Bigger and better is the American way. Many of us have super-sized our homes, our cars, our stereos and our televisions to keep up with the Jones family next door. A little competition can be healthy, but it can have serious consequences when it becomes extreme.

This is especially true with athletes, who have a natural drive to edge out their competitors. “Athletes are pushing themselves further and further these days,” say Kathy Lund, vice president of marketing and sales, and Gabe Herrick, sport nutrition specialist at Bioenergy Life Science, Minneapolis, MN. “However, within the last couple of years, we have become more aware of our own mortality and fragility.”

As a result, there have been some disturbing changes in the athletic community—both among professionals and amateurs. For example, Lund and Herrick note the rise of “ultra athletes” who are over training and not recovering between workouts. “These healthy 50-, 40- and sometimes 30-year-olds are dropping dead from heart attacks and other cardiovascular disease due to the excessive, rigorous exercise,” they say.

And, more and more athletes from teens to adults try illegal substances to stay a step ahead of the pack. But, there’s been some cultural backlash against this practice as many all-stars, for instance, have seen their fan base dwindle into oblivion after their steroid use was exposed.

America loves to watch its athletes (be they high school players or professional athletes) excel game after game, and its preference is shifting—to the natural athlete. This places the burden on manufacturers to make (and retailers to sell) the best this category has to offer. Says Kevin Owen, Ph.D., Nafta head of technical marketing and scientific affairs at Lonza, “Providing [clean, natural, high quality] ingredients, and marketing them as such, can significantly increase brand loyalty among a group of athletes that is well-known to consistently continue using and promoting the products they believe in.”

Advantra-Z Speed StackSculpting Your Sports Nutrition Section
The sports nutrition market is huge, as well it should be. Its size is right in line with the endless variations of athletes likely to walk into your store. Even a small store’s customer base probably includes teenaged sports players, weekend warriors, tae kwon do fanatics, weight lifters, jogging die-hards and maybe even a semi-pro or professional athlete or two. “It seems that more athletes than ever from a variety of sports are looking at supplements as a means of enhancing their performance and protecting their bodies,” Bob Capelli, vice president of sales and marketing at Cyanotech Corporation, Kailua-Kona, HI. “Twenty years ago, the majority of people using sports nutrition products were bodybuilders taking protein powders and amino acids to ‘bulk up;’ now you see all kinds of people…trying to get the most out of their workouts.”

Given their diverse needs, it’s key for retailers to offer a variety of products for building muscle (like amino acids), energy enhancers (like carbs), recovery aids (like certain antioxidants) and others with specific roles to enhance athletic performance. And, successful retailers must have a good sense of how such supplements work to meet the differing nutritional requirements of various types of athletes.

The Core. Everyone’s different, but there are some common needs among all physically active clientele. One staple in this category is protein, though many consumers incorrectly assume that it’s only for bodybuilders. Given how little protein many individuals eat, Jayson Kroner, health and fitness editor, at NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL, suggests that nearly everyone should consider taking supplemental protein. “Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten how vital protein is, and labeled it as something associated exclusively with people who spend their days in gyms. This ridiculous thinking only fuels false stereotypes while keeping many individuals from getting the nutrition they genuinely need,” he explains.

Protein is a building block for all other cells in the body and assists with lean muscle development by helping the body to produce more muscle protein. Dave Barton, technical advisor for Enzymedica Inc., Port Charlotte, FL, notes, “Protein can be used by youths for growth, adults for maintenance and good health along with growth, if that is an objective, as well as the elderly for maintaining bodily health from the smallest of cells to the largest organ: the skin.”

Jeff Golini, executive scientist for All American Pharmaceutical, Billings, MT, offers some specific advice for how much protein may be used for various types of athletes:

  • Professional athletes may need 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight from high-quality protein sources and supplemented with a good whey protein powder. Whey protein, according to product information from Jarrow Formulas, Los Angeles, CA, is high in protein, low in fat and rich in glutamine.
  • A casual athlete may get away with one gram of protein per pound of body weight and supplemented with a good whey protein powder.
  • Those looking to build muscle can try one gram of protein per pound of body weight from and supplemented with a good whey protein powder.
  • Teens may want to take a low-sugar weight-gain powder to help boost calories and protein levels.

