Seek advice if you plan changes to 'food first'
The overriding message from the articles I've written so far has been to avoid the use of supplements when at all possible.
But I often hear from younger players - or perhaps more from their parents - that the 'no supplements' outlook is a bit of a head-in-the-sand approach. While the definitive stance from Munster Rugby and the IRFU is that we do not recommend supplements for underage players, I feel we should provide some guidance on safer supplement use among players who are at U-20 or AIL club levels, where a need for supplements has been identified.
The policy from the IRFU and Munster Rugby is that anyone under the age of 18 should not use supplements. Consult a dietician; see if there are gaps in your food intake that you can address; there are plenty of ways of getting extra protein or carbohydrates through food intake only.
There is no safety data for the use of supplements for under 18s. Regardless of that, these young people are growing and developing at their own pace and shouldn't need to take anything in addition to what they can get through diet alone. At the next stage, when players leave the schools system and maybe start playing senior club rugby or get into our sub academy or academy, we still advocate the 'food first' approach.
But we acknowledge that this is a pressurised time for players. They might be on the verge of a breakthrough, might be told that they need to get bigger and stronger to make it and often times they feel that the use of supplements is the only way.
Again, consult a dietitian at this stage where an analysis of food intake can reveal if we can change dietary habits to optimise nutrition for training, recovery and performance. If and when it is deemed necessary to use supplements we always follow best-practice guidelines.
For senior players, most of the recommendations that we make for nutritional intake are calculated per kilogram of body weight. When you are trying to feed, train and get professional athletes to recover daily, it is sometimes impractical to try to get all their requirements through food. We then use protein supplements after gym sessions or recovery products after pitch sessions.
There will always be risks associated with taking supplements because they fall between two stools: they are not a food and they are not a medicine and therefore are not subject to rigorous testing from the usual food or drug regulatory bodies. At the moment there isn't even a regulatory authority to police what companies put on their labelling, and whether the label accurately reflects what is in the product. This is often an issue if you buy online from abroad.
Supplement providers sell their product to the masses, but in general the research that they do is only carried out on a small group of elite athletes. In Munster Rugby, we still follow the best-practice guidelines that other people might not realise are required.
Even though our supplements come from well-regarded and reputable suppliers, there are always risks associated with their use. Manufacturers buy their base ingredients from other companies and there is also the concern that there could have been a contamination somewhere along production lines.
Our nutrition partner this season is PHD Supplements. We work closely with them and a programme called Informed Sport (www.informed-sport.com) who facilitate batch testing of the supplements we use to test for the presence of contaminants that are on the WADA prohibited substances list (list.wada-ama.org). Only when we receive a certificate of purity from their lab do we receive delivery of the approved batch. This is a risk minimisation scheme to ensure players do not ingest contaminated products.
I would advise anyone thinking of using supplements to consult with a dietitian to assess the need, research the claims made by supplement providers, visit www.informed-sport.com to get lists of registered manufacturers and products that have been tested. I would strongly urge readers to adopt a food-first policy, but to minimise the personal risk if you choose to use supplements.