Do supplements actually work?

I’m currently reading M.Hutchinson’s ‘Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck behind the World’s fastest cyclists‘ (at Amazon on 27th March), I got mine from Waterstones) – I’m half way through already – it’s a good entertaining read, I’ll do a full review soon.

But, at times I think aloud. ‘Very good,  but can’t you just give me a list of things to buy which will make me go faster.‘ I’m not one of those who needs to understand the science behind going faster. I just want to know what I have to buy and do – preferably with a minimum of work and cost.


One of the ways to go faster is buying food supplements. (the legal supplements of course) Over the years, I’ve bought all kinds of recommended supplements, which very confident sounding people have claimed will make ‘all the difference’. Beetroot juice, Beta Alanine, Cod liver oil, Creatine, tumeric powder e.t.c. The problem is that although I’m very good at buying supplements, I’m very bad at actually taking them. I have a cupboard full of 3/4 full tablet jars. I buy supplements with good intentions, but somehow I always forget to take them after the first few weeks of enthusiasm dies off. Every five years I go through the cupboard and throw away everything which has gone well past its Best Before date.

Beetroot juice was promising

A few seasons ago, I was convinced that drinking a litre of beetroot juice before a race was worth at least 30 seconds in a 10 mile time trial. I clung to this rather unscientific theory because one day, after gorging on the purple stuff, I’d managed to take 3 seconds off my 10 mile pb on the F20/10.

The only problem with this wonder product, was that it rather reliably gave an unpleasant case of diarrhea. It’s one thing to lose a bit of weight before a race, it’s another to lose all your minerals and salts. Although I liked the idea of Beetroot juice and was pretty attached to the concept Beetroot juice made you go faster, even I had to admit it was interupting my pre-race routine. Alas, I had to give up this wonder supplement, but fortunately, it didn’t seem to make any difference to my 10 mile time trials. A few weeks later, I went up north to ride the V718 and took nearly a minute off my 10 pb from 20.00 to 19.07. So much for beetroot juice, when you can ride on a motorway.

Supplements chapter

Anyway back to reading Hutchinson’s book ‘Faster’, I was nervously getting half way through the book when those insistent voices were getting louder. ‘But, what can I do to actually make ME go faster?‘ Jokes are fine, but I want something to make me faster, preferably with not too much work.

Thank-fully, Hutchinson came to the rescue saying that some supplements are generally agreed to really make you go faster. He mentioned three, Beetroot juice, Beta Alanine and Fish oil.

Wonderful, I had all these in my cabinet, completely untouched for the past ten months (I actually bought some Beetroot pills once). Without daring to look at the best before date, I popped the pills and got prepared for an interval session. My skin was tingling with all the beta alanine.  This was psychologically reassuring – If it makes your skin tingle, it really must work!

I went out for an interval session today with the best of intentions. But, it was just one of those days when it wasn’t really happening. The legs felt a little sluggish and rather than keeping up the power all the way to the top, I was keen to knock it off and end the interval early. With the additional threat of a looming dark cloud, I ended the session early, doing only half the number of what I managed a week ago. It was a bit of a blow for the ‘take supplements’ and you’ll go faster school. At least I didn’t feel so bad for forgetting to take anything for the past 12 months.

Of course, it is maybe the case that supplements do work, but something else is skewing this off-one off test. Perhaps I was subconsciously worried about Hutchinson’s dire warnings of overtraining without having a coach to offer that detached overview to tell you to take some rest.

The Power of the Placebo

A few weeks ago, I watched a BBC horizon programme ‘The Power of the Placebo‘. In the programme, cyclists were given a pill which they were told would do wonders for their performance. Except 50% of the test riders were given a placebo. The programme claimed that those on the placebo did as well, if not better than those on the caffeine pill. Often people on a placebo improved their times, despite doing that test a bit more tired. There must be something in the placebo effect, and it must relate to some psychological trigger. Perhaps this is the attraction of supplements. We need something to take which we think will make us go faster.

However, I wasn’t quite as convinced with the Placebo as the programme makers were. They found 50% of cyclists went faster with a placebo, but 50% went slower or the same. Am I missing something or is that hardly conclusive evidence?

The problem of testing

The overwhelming problem of testing supplements, is that with so many variables, it is so difficult to provide reliable results. Even if a supplement works well for one person, there is no guarantee that it will work for you.

It seems that scientific studies can prove the success of just about anything from taking no coffee to drinking 5 cups of coffee a day.The Anorak have the Daily Mail list of things which will give you cancer. If you try hard enough, you can seem to make a scientific study prove just about anything.

Given this overwhelming uncertainty about the effectiveness of supplements, what should the amateur rider do? Do we take absolutely everything known to man and hope that at least 1 out of the 50 supplements will makes us 1% faster. Or do we just throw the 3/4 full bottles in the bin and stick to marmalade sandwiches? I don’t know. So I’ll continue to muddle through, taking a few supplements every now and then, and buying a lot more than I actually take.


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