Lonza CarnipureSometimes, a high-protein, low-carb diet means that less fiber is eaten. According to Larry Parks, national sales director at Health Plus, Inc., Chino, CA, “This leads to bloating, constipation, and eventually poor intestinal health.” For this reason, some internal cleansers were designed with athletes in mind to help rid their bodies of whey and proteins. For example, says Park, his company’s “Super Colon Cleanse Sports contains the necessary fiber to ensure regularity and rid the body of intestinal bulk…Extensive research has shown that ingestion of the exact brand of ologofructose contained in Super Colon Cleanse Sports results in a five- to 10-time increase in bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract while at the same time the less desirable bacteria is significantly reduced. Vitamin C has been added because it has also been shown to promote the growth of bifidobacteria. All this leads to a greater absorption of nutrients. Just think of the performance boost they would get if they could increase their nutrient absorption by five to 10 times the level they now absorb.”

Barton agrees that digestion is key for athletes, noting that the “human body’s performance always begins with digestion. The better food and supplements are digested, the better opportunity there is for absorption and assimilation.” This is particularly important for athletes, who may suffer from poor digestion and, in turn, may not be getting the most from their foods. He suggests digestive enzyme supplements as a good base for most athletes. These supplements are safe and beneficial, says Barton. “Children, adults and the elderly can use digestive enzymes safely and effectively with no side effects or addictive properties,” he explains.

Creatine is another good all-around sports nutrition product. According to Jarrow Formulas, creatine is made in the liver from amino acids (arginine and glycine) and stored in the major muscles, where (as creatine phosphate) it helps in the contraction of muscle fibers. In addition, creatine phosphate helps maintain ATP levels needed for energy during exercise. The company notes, “creatine phosphate maximizes physical performance and reduces exercise fatigue by absorbing hydrogen ions released by muscles in the form of lactic acid. Intense anaerobic exercise, such as weight lifting and sprinting, depletes ATP and greatly increases the demand for creatine.”

Perhaps for these reasons, creatine has been a favorite supplement among athletes. Says Kroner, “For close to a decade, creatine monohydrate enjoyed a popularity that few other supplements have ever experienced. After a short 5–6-day loading phase, users were finding out how relatively easy it was to pack on as many as 10 pounds in about a week’s time.”

But, like all products in this category, creatine isn’t a magical performance enhancer, as some in the media make it seem. “The implication is that if you merely take creatine, your muscles will grow and give you an unfair advantage,” says Richard Passwater, vice president of research and development at Solgar Vitamin and Herb, Leonia, NJ. “Creatine is a nutrient, not a steroid drug, and does not make muscles grow. You must train hard and eat well first, and then creatine can become an aid to training.”

A new rising star in the category, says Kroner, is l-arginine, which currently is “at the top of the supplement totem pole.” He notes a tremendous emphasis has been “placed on maintaining the ‘pump’ that follows an intense workout, and because of this, arginine is now extremely popular. Its effect on boosting nitric oxide levels has been well documented.”

Arginine’s role in exercise, according to NOW Foods, is “its ability to promote the secretion of hormones important for exercise while a derivative of arginine, nitric oxide helps improve blood flow” (1).

Another major player in this category are thermogenics, which help athletes to “lean up and trim down for optimal performance and physical fitness,” says Bob Green, president of Nutratech, Inc., West Caldwell, NJ. Such products are making their way onto store shelves in the form of functional foods and beverages.

One key thermogenic is bitter orange. A branded bitter orange extract with five adrenergic amines (Advantra Z from Nutratech) has been shown in numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled research studies to be safe and effective, according to Green. “It stimulates beta-3 receptors, which are responsible for triggering thermogenesis, but does not cross the blood/brain barrier, where negative cardiovascular and central nervous systems side effects can be activated,” he explains.

