A Footballers Guide to Supplements

Here at Player-Pal we get asked more questions about supplements than any other subject.

On the one hand, you’ve got people telling you that most supplements are a waste of money, and then you’re scared half to death by high profile athletes receiving drug bans for allegedly taking a supplement containing, or contaminated with, a banned substance. On the other, it seems like everyone is taking them and that you may be missing out on that competitive edge if you don’t.

FIFA and the FA’s stance on supplements is very clear in that players who are liable for drug testing should be especially cautious. We are not anti-supplements at Player-Pal and we believe it is a choice that can only be made by the individual. We also believe in giving you the facts on what does and doesn’t work.

Drug tested athletes should always use “Informed Sport” versions of any supplement to reduce the risk of doping issues.

“Check all supplements with a medical officer. If there is any doubt at all, don’t take it”

(FIFA/F-MARC 2010)

Supplements are exactly as their name suggests – they should supplement a sound nutrition programme and should not be used as an attempt to make up for a poor one.

There are no magic pills or potions out there, and the vast majority are far better at making money for supplement companies than they are at improving your health or performance/recovery. The supplement industry is renowned for making outlandish and unsubstantiated claims on the efficacy of their products.

“Few of the products used by athletes are supported by a sound research base and some may even be harmful to the player. All players should look carefully at the risks and rewards of individual supplements before trying them”

(FIFA/F-MARC 2010)

The vast majority of supplements available have little or no real scientific support and are likely to have very little, or no benefit, to you as an athlete. That said, there are a handful that are worth your attention.

(*We strongly recommend discussing supplementation with your club doctor or GP. This is especially important for those of you under 18 as these guidelines are aimed at people 18 years of age or older.)

  • Fish Oils/Omega-3’s fatty acids which are very important to general health and have a long list of benefits associated with them. They cannot be made in our bodies, which means we need to obtain them from our diets. Eating a diet rich in fatty fish is one way to increase your intake of Omega-3’s.In general, most people in the western world eat diets that are rich in omega-6 fatty acids but relatively low in Omega-3’s. Supplementation helps improve this ratio. Lots of different doses are suggested. 250mg is the minimum amount for general health but you may need to take more, especially if you are using it to reduce soreness. These supplements can easily spoil so we recommend keeping them in the fridge.
  • Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, has a wide range of reported health benefits (aids the immune system, is important for normal growth and development of bones and teeth, and associated with increased cognition) and appears to reduce the risk of a number of health problems. It doesn’t seem like a day goes by without us hearing about the positive effects of vitamin D and it also appears to be common deficiency. We get a lot of our vitamin D from the sun, but also in our diet from foods such as fish and eggs.  Taking too much vitamin D can be harmful – for this reason, if you are concerned that you might be deficient, the best practice would be to get tested by your club medical team or GP and then supplement under their guidance. Alternatively, a sensible protocol would be to supplement with Vitamin D3 in the winter months at the UK’s upper safe limit of 1000iu (25 micrograms).
  • Protein Shakes/Powders Protein powders, whilst not essential (it is more than possible to achieve the required amount of protein from your diet alone), are a convenient and easy way to contribute to your daily protein requirements. Protein powders (along with carbohydrate), post training or game, may have a role as part of your recovery plan.With a full profile of amino acids and rapidly digested, whey protein may be a supplement you have considered taking. We recommend a good quality Whey Protein Isolate as it is tolerated well by most people.
  • Creatine is normally found in food such as meats, egg and fish. In supplement form however, it is used in larger doses than what you would find naturally in food. It is one of the most researched supplements around and appears to be safe.By increasing the amount of high energy creatine phosphate stored in the muscles, creatine may improve performance in single or multiple sprints. This makes creatine a good choice of supplement for footballers. It is also a supplement that FIFA says offers the prospect of improving performance. Creatine may also increase muscle mass.Supplement your diet with 5g per day of creatine monohydrate and take alongside some carbohydrate (e.g. with a meal). As with all supplements more is not always better and, don’t forget, if you are a tested athlete you should use an informed sport option. You will notice there are many different products and variants of creatine. A basic creatine monohydrate is all you need and no benefits have been proven from more expensive options. You may of heard people talking about needing a loading phase with creatine; this is not essential with modern formulas (but may increase your muscle stores more rapidly).
  • Caffeine is a powerful stimulant and may help with improving both physical strength and performance in prolonged exercise.It is important to be careful with caffeine as too much can have a negative impact (e.g. affect your sleep or cause over-arousal). Also, it may not be suitable with certain medical conditions (e.g. blood pressure or cardiac issues). However, caffeine has the potential to aid performance and it’s habitual use has been linked to a number of health benefits.FIFA recommend supplementing with 2-3mg per kg of body weight approximately 1 hour before performance. People tend to respond differently to caffeine and we suggest starting with a lower dose of 100-200mg and monitoring your reaction. Whilst you could obtain these amounts from drinks such as coffee or cola, we recommend taking it in capsule or powder form (capsules seem to be favoured by most people).FIFA include caffeine as a supplement with the “prospect of improved performance” but warn that “Larger doses of caffeine do not seem to be more effective, and may have negative outcomes such as over-arousal and poor sleep patterns after an event”A problem with caffeine is that regular use can build a tolerance to it. If you are going to use caffeine as a performance aid, we suggest limiting your intake at other times of the day. If you consume a lot of caffeine, taking up to a month long break will help.
  • Sodium Bicarbonate is a buffering supplement which can be useful in counteracting the negative effects of lactic acid build up. FIFA include this supplement in a list that they say have the “prospect of improved performance”. They also suggest that studies designed to replicate the exercise involved in football have shown that sodium bicarbonate could be beneficial. FIFA recommend a dosage of 0.3g per kilogram of body weight about 60-90 minutes before exercise.
    WARNING – there is a real risk of gastrointestinal problems with taking sodium bicarbonate and, depending on your health status, some caution of use may need to be applied. This is one to use under the direction of your club medical team. We also strongly recommend experimenting with it in training first.
  • Beta-Alanine is another buffering supplement that has been shown to enhance muscular endurance and could be of use to a footballer.  You can take this at any time of the day but it’s benefits come with prolonged use (i.e. taking it once on the day of a game is not going to make any difference to your performance). Consistently taking 2-3g per day with a meal is a sensible dosage. A common harmless side effect is a prickling/tingling sensation under the skin called paraesthesia.