Betfred Sport

The science of football: The truth about sports supplements

Whey Hey... The truth about sports supplements

‘Translating scientific jargon into meaningful and interesting summaries’

Part I: Creatine, Caffeine, & Whey Protein

The use of sports supplements to meet dietary requirements and enhance performance has become a fundamental part of mainstream football and is commonly standard procedure of team dieticians prior to performance.

The marked increase in need for macro and micro-nutrient intake can generally be met by dietary management without the need for dietary supplements however, there exists evidence to suggest appropriate ingestion of some specific supplements in conjunction with appropriate training and a well-balanced diet can contribute to enhanced football performance.

Supplements such as sports drinks, high CHO supplements, and liquid meal supplements are popular sources which aid athletes in meeting their dietary needs and enhancing performance in specific situations; typically offering a quick, convenient and practical method of doing so (Griffin, 2001).

On the contrary; widely claimed to provide the competitive edge required for success, the efficacy of various supplements is unproven and often exaggerated; thus because of their purported ability to enhance performance, these diverse substances are collectively referred to as ergogenic aids.

Here, I review the science – the reliable and unbiased research undertaken by impartial scientists who aren’t in the back pocket of any supplement company.


Unless you’ve been strapped into a chair and forced to watch re-runs of Top Gear on Dave, you are probably aware that supplementing with creatine makes you bigger and stronger. Despite some of creatine’s burly claims, this supplement actually has sound scientific support backing it up!

The Claims:

- Increases endurance/delays fatigue
- Improve muscle strength
- Improve memory and assist various neural functions
- Promote gains in lean body mass and muscle fibre hypertrophy (growth).

Mechanisms of Action:

Creatine provides your muscle with more energy (commonly referred to as ATP). Your body has a limited store of ATP meaning that your muscles can only contract efficiently for a period of time. Once ATP levels decline your muscles can no longer work at the same capacity. Creatine replaces ATP so that the muscle can continue working efficiently.

What the science says...
Increase Strength:

This claim is backed by a wealth of scientific evidence. In a thorough review of 22 published studies, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that the average increase in muscle strength following creatine supplementation (coupled with resistance training) was 8% greater than placebo ingestion during resistance training (20 vs 12%).

Moreover, the average increase in weightlifting performance (maximal repetitions at a given percent of maximal strength) following creatine supplementation plus resistance training was 14% greater than the average increase in weightlifting performance following placebo ingestion during resistance training (26 vs. 12%). The increase in bench press 1 repetition max ranged from 3 to 45%, and the improvement in weightlifting performance in the bench press ranged from 16 to 43%.

Increase Endurance:

This is highly debateable and at present, unclear. Whereas some studies have found that creatine supplementation enhances endurance performance, this is counterbalanced by a number of other studies which show the opposite, perhaps because the accompanying increase in body mass following supplementation negatively affects movement economy (Bronk, 1999). When looking at the evidence, it appears that creatine enhances muscular endurance but offers little benefit to endurance sports such as football.

Increase Lean Body Mass:

Supplementation typically leads to an increase in body mass (BM) of ~0.6–1.0 kg or 1-3 kg within 3-4days of supplementation (Williams, Kreider & Branch, 1999); benefiting players looking to increase lean mass, power and strength. It is proposed, because creatine is osmotically active, an increase occurs through increased water retention in tissues where it is taken up; leading to enhanced protein synthesis (Burke, 2010).

How does this impact football-specific skills? Stout et al. (1999) found improvements in vertical jump performance following ingestion. Contrastingly, Miszko, Baer, and Vanderbergh (1998) found counter-movement jump, a skill necessary for football skills such as heading and goalkeeper saves, may be impaired through an increase in BM.

These findings may be attributed to the asymmetrical distribution of muscle mass around the joints, although the precise mechanisms are not fully understood (Sculthorpe, Grace, Jones, & Fletcher, 2010). With the above  in mind, supplementation may be ergolytic for some players; increasing total energy expended to move the extra mass (Tokish, Kocker & Hawkins, 2010).