Overall, consumers will only come back for more if they are high quality and deliver good results. Says Garrett Lindemann, Ph.D., chief executive officer and chief science officer at Gourmetceuticals, Big Horn, WY, “Consumers are more skeptical of nutritional claims on sports drinks/foods, especially with the abundance of products in the marketplace.” Therefore, he suggests retailers keep literature on hand for those who ask to see the scientific evidence behind product health claims to build trust and credibility.

Champion Nutrition GlyProXTSThe Pros.
Long, strenuous routines take a hard toll on serious athletes. Says Kroner, “Extreme physical output can quickly deplete the nutrients in an athlete’s system, making it important for them to be nutritionally well-armed at all times.”

Retailers must keep in mind that all athletes are different, and one regimen won’t work for everyone. Besides the individual’s genes, gender, weight and training, there are sport-specific and position-specific considerations. As one example, the nutritional requirements of a wide receiver are not the same as those of an offensive guard,” Passwater points out.

But he notes that the basic supplements that should be included in most programs include creatine, gPLC, HMB, BCAA, l-glutamine, whey protein, CoQ10, Pycnogenol, ATP, D-ribose and a potent multivitamin-multimineral.

Many industry experts agree that a high-potency multivitamin/mineral formula is a good place to start, as are protein and carbohydrates (before, during and after training). Taking these, says Kroner, “helps ensure that the body will have enough glycogen to sustain adequate energy levels throughout the entire training session.”

In addition, athletes can benefit from a good amino acid (liquid or capsule) taken between meals, Golini suggests. Kroner agrees: “These athletes are constantly tearing down and rebuilding themselves, biologically. This makes it important to take a full-spectrum amino acid supplement.” Amino acids like glutamine, arginine, and branch chain amino acids are good choices for serious athletes because they are said to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood (1). Because professional athletes tend to deplete their glutamine levels faster than other casual or moderate athletes, Kroner suggests “supplementing 2–3 grams of glutamine after training can help keep the body’s free glutamine reserves stocked. This, in turn, can help prevent the all-too-common immune system crash notorious for following high-intensity training. It has also been shown to inhibit the formation of lactic acid—the chemical byproduct responsible for post-workout soreness.”

Regarding soreness, several supplements are said to support muscles in a way that helps alleviate pain after exercise. Antioxidants are said to be particularly suitable. For example, natural astaxanthin, says Cyanotech’s Capelli, has “benefits to athletes [that] are tremendous and well documented by research—quicker, better recoveries from workouts; support for joint and tendon health (both of which can be strained during training sessions); increased energy levels; and even better immune system function (which can be compromised in athletes during intense workouts).”

Literature on astaxanthin from Fuji Science explains how it works: “New research shows that astaxanthin can modify muscle metabolism via its antioxidant effect, resulting in the improvement of muscle function during exercise” (2).

Also in the muscle recovery category is a polysaccharide extract derived from the botanical yeast, Candidus utilis. According to Lindemann, this ingredient “supports the immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation which, when left unregulated, can lead to muscle damage and aches.” He says published research on professional athletes using a branded form of this extract (GLPH-1, from Gourmetceuticals) indicated that its “ingestion was associated with a reduction in muscle damage in athletes. This is one of more than 20 in vitro and in vivo published clinical studies.”

Natural ProductsAmino acids are also said to help muscle recovery. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition indicated that combinations for amino acids (14% glutamine, 14% arginine, 30% BCAAs plus other amino acids) “contributed to an improvement in training efficiency through positive effects on muscle integrity and hematopoiesis” (3).

Lund and Herrick recommend taking supplemental d-ribose during and after exercise to keep their ATP levels elevated. They note d-ribose is often used in times of fatigue by offering: increased endurance; reduced recovery time, soreness and cramping; free radical management; and cardiovascular protection.

For endurance and performance, Owen recommends l-carnitine. He points to a study in which the ingredient helped increase VO2max in cyclists and long distance walkers. “VO2max are good news because it is one of the most important measures of a person’s ability to perform high intensity exercise for longer than four to five minutes,” he explains. It’s often used as a measure of endurance.

