What's Cool In Road Cycling

Supplements – The Problem with Science

In the nutrition and supplement industry, the phrase “clinically/scientifically proven” is about as meaningful as “new and improved” in shampoo commercials. In other words, it usually means dip-all and you’re still surrounded by flakes. Check out some of the problems in transferring science from the lab to the road…

The problem with science, according to its critics, is that there’s never any black and white, only many shades of gray that often contradict each other. And the problem with scientists is that they’re happy to live in this state of never knowing the real answer and more than willing to recant their previous beliefs. My favourite response to students asking me a question, right after “tell me what YOU think!” is usually the dreaded “it depends.”

But that’s the heart of the scientific method, to put an idea up on a pedestal, take as many potshots at it as you can, and be willing to live with the consequences whichever way the cookie crumbles (there, three butchered similes in one sentence!). This bugs the hell out of most people, including one guest I rode with during my recent trip to Le Tour, who says he gets the same response from Nobel laureates he works with in nuclear research. Hey, tickle me pink to be in such company!

Conflicts of Interest
Another key to good science is making sure you’re independent of any conflict of interest. That means that you as the scientist should not have any financial stakes in the outcome of your research.

In the nutrition and supplements industry, just as in the pharmaceutical industry, steering clear of financial conflicts of interest can be exceedingly difficult. This is because the field is so huge and the financial stakes can be so high if you find something that works. Also, it’s a fine line to draw. If my study on sports drinks received no money from any manufacturer, but I did get free product, does this count as potential conflict of interest?

So if you are checking out promotional literature or, better yet, the actual scientific paper behind the marketing hype, one important thing to look for is any obvious conflicts of interest and also full disclosure of any potential ones. Specifically, be like Woodward and Bernstein and “follow the money.” Who actually sponsored/funded the research? This can usually be found in the “Acknowledgements” section at the end of the article. Did any of the authors get paid or are employed by a company with vested interest in the results? This can usually be found in the acknowledgements or else right at the beginning, where the authors’ name and affiliation (e.g., my articles list that I’m employed by Dalhousie University) are listed.

Full Disclosure?
In the July issue of the very prestigious journal Med Sci Sports Exerc, a highly-touted article (a PR company actually emailed me with a media interview opportunity with the author!) directly compared the use of Gatorade versus Accelerade (which contains protein in addition to carbohydrates and electrolytes) in cyclists (Saunders et al. 2004). They found that Accelerade improved exercise time to exhaustion at a set intensity and also decreased indicators of muscle damage. This is potentially explosive stuff in the sports drink field!

The science of the paper passed my sniff test. However, what I found strange was that there was no disclosure of the source of funding for this project ANYWHERE in the article. In my opinion, this is a huge oversight. I’m not saying that there is a conflict of interest, but it would be nice to know that there isn’t. As such, I’m personally going to take the results of this study with “a grain of salt” until I know for sure.

The Pros versus the Rest of Us
Another problem with supplement research is that what works for the pros may not work for us mortals, and vice versa. They ride much more and much harder than we do, and miniscule bits of improvement may mean everything to their performance and nothing to ours. Since it’s almost impossible to drag a couple dozen pros into the labs to be subjects for an experiment, we’re usually left with studies that utilize everyday cyclists or elite amateurs, and we try to translate that finding to real life.

This is coupled with the difficulty in actually simulating real life racing situations in the lab. Therefore, almost any study that doesn’t find a supplement effective can be derided by a manufacturer as “not being realistic.” However, it’s interesting that the reverse finding (a study that finds a supplement works) is never given the same and equally-valid criticism!

The Case of Optygen
The efficacy of Optygen, from First Endurance, was recently the direct subject of a study published in the same Med Sci Sports Exerc journal (Earnest et al. 2004). 17 subjects were recruited, all active male Cat 3/4 racers. They performed a battery of performance tests before and following the manufacturer recommended 4 days loading and 11 days maintenance phase. They also repeated the tests with the same subjects before and following a placebo. No benefit in any of the numerous physiological and performance measures (VO2peak, peak power output, workload at 4 mmol/L lactate, etc.) were observed with the use of Optygen.

Sounds pretty bad for Optygen right? Why do Fast Freddy, Webcor, Navigators, and Sierra Nevada swear by it (besides being sponsored)? This comes down to the fact that Optygen may indeed increase your performance by 0.5 or 1%, an improvement below what can be detected reliably in the lab or considered statistically significant. However, for the pros, who are incredibly fit and already near their genetic potential, that slight benefit may be huge.

For the Cat 3/4 subjects and for the rest of us typical racers, however, that 0.5 or 1% improvement may mean much less in the grand scheme of things because we’re nowhere near our genetic potential. Therefore, any benefits from these supplements are easily masked or negated by insufficient/inefficient training, non-ideal recovery, diet, etc.

Which is just a roundabout way of getting back to my main mantra throughout the supplement debate: there are no magic bullets that take the place of smart training!

Science is not perfect, and no one study can give a definitive answer to a question. What is needed is to carefully analyze the science from which companies make their claims for improved performance, just as you would take care in analyzing the claims behind any product. Definitely check for conflict of interest in any research study, and be especially wary if the study was funded by the company in question. Lastly, what works for the pros may not work for everyday athletes, so don’t be blinded by the star power of the endorsers.


1. Saunders MJ, Kane MD and Todd MK. Effects of a carbohydrate-protein beverage on cycling endurance and muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc 36: 1233-1238, 2004.
2. Earnest CP, Morss GM, Wyatt F, Jordan AN, Colson S, Church TS, Fitzgerald Y, Autrey L, Jurca R and Lucia A. Effects of a commercial herbal-based formula on exercise performance in cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc 36: 504-509, 2004.

Introduction to Supplements

The serious caveats to consider with supplements

Food and Drugs Administration

Health Canada

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and his athletic potential is way beyond help from any supplement known to science! His company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].

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