Good sports: Sports nutrition’s moving target

October 14, 2019

Is yoga a sport? Emily Avery, USA Yoga’s women’s gold-medal champion in the 18-49 age group for three years running, would probably say so. And like her, millions of participants in “sports” such as CrossFit, Spartan Races, and Tough Mudders are redefining what it means to be an athlete, and democratizing the notion of sport in the process.

Sports nutrition products are undergoing their own redefinition in response, expanding upon the benefits they deliver, the means by which they deliver them, and the consumers whom they target. While this is forcing formulators out of their comfort zones—you’ll need more than a keg of protein powder to capture today’s sports nutrition consumer—it also heralds a refreshing dynamism for the category.

No wonder, says Josh Beaty, marketing director, NuLiv Science USA Inc. (Brea, CA), that “today’s sports nutrition is for the athlete in everyone.”


From Fringe to Front Row

The complexion of the current sports nutrition market is a far sight from what Chase Hagerman, brand director, Chemi Nutra (Austin, TX), knew just a few decades ago.

“Back in the 1990s, I remember there was a small sampling of own-label distributors essentially born of bodybuilders on a mission to optimize their performance, mostly for self-satisfaction,” he recalls. By the mid-2000s as the category’s profile was rising, the critical mass started shifting to athletes looking to boost their competitive edge. “And by a decade later to today,” Hagerman continues, “sports nutrition has been becoming even more mainstream.”

How much more? Depending on whom you ask, sports nutrition products represent up to 25% of current retail sales in specialty and online dietary supplement purchases, according to Mark A. LeDoux, CEO and chairman, Natural Alternatives International (San Marcos, CA).

In fact, Grand View Research predicts a global value for sports nutrition of $24.43 billion by 2025, driven, in part, by the category’s embrace of recreational exercisers in addition to its traditional core of bodybuilders and serious athletes.1

That growth tracks with heightened public awareness of health and wellness, not to mention the proliferation of high- and low-intensity gyms, “boxes,” exercise studios, and classes.

And don’t discount the role of wearables. Notes Juliana Erickson, senior marketing manager, Lonza Consumer Health & Nutrition (Morristown, NJ), “The rise of digital fitness and wearable technologies that allow users to track their fitness progress is also fueling interest in nutritional products to aid performance and recovery.”

Indeed, says Hagerman, “For the first time since 2012, Apple reported in their quarterly earnings in June that the iPhone represented less than 50% of Apple’s revenue—reporting, conversely, 50% growth in their wearables category.”2


Fueling a Broader Base

As weekend warriors don their smart watches and start living the link between nutrition, wellness, and exercise, “they want in on these sports-nutrition products, too,” says Stephanie Lynch, vice president of sales, marketing, and technology, IDF (Springfield, MO).

That’s prompting brands to formulate to a wider variety of nutritional needs. “Some companies have even discussed a potentially better name for the industry to appeal to this broader new consumer base: ‘lifestyle’ or ‘active’ nutrition,” notes Beaty.

According to Mariko Hill, product development executive, Gencor (Irvine, CA), sports nutrition consumers in general want to “reduce the impact of aging and exercise.” Performance-driven users thus look for foods and supplements that build muscle, improve endurance, and boost energy, while those with a more holistic approach—“yogis and weekend warriors,” she says—prioritize immunity, general wellbeing, and recovery.

“In the past, sports nutrition products were targeted at performance-oriented, young, healthy males: bigger, faster, stronger,” says Larry Kolb, president of TSI USA Inc. (Missoula, MT). “Today, the consumers of sports nutrition products include women, elderly consumers trying to age gracefully, and the weekend warriors: people seeking an active lifestyle—not always to the level of an athlete—however, very committed and enthusiastic about their sport nonetheless. While performance is still driving sales of sports nutrition products, recovery and energy are major driving forces for this far broadened, everyday active lifestyle group.”

In fact, recovery has appeal across the fitness spectrum. Notes Andrew Wheeler, vice president, marketing, FutureCeuticals (Momence, IL), “The old ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra is being replaced by thoughtful training that can reduce the risk of injury. Sports nutrition consumers want products that echo that approach with claims for hydration, reducing muscle and joint soreness, and improving performance.”

But as far as Hagerman is concerned, “Brands don’t emphasize vanity with sports supplements as much as they should.” Most consumers aren’t after Olympic gold, he wagers. “The vast majority are mostly just recreationally active.” Their goal is what he calls the “trifecta of fitness”: more muscle, more strength, less fat mass. “All other functions feed into this. At the end of the day, the average consumer’s biggest competition is themselves.”


Understanding the Weekend Warrior

To reach that average consumer, Beaty suggests that brands innovate “in both formulation and marketing, giving consumers a reason to try something new or that they’ve never heard of before.”

Doing so requires understanding the weekend warrior, and Emily Pankow Fritz, PhD, technical service manager for active wellness, Kemin Foods (Des Moines), considers this new breed “an interesting target” for a few reasons.

Metabolically, they differ from serious athletes in that they don’t exercise intensely or consistently enough to experience the same adaptations that serious competitors do—so their energy and recovery needs will differ from those of serious competitors, as well.

Commercially, she says, “Weekend warriors might be less inclined to shop for traditional sports nutrition products positioned toward athletes.” As lifestyle users, she says, “they provide an opportunity for sports nutrition brands to branch out into a wider range of supplements and products that support overall health and wellness.”


Easy Does It

Which is what smart brands are doing. As Beaty says, “It’s no longer just a space for protein and pre- and post-workout products.”

Granted, “Protein shakes simply taste better than they used to,” claims Christopher Naese, vice president, business development, Florida Food Products (Eustis, FL). “But there’s also more variety and more ways to tailor nutrition to personal needs.”

One such need is convenience, which formats like gummies, chews, gels, effervescent tablets, and single-serving stick packs and sachets provide. As Wheeler says, “These have the convenience factor, with portability enabling ease of consumption.”

Vincent Tricarico, vice president, contract manufacturing, NutraScience Labs (Boca Raton, FL), adds that brands can win by developing packaging options that fit users’ lifestyles. “So if a brand recognizes through research that most of its customers are on the go, it makes sense to package their powder in a stick pack versus a traditional tub with a scoop,” he says.

  1. Grand View Research. “Sports Nutrition Market Size Worth $24.43 Billion by 2025 | CAGR: 9.7%” December 2018. Accessed at:
  2. Leswing K. “Apple Rises on Earnings Beat.” CNBC. July 30, 2019. Accessed at:
  3. Fielding R et al. “L-carnitine supplementation in recovery after exercise.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 3 (March 13, 2018): 349