L-carnitine’s role in dealing with exercise-induced fatigue stems from its ties to lactic acid, a substance that builds up in the muscle during exercise and can diffuse into the bloodstream. Researchers have found this accumulation is associated with fatigue (4). According to Owen, “research indicates that l-carnitine supplementation decreases lactic acid accumulation and spares glycogen, therefore playing a role in delaying fatigue, as described by various research groups.” Muscle glycogen depletion is also known to cause fatigue (4).

Raising the Bar. Many of your sports nutrition shoppers will fall in the casual athlete or the non-competitive muscle-building categories. Many of the aforementioned supplements for overall health, muscle recovery and energy are great suggestions for the average athlete. In addition, both Kroner and Owen agree that l-carnitine is of the best all-around supplements for those who want to get the most out of their cardiovascular workouts. Says Kroner, “This amino-like compound has the unique ability of shuttling fat to the cell’s mitochondria where it can be converted to expendable energy. It has also been shown to help delay the onset of fatigue.”

L-carnitine has numerous extra benefits, too, such as for heart health. “Most people don’t realize that the heart obtains approximately 70% of its energy from fat breakdown,” says Owen. “The fundamental role that l-carnitine plays in energy metabolism together with the dependence of the heart on fatty acid breakdown for energy production, make l-carnitine a crucial energy provider for the heart.” He points to research data indicating that l-carnitine supplementation can “positively support healthy heart muscle, can significantly increase heart muscle viability and is beneficial in supporting a healthy heartbeat. Clinical research data also indicates that l-carnitine supplementation is helpful in maintaining healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels.”

This supplement also may be suitable for those concentrating on building muscle because it stops muscle breakdown during workouts. Another for weightlifters to consider is d-ribose, which increases stamina and “allows the athlete to perform to their peak potential at every work out,” says Lund and Herrick.

Again, as many retailers know, protein is key for those looking to build muscle. says Nikki Brown, vice president of marketing for Cytosport, Benicia, CA, “We work with pro football players like Adrian Peterson and Olympic runners like Ryan Hall. These athletes have very different needs. We think the basics that are important to any athlete are protein to help build lean muscle and for recovery and, of course, a performance/sport drink to help put back what’s lost during exercise.”

What's Selling: Sports Nutrition

Whole Life Natural Market, Machias, ME
• Jay Robb Enterprises, Inc., Vanilla Whey Protein Powder

Down to Earth Nutrition Center, Roswell, NM
• Nature’s Plus, Green Lightning
• Nature’s Plus, Ultra Energy Bars
• MLO Products, Super High Protein

Wealth of Health Nutrition Center, Idaho Falls, ID
• Bioplex Nutrition, Whey Protein Isolate
• Champion Nutrition, Inc., Amino Shooter
• Arizona Nutritional Sciences, NitroFusion

The Teen Athlete
The Market. If there’s ever a time when physical appearance and performance matters most, it’s in high school. Most teens feel peer-pressure to look good and for athletes, there’s added pressure to run faster, hit harder and throw farther than everyone else. As a way to get an edge, high schoolers are drawn to dietary supplements for the first time with the hopes of adding muscle and improving performance results. This initial usage often paves the way for nutritional habits throughout life.

“What many seem to forget is that a huge percentage of lifelong supplement users are introduced to the industry via the sports nutrition path. It is what draws them initially, and the impressions formed during this time are priceless,” says Kroner. And unfortunately, many teens make supplementation choices based on information from magazines and Web sites that don’t talk about the science behind the claims.

For this reason, it is especially important for retailers and/or an on-site nutritionist to disseminate accurate, timely information to teenaged shoppers about their dietary supplements choices. Moreover, retailers who respect the buying power of teens may have an edge over their competitors for both today’s and tomorrow’s sales. “That nineteen year-old kid who can only afford one supplement might only be a few years away from a nice salary that allows him or her to purchase whatever supplements they want,” Kroner points out. “Over time, many will make the transition from sports nutrition to more generalized supplementation. Like any consumer, they tend to associate with brands that played a role during their early years. Of course, this makes it imperative that companies market ethically.”

