How much would you give to improve your fitness?

Supplements, pills and powdersI was recently offered the chance to try a supplement with assurances it would enhance performance. The claims were backed up with references and importantly the product was certified free of banned substances. I’d receive this expensive supplement for free and in return just have to write about my experience using it. I’m skeptical of anything that claims to boost performance whether it’s a pill or a form of training. Before I could make a decision I needed to do some research of my own.

Searching with Google and Pub Med produced a set of anecdotes and peer reviewed research to read through. Inevitably results were mixed suggesting that if present the benefits were not clear cut. It’s hard to assess the body of data from abstracts, especially when dosages and methodologies varied across the tests. I weighed up the evidence and felt there were strong hints of its potential; it might improve performance. Hardly definitive.

Legal, possibly effective and at no significant cost; the choice was simple. I wasn’t happy. Taking a product to improve performance didn’t sit well with me, it was worse if it actually worked! Knowing my results come from the hard work I’ve put in is deeply satisfying; a powder or pill seemed like a shortcut. It may only be worth an extra percent in performance, but I wanted to be certain the results were one hundred percent mine.

I declined.

There are inconsistencies in my choice. I’m happy to consume large quantities of caffeine or use guarana in training and racing; I’ve no issue with something that helps me push. In the past I’ve tried herbal extracts with claimed fitness benefits, products intended to directly enhance performance. Counter-intuitively my doubts about their effectiveness made me willing to use them: I didn’t really believe they’d work. I’d happily waste money on sugar pills, but wouldn’t touch a genuine drug!

I’m not willing to take something that might actually work. The research suggested those using the product experienced greater improvements in fitness than others on the same training regime; you achieve better performance without extra work. This idea unsettled me, it didn’t represent the approach I want to this sport. It edged too close to the boundary of performance enhancing drugs for me to feel happy.

It’s an arbitrary choice, you can find the active ingredient naturally. Everything I consume affects my performance however minuscule that may be. Should the initial research prove true drinking beetroot juice on a regular basis would enhance my endurance. Consuming a foul tasting vegetable juice is one thing, but taking a huge dose of a mass synthesised chemical is another. The intent in the latter case feels like the first step towards ‘performance at any cost’.

There’s no right or wrong. Each of us has to choose the steps we’re willing to take to achieve our goals. I made that decision: I don’t want shortcuts or quick fixes for me the process is as important as the results. I’ll get faster by training better.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.


  • Rob Knell

    So how does this fit with your sponsorship from Biestmilch? You say you checked out the research on this unnamed product, but did you do the same with Biestmilch? I’ve had a good read of their website and seen nothing that amounts to any form of evidence that the product has any effect at all – they’re clearly going down the skins/power balance “lots of marketing and no testing” route to their riches…

  • Great article and insight into the cloudy world of borderline ‘supplements’. I would always stay away from anything on the border because one day something is legal and the next it’s not and I wouldn’t want the headache.

  • Fair question Rob.

    I’m pragmatic about my approach to supplementation, the product I was offered claimed performance benefits. In the process of researching it I came to the conclusion I was uncomfortable with something that may directly influence fitness metrics. I was far from convinced by the research I saw and could identify papers on both sides of the argument. If I took the assumption that it may be effective it became a question of was I willing to take something to improve performance beyond what I could achieve without it. My personal choice was I couldn’t I have no issues with those who choose to use it, it’s allowed, if they believe it will help and fits with their approach that’s fine.

    Biestmilch provide me with two products, their booster and their chews. The former is a mix of colostrum and guarana, the main thing I knew is guarana worked for me. I’d used enough drinks based around it in Oz/NZ to know it was better than caffeine. I mentioned the inconsistencies, I’m not purist enough to live off only what I can forage, In the case of guarana I’m happy to use the stimulant it helps me work harder in training.

