through what doesn’t work and what is not beneficial to fighters, I will simply provide point you in the direction of supplements which may be of use to fighters and suggest you do further reading and source from reputable suppliers. Key ergogenic aids useful for fighters include: Creatine (don’t go for the fancy ones, a simple creatine monohydrate or micronized creatine monohydrate is ideal), beta alanine and sodium bicarbonate.
Creatine monohydrate can help with power and strength development and output during short periods of high intensity. Consequently it will also help with increasing muscle mass also. Beta alanine and sodium bicarbonate both work as a buffer inside and outside cells respectively, helping with the accumulation of lactate and allowing and athlete to push a little harder in short to medium length periods of high intensity (perfect for fighting). In addition to these ergogenic aides, a general multivitamin / multimineral supplement may be of use to fighters at certain times when a balanced diet is not possible and omega 3 fish oil supplements can help balance out inflammatory dietary fats.
To sum up, when it comes to supplements, first get your basic diet right, this is the big ticket item. If you find it hard to meet certain nutrient needs at particular times then sports foods made be of use. If you have everything else dialled in then consider supplementing with a few key ergogenic aids to get the extra 1-2% out of your training. A great resource which can help sort through the supplement hype is the Australian Institute of Sports’ supplement classification scheme http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/supplements/classification.