And with misinformation about sports supplements rampantly circulating, it’s especially imperative to understand the nuts and bolts behind sports nutrition for teen athletes.

The Supplements. Many high school athletes are in the best shape of their lives. Those who eat healthy, balanced meals and take a multivitamin often don’t need too many supplements to be competitive. “I always remind parents: For children and teens, the focus should be optimal health,” advises pediatric sports nutritionist at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Amanda Leonard, M.P.H., R.D., (5). “With optimal health comes optimal performance. It really is that simple,” she says.

Says Kroner, “Their bodies are like nutrient sponges during these years. They also are at peak hormone production, which completely debunks the need for any supplements that augment testosterone levels.” But, he adds that teens interested in dietary supplements can benefit from some basics like protein, carbohydrates and amino acids. Leonard suggests that 50–65% of the calories that a young athlete consumes should come from carbohydrates; 20–30% should come from healthy fats; 15–20% should come from protein.

CaricolIn addition, high school athletes often have sustained workout sessions or all-day tournaments. For endurance, teens may want to increase their intake (through diet or supplements) of carbs and protein for extra energy, says Leonard. Those kept on-the-go with busy practice schedules may benefit from sport bars and gels that offer extra protein, vitamins and minerals. Lund and Herrick add that such athletes may be good candidates for d-ribose supplements, which may “keep their energy levels high over long periods of time and avoid ‘hitting the wall.’”

Teens who spend long hours practicing, especially in hot weather, must be careful about dehydration. According to Leonard, children and adolescents are more prone to dehydration because they produce more heat and sweat less than older individuals. Key electrolytes are lost through sweat, so anyone working out for an hour or more should consider using electrolyte-enriched sports drinks, she says.

According to information from Mineral Resources International (MRI), Ogden, UT, electrolyte loss during exercise is “associated with fatigue, cramping, dehydration and impaired performance.” MRI notes the following key electrolytes are important for athletes:

  • Potassium is key for muscle and cardiovascular function. It helps balance water and acid–base and prevents muscle cramps.
  • Sodium is responsible for aiding nerve conduction, muscle contraction, water and acid–base balance, as well as responding to thirst.
  • Magnesium is a huge factor in energy production. It also supports nerve conduction, helps muscle function, aids cardiovascular/respiratory function and helps prevent muscle cramps.
  • Chloride helps with oxygen exchange as well as water and acid–base balance (6).
    For those who want the electrolytes without the sugar and calories, there are taste-free electrolyte supplement drops that can be added to water or other beverages.

L-carnitine may also be another supplement to consider. According to Owen, “both performance and delay of fatigue [from l-carnitine] would help the high school athlete.”

Those in contact with teen athletes must also understand that self-image issues are common in sports for which body weight and physical appearance are a factor such as wrestling, rowing, gymnastics and figure skating. It has been noted that some teens competing in these categories develop eating disorders in an effort to look a certain way or keep in a specific weight class. Some may even turn to weight-management products when they aren’t needed. Given the delicate nature of this issue, it is important for those selling supplements to teens to disseminate subtle, but firm information about proper use of dietary supplements and the importance of proper nutrition. And, teen athletes should consult with their parents, coaches and healthcare providers before beginning a new supplement regimen.

The Controversy. We’ve all heard the news reports about young athletes being threatened with expulsion because of supplement use. Each case is different, but when you break it down, the root of many is misinformation on the part of the school. In others, tainted, low-quality supplements have gotten in the hands of teens.

Says Capelli, “There have been documented cases of sports nutrition companies putting steroids in their products in the past. While rare, this is something that can ruin their careers.” To avoid this, he suggests buying supplements from trusted companies with good reputations. “Risking an athletic career on the latest, hottest supplement from a new company may turn out disastrously,” Capelli adds.

