We often talk about how a growing number of weekend warriors and everyday athletes are increasingly embracing sports nutrition supplements. But what about the professional athletes for whom supplementation involves more than just a hobby, but a career? How are these athletes now being advised to incorporate sports supplements in their training regimens?
We spoke to Erika Whitman, RD, CSSD, team sports dietitian at The Madison Square Garden Company in New York, about the role supplementation plays in professional sports today. Whitman is the team dietitian for all Madison Square Garden sports teams, including the New York Rangers, New York Knicks, New York Liberty, Westchester Knicks, and Hartford Wolf Pack.
Nutritional Outlook: As a sports dietitian, what do you believe are the biggest benefits of supplementation for athletes?
Whitman: Supplementation can assist with specific nutrient needs that an athlete might not be getting in adequate levels through the diet alone. It may be as a result of food choices or preferences, which we will always address and discuss but may not be something they are able and/or willing to adjust in diet alone. Supplementation provides another avenue of getting necessary nutrients an athlete might need. They may also have increased needs for certain nutrients at certain times to aid in recovery or certain training regimens that might benefit from assuring there is no insufficiency or deficiency in a nutrient that might be critical for the body’s optimal performance levels to be achieved.
What kinds of gains have you seen athletes experience as a result of supplementation?
I have seen athletes increase blood values from deficient or insufficient levels to adequate levels through supplementation. There is also a lot of anecdotal feedback. An athlete might state it help[s] with energy levels and feeling like they can perform better and/or longer. I have also seen electrolyte supplementation significantly decrease cramping and signs of dehydration.
How do you typically recommend that athletes incorporate dietary supplements in their health and wellness regimen?
When discussing supplements with any athlete, the approach is consistency and timing, depending on the training schedule as well as individual nutrient needs.
How often do players ask you, if at all, whether or not they should take a dietary supplement?
The question isn’t usually “Should I take this or not?” but “Hey, Erika, what do you think of this?” They then hand me something or pull up a picture of something on their phone they want me to check. That happens on a somewhat regular basis, but I am also in a situation where we provide the supplements that we believe are necessary and will benefit the athlete, so that helps limit their need or desire to look elsewhere for various supplements.
How closely do you work with an athlete’s physician or trainer, if at all, when designing a supplement regimen?
I have great relationships with physicians and trainers, and we always work together on recommendations and implementation of supplement regimens.
What steps do you and the athletes you work with take to ensure that supplements are free of banned substances?
We primarily provide only NSF Certified for Sport products, as we know they have specifically been tested to assure they are free of banned substances as well as true to the ingredient label. It is important that products have gone through third-party testing to provide a sense of security of knowing what you are getting in the product, as supplements can hit the shelves without any label guarantee of knowing what is really in the container. It is a risky business and something we have to constantly remind our athletes about, as many believe supplements have the same requirements as food, which is simply not true. Supplements in food is then a whole other conversation which will continue to be monitored.
In addition to banned substances, are there any other primary safety concerns athletes have when taking supplements?
There are always concerns when taking a supplement that you have to consider, such as quality and source of the supplement (as well as manufacturing conditions); dosage amounts for effectiveness and safety; interactions with other supplements, medications, and/or foods; and, just as stated before, knowing that what they say on the label is really what it is.
Does personalized nutrition often play a role in the supplement recommendations you make?
Absolutely, I don’t provide supplementation recommendations without considering the specific individual’s diet, training, and markers that may indicate any specific nutrient needs as well as timing.