In reality, most triathletes take supplements. With the advantage increased energy and nutrient requirements, a desire to enhance performance, and a greater degree of food and exercise based inflammation, we really can get a bit of a benefit by popping pills (legally, of course).
However, many athletes indiscriminately grab their "morning handful" of capsules, swallow them, and "check off" their nutrition supplements for the day. The fact is, this supplement shot-gunning approach can result in sub-par absorption and utilization of the nutrients, vitamins, minerals or other desirable compound in the nutrition supplement.
So here are the top 6 nutrition supplement mistakes, and how you can avoid them:
Nutrition Supplement Mistake # 1: Eating Fiber With Your Fish Oil
Most people take their fish oil supplement in the morning, along with breakfast. The problem is that most breakfast foods are high fiber. And soluble fibers such as pectin, guar gum, and oat bran, and also the insoluble fiber lignin (found in plant cell walls) can affect fat absorption by "wrapping" fatty acids within the digestive tract and decreasing their absorption. Fatty acids and cholesterol that are bound to fiber are less absorbed – and only free fatty acids allow for fat to be transported through the walls of the small intestine. Fiber-bound fatty acids will mostly pass into the large intestine.
In other words, by popping your fish oil capsules with a high-fiber morning cereal, you're basically making expensive fish oil poop. So what should you do? Try taking your fish oil with an afternoon, fat-based snack, such as a handful of olives, almond butter on pita, or avocado with crackers.
Nutrition Supplement Mistake # 2: Taking High Dose Antioxidants Regularly
This can be confusing, especially if you've been indoctrinated with the idea that all antioxidants are good, but recent research suggests that antioxidant nutrition supplements, such as high dose Vitamin C, may actually impair recovery, increase inflammation, decrease insulin sensitivity, and lead to a lower fitness response to exercise. The basic idea is behind this is that antioxidants protect the body from the damage produced by free radicals, but if you're always taking high dose antioxidants, your body never learns to generate it's own antioxidant activity, and thus does not grow strong free radical buffering capacity on it's own.
While this is a fairly new topic in sports nutrition, and research is scant, my recommendation is to save any high dose antioxidant supplements for your harder training days (such as long training weekends) when your body probably needs a little extra help. But on recovery days and easy or short training days, hold back on the antioxidants. You probably don't need them and they may be doing you more harm than good.
Nutrition Supplement Mistake # 3: Eating Amino Acids When You're Trying To Control Appetite
Branched Chain Amino Acids, also known as "BCAA's", are in a ton of different during-exercise and post-exercise nutrition supplements. But it is a little known fact that in cancer patients who need to gain weight, BCAA's are actually used to stimulate appetite and help people to eat more. Obviously, if you're trying to lose weight or control appetite, eating a handful of BCAA's in the evening before dinner may not be such a good idea. This is only a worry for a select few folks who are focusing on appetite control and weight loss, but is certainly good to know if you regularly experience food cravings.
Nutrition Supplement Mistake # 4: Taking Proteolytic Enzymes on a Full Stomach
Protelytic enzymes, like BCAA's, are found quite regularly in recovery-based nutrition supplements. Check the nutrition label of your recovery nutrition supplement for words like "papain", "bromelain", "trypsin" and "chymotrypsin" – these are all proteolytic enzymes. The primary benefit of these enzymes is to enhance recovery by decreasing inflammation. But the inflammation-reducing benefit of proteolytic enzymes is significantly increased when the enzymes are taken on a full stomach or with a meal. Therefore, popping your post-exercise proteolytic enzymes with your post-exercise meal is not the best idea.
Instead, take any supplements containing proteolytic enzymes on an empty stomach, such as in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, or even right before you go to bed at night. If you tend to wait for 1-2 hours post-exercise to eat a meal, this would also be a good time to take proteolytic enzyme nutrition supplements.
Nutrition Supplement Mistake # 5: Not Timing Fat Burning Supplements Properly
The premise behind "fat burning" supplements is that they contain components such as insulin and blood sugar stabilizing components such as chromium, vanadium or even cinnamon. From a strategic standpoint, these compounds should be absorbed and active in your body well prior to eating a meal. Swallowing a fat-burning supplement with breakfast, directly before breakfast, or directly after a meal is not going to do much for you. So the best time to take a fat-burning supplement is 30-60 minutes prior to consuming your 2-3 main meals of the day. Incidentally, I do not recommend high caffeine or ephedra based fat burning supplements, as they can be hard on your adrenal glands and central nervous system.
Nutrition Supplement Mistake # 6: Allowing Fish Oil or Flax Oil To Get Warm
When the fragile oils in fish oil, flax seed oil, or just about any other seed or vegetable based oil becomes warm or heated, the oil can become oxidized, and form free radicals that can do cellular damage to your body. A warm fish oil does you more harm than good. So if you drive in your car with fish oil or flax oil sitting in a gym bag on the back seat, this is a very bad idea. So is traveling to a race with fat-based nutrition supplements in your backpack or race bag, if it is going to be in a hot airplane compartment or sitting in the sun. It would be better not take these nutrition supplements at all if that will be the case.
Instead, keep fish oil or flax oil type supplements in your refrigerator or freezer, and keep them as cool as possible when traveling. If they do get warm, throw them out. They're not going to do you any good at that point.