Less is more! A cyclist's guide to supplements
We've all seen the ads: "Take Super-Mega Wattage Pills and you'll recover faster, have more power, and feel great!" It's easy to read them and wonder if this new supplement is going to be the missing link that gives us the edge over the competition. Unfortunately, the reality is that these supplements come with a lot of risk, and usually very little reward. The supplement industry is the wild west of the food manufacturing. Alarmingly, the FDA does not have any pre-market regulations on supplements. Supplement manufacturers can basically bottle up whatever they want and put it on the shelves. The FDA will remove a supplement from the market only if it is deemed unsafe by way of lawsuit. What's even more alarming is that supplement companies can put whatever they want on the back of their bottles. Some "proprietary blends" might list multiple ingredients, but they do not specify how much of each ingredient is actually in the serving. The result? You end up emptying your wallet on some pills that might be 90% rice flour and 10% the vitamin that you thought you were taking. In some of the worst cases, supplements may be contaminated with a banned substance. Many professional bike riders has learned this the hard way. A cyclist should only take the supplements that they truly need.
The best performance enhancement you ingest lies with your diet. A balanced diet that contains lots of nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meats, and dairy should provide all essential nutrients that your body needs. Vitamin supplements usually contain way more vitamins than the body is able to absorb and are excreted in the urine. Those who take lots of supplements are basically flushing their money down the toilet. For all of these reasons, I recommend spending your money on healthy foods rather than a supplement. When it comes to pills, less is more.
The 2 Supplements That Every Cyclist Should Take
That being said, there are a few supplements that I do recommend for cyclists.
"But I get plenty of sunshine!" I hear you cry. While it is true that sufficient Vitamin D can be absorbed through 15-30 minutes of sun exposure, many cyclists may actually have a Vitamin D deficiency. Most of us liberally apply sunscreen before going out on a sunny day. Any sunscreen with an SPF of greater than 30 will decrease your body's ability to synthesize Vitamin D by 99%. From November through February anywhere north of Arizona, the low angle of the sun prevents your body from making Vitamin D. I said before that a healthy diet is always a better option than supplements, but even if you're eating healthy, Vitamin D is very hard to get in the diet.
Vitamin D is especially important for cyclists because it is what allows calcium to be absorbed in the diet. Cyclists notoriously struggle with low bone density, so Vitamin D is essential for promoting healthy bones. A supplement of 500-1000 IU should be adequate to supply daily needs.
Calcium is another nutrient that cyclists may need to take a supplement for. The nature of cycling creates a perfect storm when it comes to low bone-density. Cycling is not a weight bearing sport and thus does not promote new bone growth. Unless you are hitting the gym or doing other weight bearing activities on a daily basis, chances are that your bone density is steadily deteriorating. However, cyclists are also at a high risk for low bone density because of how much they sweat. In just one hour of exercise, your body can sweat about 200mg of calcium per hour. If you go ride for 4 or 5 hours like many cyclists, you may be sweating out close to 1000mg of calcium. That's almost the recommended daily intake for calcium, lost through the sweat! When your body sweats calcium, bone will be broken down to help stabilize calcium levels in the blood.
In the day and age of trendy diets (paleo, vegan, etc..) many cyclists are cutting down on dairy consumption- the result? A significant lack of calcium in the diet combined with intense, non-weight bearing activity puts cyclists at an extreme risk for osteoporosis. If we want to be able to ride bikes and be healthy for many years to come, it's worth taking extra precautions against this disease. Riding a bike and having bird-bones doesn't mix very well.
For these reasons, I recommend that you take a calcium supplement containing 500-1000mg of calcium per day. Taking some calcium right before a ride has been shown to be an effective strategy for protecting bone mass.
There are lots of supplements on the market that contain both Vitamin D and Calcium. You'll be able to get all you need in one convenient pill.
What to Look for in a Quality Supplement
A quality supplement will usually have some sort of 3rd party approval. When looking for a supplement, look for these emblems :
Each of these companies rigorously tests products to ensure that the supplements do not contain any banned substances and utilizes fair practices when manufacturing their products. Avoid any products that list a "proprietary blend." Make sure that the ingredients list is clear and lists the exact amount of each ingredient in a serving, and always make sure that you absolutely need a supplement before taking it. As an extra precaution, you can search any FDA supplement recalls here.
Barry, Daniel W, and Wendy M Kohrt. “BMD Decreases Over the Course of a Year in Competitive Male Cyclists.” The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering, Wiley-Blackwell, 10 Dec. 2007, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1359/jbmr.071203.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Dietary Supplements.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/default.htm.
"Office of Dietary Supplements - Vitamin D.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/