Dietary Supplements in Sports – Smart or Unnecessary?

dietary supplements

There is an impressive range of supplements to optimize performance, keep you healthy, and aid recovery. These dietary supplements can come in the form of powder, tablets, capsules, gels, or even ampoules.

However, it is important to remember that supplements do not replace a healthy diet, but rather support the body if it is deficient in something, prevent reactions to overexertion and illness, and also compensate for an unbalanced diet.

supplement pills

Generally a drop in performance and poor concentration are typical signs of a nutrient deficiency. But before you start taking nutritional supplements, you should find out whether you even need them. Less is often more. In fact, many people are not aware that too many supplements can be harmful to the body. It can lead to digestive problems, nausea, headaches, fatigue, or faintness.

How do I find out whether I have a nutritional deficiency?

In order to be certain that you need supplements, you should have a laboratory test your blood and urine to determine your current levels. This is a reliable way to identify deficits, which can be addressed with a supplement program. In addition, if you tend to show signs of a deficiency, it is wise to keep a record of what you eat several times a year and work with a nutritionist if necessary. Deficiencies can usually be treated by adjusting your general eating habits.

Should athletes take dietary supplements?

Even though almost everything can be regulated through nutrition, athletes can benefit from dietary supplements.

A few examples: A one-sided, vegan, or vegetarian diet can lead to a vitamin B12, iron, or zinc deficiency. Low-calorie diets to lose weight can also create deficiencies. But a nutrient-rich diet should be enough to restore your nutritional balance.
High-intensity training and long working hours could also be reasons why the energy you use is not compensated through your diet.

6 supplements that can be helpful for runners:

1. Isotonic drinks

A mix of glucose and electrolytes are essential for endurance runners, because they replenish lost fluids and electrolytes. A composition of 80 g of sugar and 400 mg of sodium is recommended for one liter of water. Other electrolytes like magnesium, calcium, and potassium are also advisable, but not absolutely necessary.
If supplements are taken on an ongoing basis, calcium and magnesium should be ingested on different days to improve absorption in the digestive tract. Vitamin D should be taken with calcium and is recommended to improve performance. As an alternative, mix fruit juice and sparkling water in a 1:1 ratio.

isotonic drink

2. Concentrated carbohydrates

To keep your glycogen stores full during endurance runs (min. 20 km), I recommend taking concentrated carbohydrates according to the duration of your training:

    • 60-120 mins: 30-60g/h.
    • >120 min: 60-80 g/h.

3. Energy gels

Energy gels provide a complex of various nutrients for longer runs (min. 10 km), such as amino acids, vitamins, and sometimes caffeine. A few natural alternatives –  if your stomach can tolerate them – are sparkling fruit juice, a banana, or dextrose.

4. Concentrated protein

Protein is necessary to maintain muscle mass:  0.8-1.7 g of protein is recommended per kilogram of bodyweight per day. However, you should be able to consume this amount with a balanced diet.

protein powder


BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids. These include the three essential amino acids: leucine, valine, and isoleucine. They help you maintain and build muscle and aid in recovery. The best sources of this are fish, eggs, red meat, chicken, and dairy products.

6. Micronutrients

Consuming the following micronutrients can also be a wise move, depending on the focus of your training:

  • caffeine (endurance sports)
  • creatine (strength training)
  • sodium bicarbonate (sprints)
  • nitrate (high intensity to maximum exertion, e.g. middle distance running)

A risk that many are not aware of…

…is that supplements can be contaminated with doping substances. In the past, athletes were banned because of doping – they had ingested undeclared illegal substances by using contaminated supplements. The Cologne List, which regularly lists new products, is helpful for knowing what you are taking.

Advantages and disadvantages of supplements

Supplements are a controversial topic. There are a lot of products on the market, and the sports industry promotes many performance enhancing substances without any scientific basis. As a result, there are arguments for and against supplements:

  • Pro:
    Nutritional supplements are generally good way to balance out nutritional deficiencies in order to stabilize the performance level.
    They can support the recovery process if monitored by a health professional.
  • Con:
    If you take dietary supplements without consulting a health professional, you risk overdoing it. This can have negative effects on your body.


Many people underestimate the health risks of taking supplements incorrectly. Often a balanced diet is all you need – most supplements then become unnecessary. However, if you consult your physician and use them properly, they can provide helpful support, especially for athletes who are focused on improving their performance.



Dr. Pouria Taheri Dr. Pouria Taheri is an orthopedic specialist and trauma surgeon, sports physician, happy family man and father and an avid athlete. Whether its basketball, running, training or Bikram Yoga: "I love incorporating a variety of sports into my life." View all posts by Dr. Pouria Taheri »