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How Olympians Pick Which Sports Supplements Are Worthwhile


Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan are Olympic distance runners headed to Rio this summer, and, as such, they inspiring. Flanagan has got the Olympic squad four times; Cragg beat Flanagan in a harrowing trials marathon. They’re also backing a beverage that purports to prevent muscle cramps before, Hotshot, during, and after work outs. I haven’t had any cramping “Since I began taking Hotshot,” says Flanagan.

It’s difficult to not be skeptical: Maybe it’s a fluke, correlation or the placebo effect doesn’t imply causation, and so on. But many elite, successful athletes use aspirational taglines, dietary supplements and all. How do Olympians choose which are worth it, and which are bunk?

Attentively. The nutritional supplements industry is a multi-billion dollar business, and it’s sketchy: Products aren’t approved by the FDA, so it’s difficult to know what’s in them. Occasionally, sportsmen will take a company’s “ mixture that is proprietary,” afterward fail a doping test because the nutritional supplement contained a prohibited substance. More often, says Bill Campbell, director of the University of South Florida’s Performance & Physique Enhancement Lab, the blends feature fixings that are effective, but at dosages too modest to do anything.

Thus why take nutritional supplements? Because some of them— prized few, but still —do help performance. In the supplement world, if you find enormous effects, something’s ,” that is wrong says Abbie Smith-Ryan, a sport nutrition scientist at UNC Chapel Hill. Instead, nutritional supplements have small effects even if they’re functioning properly. Possibly the creatine you take will allow you to heft a weight a tad more, or that caffeine will get you away that block that is starting a smidge faster. That can mean the difference between a gold medal and no medal. “You try and control what you’ll be able to command,” Flanagan says. And if everyone is taking them, why not you? It’s an arms race as much as it’s a legs race.

Some nutritional supplements really have some science behind them. Researchers can analyze products with randomized double blind studies try to keep the areas’ schedules as similar as possible, and to control for the placebo effect.

Often the studies are performed by them on college students, who don’t always stick to your regimen or, say, refrain from drinking. (Elite faculty athletics also is big business, and coaches might keep clear of using players as guinea pigs, says Andrew Jagim, a sport scientist at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.) “Extrapolating into a higher degree is kind of a leap of faith,” Jagim says. And no supplement is a panacea—what works for a weightlifter might not help a distance runner.

So what ’s a professional athlete to do? Be very, very pragmatic. My job would be to cover lots of miles really fast,” Flanagan says. “I don’t get overly bogged down in the science.”

Cragg assesses the labels of anything she strives to make sure the ingredients are natural as possible. But it’s mostly a matter of trying something and seeing how she feels—supplements are so individualized that she basically must experiment to see what works. Flavor can be key: “I pick what tastes good two hours is said by ” Cragg — it ’s hard to get whatever she’s taking down in any way.

Both Flanagan and Cragg say they were initially cynical, but the beverage’s promise—no more debilitating, race- cramps that are losing!—seemed too good to pass up. That mechanism is plausible, says a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who studies the ion channel Hotshot allegedly targets, Ardem Patapoutian. The function of sensory feedback in many physiological processes has been under studied and under-appreciated,” he says— cramping contained.

But for Cragg or Flanagan (who are also, incidentally, being paid to promote Hotshot), the spicy supplement is good enough. And if either of them win in Rio, they’ll likely thank Hotshot because, hey, something worked.