Supplements: The Risks
It's difficult to convey to athletes that no supplement is 100% safe when they're surrounded by others using them and social media influencers promoting their supplement routines. This strong social pressure to conform and to follow the crowd can be hard to resist.
But the reality is this: supplements pose a genuine risk to an athlete's health, career and reputation.
As well as the various health issues associated with their use, especially when taken excessively or in combination with other substances, supplements can be a risky choice in terms of anti-doping regulations, as contamination is a very real risk.
Contamination and Mislabelling
Supplements, whether dietary or performance-enhancing, are often produced in factories that also manufacture products containing banned substances, meaning cross-contamination can occur, and, as they are not strictly regulated like medicines, it's hard to guarantee the absence of banned substances or their safety. Mislabelling can also be problematic, with some containing undisclosed ingredients, including banned substances.
Several high-profile cases have involved well-known athletes taking supplements they believed were acceptable and harmless, only to fail a drug test due to contamination or mislabelling. To highlight the risks, a recent report found that anti-doping rule violations due to supplements accounted for a third of positive doping tests in Australia between 2016 and 2019. To read this report, click here (4-minute read).
Remember, your friends, mates at the gym, or online influencers will probably not be competing athletes affected by anti-doping regulations. Their careers and reputations won't be on the line if they take a contaminated/mislabelled supplement... but yours might be.
We highly recommend you read UKAD's managing supplement risks page, where you'll find up-to-date information and guidance.
Supplement Use Leading to Doping
Another less obvious but seemingly significant risk is that athletes who depend on supplements can acquire a belief that substances are necessary for them to perform well or improve rather than seeing training combined with good nutrition, sleep, etc., as their route to success.
A recent study supporting this claim found athletes who took dietary supplements to be 2.5 times more likely to dope!
What You Can Do
Firstly, understand that all your dietary requirements as an athlete can come from a well-balanced healthy diet and appropriate hydration. To assess whether you genuinely need a supplement, seek guidance from a certified sports nutritionist or GP. If you have a nutritional deficiency, both should be able to provide advice regarding supplement alternatives, i.e. food sources of the required nutrient.
Secondly, ensure you fully understand that athletes are 100% accountable for doping… the buck stops with YOU. The 100% Me programme has been designed to help athletes navigate the ‘clean sport’ world. Click here for more information. ‘Accidental’ doping is very hard to prove… in other words, you'll be unlikely to argue your case successfully. Not using supplements removes this risk entirely.
Finally, if you do decide to use supplements, please ONLY use reputable brands that have undergone rigorous testing, i.e., have the INFORMED SPORT logo. Their certified brands have been batch-tested for banned substances.
ONLY EVER BUY PRODUCTS WITH THIS LOGO 👇
IMPORTANT: Batch testing reduces the risk of contamination but does not remove it.
Take Home Point
- Know the risks of supplement use in relation to clean sports and anti-doping.
- There is no guarantee that a supplement won't contain a banned substance due to contamination or mislabeling.
- Consult a certified sports nutritionist to assess whether you need a supplement and for guidance about supplement alternatives.
- If you do decide to use supplements, ONLY use reputable brands that have undergone rigorous testing, i.e., have the INFORMED SPORT logo.
- The UKAD website provides everything you need to know as an athlete.
Our content is supported by:
Hurst, P., Schiphof-Godart, L., Kavussanu, M., Barkoukis, V., Petróczi, A. and Ring, C., 2023. Are dietary supplement users more likely to dope than non-users?: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Drug Policy, 117, p.104077. (View Paper)
- Sport Integrity Matters, 2022. 'Reaching Supplement Zero', Sport Integrity Matters, September, viewed October 2023. (View Paper)