Supplements are advertised as an easy way to boost athletic performance and health, which is enticing to teenage athletes and pros alike. However, there are many risks associated with using supplements. Plus, they aren’t cheap! So how can you determine what’s actually worth it and what’s safe to use? Read on for our tips for finding safe supplements for teenage athletes plus our take on what supplements teenage athletes should actually consider.
Risks of supplements for teenage athletes
Supplements have become so commonplace (hello, 167 billion dollar industry) that many teenage athletes aren’t aware of the safety risks. Because supplements are NOT regulated by the FDA for safety or purity, some products on the market may not contain what they say they do, and some may even be contaminated with traces of prescription drugs or heavy metals. Further, for teenage athletes who plan to compete at the collegiate level, taking supplements from brands that are not reputable can put you at risk of testing positive for banned substances and being disqualified under NCAA rules.
There is a common misconception that things that are “natural”, like vitamins and herbs, can’t do harm. However, many herbal supplements can have dangerous effects if taken in combination with other herbs, or in combination with certain medications. Vitamins, minerals, and herbs can also have various side effects if taken in large amounts. For example, taking more than 2000 mg of vitamin C can cause GI distress and diarrhea and more than 50mg of zinc can suppress immune function versus support it.
How to find safe supplements for teenage athletes
The best ways to minimize the risks discussed above are to 1) check with your healthcare team before starting a new supplement or changing your dose, and 2) look for the third-party verification symbols for NSF Certified For Sport or Informed Choice on the label. These third-party testing programs confirm that the supplement contains only the ingredients stated on the label, protecting you from accidentally ingesting banned substances or other harmful ingredients. A few brands we trust that participate in third-party testing programs include NOW Sport, Thorne, Klean Athlete, and Garden of Life Sport.
What supplements do teenage athletes need?
Now that we’ve covered the necessary precautions to find safe supplements for teenage athletes, let’s dive into what supplements teenage athletes actually need. Our dietitians at Student Athlete Nutrition take a food-first approach, meaning we encourage you to work on getting the nutrients you need from food before considering a supplement. That said, there are some supplements that may be helpful for athletic performance in specific situations. Below we cover 5 trending sports supplements and what the research says about each. As with most things related to nutrition, supplement needs are highly variable and depend on the individual. We cannot stress enough the importance of talking with your healthcare team to make sure a supplement is appropriate for your specific situation!
Our take on 5 popular supplements:
1. Pre-workout for teenage athletes: skip it
“Pre-workout” is one of the most popular supplements among teenage athletes, and also one of the more dangerous ones. In addition to the fact that pre-workout products are often not third party tested, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against all energy drinks, which includes pre-workout, for children and teenagers. In fact, the popular drink Celsius contains NCAA banned substances.
These drinks and powders often contain excessive amounts of caffeine, or a combination of caffeine and other poorly regulated stimulants, which can cause shakiness, gastrointestinal distress, headaches, nervousness, and disrupted sleep. Excess caffeine may also have negative impacts on the developing brain and cardiovascular system. To top it off, some pre-workout products contain ingredients such as sugar alcohols (i.e. xylitol and erythritol) that can have a laxative effect.
With all that said, we do not recommend pre-workout for teenage athletes, or athletes of any age for that matter! The best way to feel energized during a workout is to fuel adequately with a carb-rich pre-workout snack. Caffeine in smaller amounts may also be of benefit. Up to 100 mg/day is considered to be a safe level of caffeine intake for teenagers, but everyone is different in how much they tolerate and how caffeine affects them. Stick to coffee, tea, or caffeinated sports gels or blocks to get your caffeine.
2. Creatine for teenage athletes: worth considering for some sports
Creatine is a compound that replenishes energy for our muscle cells more quickly than any other compound, even glycogen and glucose. This makes it the optimal fuel for high-intensity bursts and strength movements in sports and training sessions. It is most likely to be beneficial for track and swim sprinters, powerlifters, and for short bursts during sports like tennis, volleyball, basketball, football, and soccer. If a youth athlete obtains a traumatic brain injury (concussion) while playing a sport such as soccer or football, creatine may also be beneficial in recovery. It’s important to note that only creatine monohydrate is potentially effective for any of the above and the third party tests mentioned are imperative for this type of supplement. Information about creatine dosing can be found in this Instagram post from our founder, but as always, talk to your healthcare team if you’re interested in giving creatine a try!
3. Protein powder for teenage athletes: worth considering for those with high protein needs and busy lifestyles
While getting protein from whole foods is your best bet, protein powder is a convenient way to supplement intake for teenage athletes. Protein is a key macronutrient for muscle strength and recovery, and growing teenage athletes have high needs. Don’t fall into the trap of consuming protein powder on its own as a post-workout snack, though! After a workout, it’s important to replenish both protein and carbs to optimize muscle recovery.
So what’s the best protein powder for teenage athletes? For detailed information on choosing the right type for you, check out this article that features advice from our founder, Kelly. One thing to note is that although collagen protein is trendy right now, it is not a complete protein and is therefore not recommended for muscle recovery.
4. Vitamin D for teenage athletes: recommended if levels are insufficient
In addition to its well-known role in supporting bone health, evidence suggests that vitamin D may also play a role in muscle repair and growth, type II (fast-twitch) muscle fiber strength and function, and immune health. To maximize these benefits, teenage athletes should consider having their vitamin D checked and taking a supplement if levels are insufficient. Be sure to discuss with your doctor that for athletes, levels below 75 may be considered insufficient. It’s important to get plenty of vitamin D from food sources to keep levels up too!
5. Omega 3s for teenage athletes: recommended for those who are vegan or vegetarian
Omega 3 fatty acid intake is associated with a variety of benefits for sports performance and recovery due to its role in inflammatory responses. The easiest way to meet your needs is through two servings of fatty fish per week, which are the only good sources other than algae of the forms DHA + EPA. While there are some plant-based sources of omega 3 fatty acids, such as walnuts and flax seeds, they contain a different form of omega 3’s (ALA) that is not easily converted to the EPA and DHA your body needs most. Because of this, vegan and vegetarian athletes may need to take an omega 3 algae supplement in addition to getting omega 3s from food to get enough to optimize performance.
- The best way to find safe supplements for teenage athletes is to look for the NSF Certified For Sport or Informed Choice third party testing symbols.
- While we do not recommend pre-workout for teenage athletes, creatine, protein powder, vitamin D, and omega 3 supplements may be beneficial for some teenage athletes depending on their sport, dietary pattern, and lifestyle.
- Consult with your PCP, sports medicine team, or dietitian to determine what supplements are right for you. For personalized sports nutrition supplement advice, check out our 1-1 nutrition coaching services.