    The chews are promoted as helping maintain the immune system and I did look for evidence to support colostrums role in this. You can find papers discussing it on pub med, though often at the cellular level. I read enough to think that it might work, wouldn’t do me any harm and didn’t clearly concern me regarding it’s roll in my performance. Of course if it did improve my immune system, protect me from illness and enable me to train more consistently that would be an acceptable benefit. Colostrum is implicated in improving performance, the evidence there seems equally mixed and weak. It might do, but I see nothing that raises a level of concern in me.

    I would say the comparison with skins/power balance is unfair, a search of pub med will find you plenty of papers researching/discussing the role of colostrum and mode of operation. I’d agree the evidence for clear benefits via oral consumption is less clear, but there are papers that support a view that we might see some benefit. Whether it’s enough to warrant the cost is a choice we each have to make. gives a good example of might be of benefit, but more controlled research is needed to draw conclusions.

    Aside from the products Biestmilch have been a great and friendly group to be involved with. They never asked for anything specific in return other than I’m involved in their community, and mention the product. I’ve always been quite honest – I take the chews and I’m not often sick. However I have been sick whilst taking them and before I took them I wasn’t often sick either. I couldn’t tell you they will make you ill less often. The booster works for me whether it’s guarana acting as a stimulant or placebo I’ll take them!

    I wasn’t arguing against all supplementation, nor trying to suggest there was something wrong with it. Rather suggesting you evaluate what evidence you can find then decide if it’s something you are willing to use and invest money in. When the evidence is less than clear the best you can do is assess what you have to hand and see what develops in the future. It’s inevitable that research leads to changes in opinion especially when it’s something as complex as developmental processes. Consensus of opinion can take decades.

    Other than Biestmilch I take no supplements, no powders or vitamin tablets. When I train I drink water and eat the cheapest cereal bars I can get my hands on. There may be better products I could use, but I do pretty well on what I take.

    Sorry to waffle!

  • James D

    Russ, I have a huge amount of respect for this post. Claims by supplement companies that you can improve performance by taking a pill have to be investigated thoroughly and treated with scepticism. I am doubtful of anything in pill form can be taken to improve health, wellbeing and athletic performance. It seems there is a continued and increasing reliance on ‘pills’ for this purpose that is mainly driven by clever marketing people (I am currently reading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goodacre which is an excellent book covering dubious claims etc). Hard work and proper diet is the only way to improve!

  • Gray – absolutely, my feeling was if something really was that effective at enhancing performance it wouldn’t be long before we’d see it banned anyway

    James – Thanks!

    It’s a fair rule of thumb that real performance enhancers are banned. When it comes to supplements it’s mostly a grey area – as you say marketing hypes the effects off the basis of any research that vaguely supports the claim (whatever it’s origin or quality). Unless it’s like power balance where they simply make up the claims. Ultimately it’s up to each of us to evaluate what evidence we can get our hands on (ideally going beyond the manufacturer’s site) and decide if we’re happy to use it or not.

    What I definitely agree with is the increased reliance on pills – I see that too. At times it feels like most athletes are after a quick fix to improvements rather than simply working as well as they can as often as they can. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you presented me with a magic pill that guaranteed me sub-9 I’d not take it; I’d rather do the training and see what comes. If that means I never make my goals at least I know I tried. If you offered me a pill that would genuinely help me recover so I could keep training to achieve my goal I’d consider it. It is a little arbitrary, but that’s where I feel comfortable.

    As it is I don’t believe there are any pills that will actually make a huge difference.

  • Neil

    The grey area becomes much clearer if you think about method of production – personally I’ll supplement using natural products ( naturally extracted ) but not “synthesised” ones – colostrum, omega 3, glucosamine etc using my logic would be ok but something like extreme endurance would not.

  • Neil,

    Good point and certainly one way to make things clear. Definitely the more synthetic the more uncomfortable I become. Ultimately it’s just a level of discomfort I have with this aspect of sports. I can see the use of supplements for health or recovery and accept that, but when you start to look to get an edge in a pill it’s not the way I want to approach sport.