Some unscrupulous companies prey on young athletes because they feel they can make an easy sell of products that are low-quality or aren’t age appropriate (like prohormones that boost testosterone production). “Any company that encourages, pressures, or convinces someone under the age of 18 to take these supplements should be ashamed of themselves and certainly should not be supported by responsible retailers,” says Kroner. “Capitalizing off a young teen’s inexperience and lack of scientific knowledge is professionally and morally unacceptable.”

To avoid adulterated supplements from dishonest companies, Golini suggests buying only from companies that do “extensive drug testing and screening on all the product lines it makes and provides a certificate of analysis to each of its customers.” Such information can be provided to concerned teens and parents.

Teens, and all athletes, concerned about buying high-quality sports supplements have several other resources at their disposal. “A great place to start is the National Science Foundation (NSF sport),” says Barton, who notes that its Web site “provides the necessary information to make well-informed decisions on supplements for sports. But above all, common sense prevails. If teens have any doubts about whether a supplement is tainted, don’t take it. And, advises Brown, “Young athletes need to be very aware of what they are taking. They should run the products by their coaches and or trainers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” WF

Select Sports Nutrition Offerings

All American Pharmaceutical: Kre-Alkalyn (creatine), Kre-Celazine (creatine with esterfied fatty acid carbons).

BioEnergy: D-ribose.

Cyanotech: BioAstin, natural astaxanthin.

CytoSport: Muscle Milk, Muscle Milk Collegiate, Cytogainer and Cytomax.

Enzymedica: Protein Optimize, designed to improve the break-down of protein into its individual amino acid profiles, thus conserving energy during digestion.

Gourmetceuticals: GLPH-1 immune boosting ingredient has been studied in athletes for its ability to support immune health and regulate inflammation.

Health Plus: Super Colon Cleanse Sports.

Jarrow Formulas: GPLC (assists with energy production and muscle functin), Acetyl L- Carnitine, L-Carnitine, Creatine Caps, Creatine Monohydrate, Creatine Surge, Whey Protein (chocolate, unflavored, vanilla), CarnitALL, ALCA (contains acetyl-l-carnitine arginate), Carnitine+Co-Q10, QH-absorb, Q-absorb, Ribose

Lonza: Carnipure, a special grade of l-carnitine products.

Mineral Resources International: Elete electrolyte add-ins.

NOW Foods: NOW Sports line includes whey protein concentrates and isolates egg white protein, vegetarian pea protein, soy protein and soy isolate. Other core supplements include 100% pure creatine monohydrate, l-glutamine, l-carnitine, and other amino acids. Popular mixes include Carbo Gain, Lean Grow and Pro Gainer. NOW Sports also offers specialized products such as ZMA, TestoJack-100, Pyruvate, IGF-1 and carnitine–Creatinate. Recent introductions to the line include Pro-GH (combination of arginine, ornithine, glycine, glutamine, lysine and GABA) and Arginine Power Super Stack.

Nutratech, Inc.: Advantra Z (patented, all-natural thermogenic ingredient that contains all five of the potent adrenergic amines that occur naturally in bitter orange).

Solgar Vitamin and Herb: Chewable D-Ribose Wafers and D-Ribose Powder; Whey To Go protein powders; Carnitine Complex Tablets; Tonalin CLA 1,250 mg Softgels; Nutri-Nano CoQ10 Alpha Lipoic Acid Softgels (for heart health and weight management); and Glucosamine Hyaluronic Acid Chondroitin MSM (Shellfish-Free) Tablets (for joint support).


  1. G. Arnold, “‘Special Blend’ of Amino Acids Help Improve Athletic Performance,”
  2. Fuji Health Science, “Astaxanthin: Muscle Endurance & Recovery,” (Burlington, NJ).
  3. M. Ohtani, “Amino Acid Mixture Improves Training Efficiency in Athletes,” J. Nutr. 136, 538S–543S (2006).
  4. Lonza, Inc, “L-Carnitine: Research & Review” (Allendale, NJ).
  5. Johns Hopkins University, “Nutrition for the Growing Athlete: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” May 12, 2008.
  6. Mineral Resources International, “ELETE and Electrolyte Water: Instant Hydration, Superior Performance” (Ogden, UT).

WholeFoods Magazine, September 2008