High-Intensity Sprints:

Research suggests creatine supplementation enhances performance of 6-30 sec bouts of high-intensity exercise when interspersed with short recovery intervals (20 s to 5 min). Creatine is a metabolic buffer (Hochachka, 1994). During football exercise there is an increase in H+ and a concomitant reduction in pH and this has been linked to fatigue. The ability to buffer H+ may attenuate the decrease in muscle pH, thereby prolonging time to fatigue (Burke & Deakin, 2010).


A fairly new, yet exciting, area of research is creatine as a brain booster. A high-quality study out of the University of Sydney found that creatine improved memory and concentration in a group of vegetarians. Whether creatine is the new Ginkgo Biloba remains to be seen, but the early research is quite promising.

Consideration of Positional Role:

The fact players perform different soccer related activities over different proportions of competition due to their positional role implies players are susceptible to different physiological stresses. In light of this, creatine supplementation should be based on the individual needs of players and prescription should not be based on generalised player statistics (Drust, Reilly, & Williams, 2010).

For example, O’Donoghue (1998) found strikers perform the most maximal sprints for longer durations, followed by midfielders and defenders. The proposed beneficial effects on fatigue prevention and power output of creatine supplementation may therefore be of greater benefit to forwards than midfielders and defenders

Loading Regimen:

Prevailing view - ‘If little is good, then more is better’. Not necessarily. An initial loading phase 20g/day for 6 days (4 x 5g portions) typically increases muscle creatine content by ~25 mmol/kg d.w. Accompany this with a maintenance dose (3-5g/day) and this is purported to maintain the high total creatine concentration for 35 days (Burke & Deakin, 2010).

Repeated doses of creatine are required to sustain plasma creatine levels above the threshold for maximal creatine transport into the muscle cell. Some research suggests the effects of creatine supplementation may fade after two months due to desensitization.

Therefore it may be beneficial to interrupt periods of creatine supplementation (8-10 weeks) with a wash-out period of approximately 4 weeks (Burke, 2007; Mottram, 2005).


In most individuals, creatine is extremely well tolerated. It should be noted that there aren’t a lot of long-term studies on creatine use, so it may be years or decades until we understand the potential long term ramifications of taking creatine on a regular basis.

In the meantime, take solace in the fact that a handful of long-term studies.


There is substantial evidence to indicate that creatine supplementation during resistance training is more effective at increasing muscle strength than resistance training alone. In essence it’s as simple as this, if you want to get bigger and stronger, take creatine!


We love caffeine ‘cause it gives your brain a kick start!’ Let’s face it. But there’s plenty more to this trimethylxanthine stimulant.

The Claims:

- Enhance fat burning and endurance exercise
- Improve recovery
- Enhance cognitive functioning.

What the Science Says...

Enhance Fat Burning:

Caffeine is a potent stimulator on the nervous system. It increases the release of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenaline which travels around the body increasing energy expenditure.

This may provide one mechanism through which caffeine increases metabolism and fat burning. Glycogen-sparing provides another means.

Moreover, caffeine has been found to spare glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates. Subsequently fat utilisation increases meaning more fat is burned and readily available energy (carbohydrates) are spared meaning you can exercise for longer (reference).

However, shown to burn fat in the short term, when subjects are followed in the long-term, caffeine doesn’t do much of anything to people’s waistlines. It used to be thought that the combination of caffeine and cardio would do the trick.

A recent well-done study published in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that a full two months of caffeine supplementation didn’t budge fat anymore than a placebo.


There’s no doubt that caffeine can prevent you from “hitting the wall” during your 5K or halfway through your last set of squats. Caffeine can accomplish this by keeping your body from using up precious glycogen. When glycogen runs out, your workout takes a hit. Caffeine’s ability to give you a second wind is far from trivial –most studies find that caffeine increases endurance by a whopping 25%!

Caffeine, in combination with appropriate carbohydrate sources, may improve recovery through increasing rate of glycogen synthesis post-exercise. Pedersen et al. (2008) noted an increase of 66% in glycogen re-synthesis compared to a carbohydrate only condition following a 4 hour recovery period; indicating caffeine enhances recovery if consumed concomitantly with carbohydrate.

From a practical standpoint however, the individual should be careful to time intake appropriately in order to avoid sleep disturbance as clearance of caffeine in the blood stream takes ~3-6 hours and this may be extended for certain individuals (Jeukendrup, 2010). CAF should probably not be consumed the night before football competition.

Cognitive Functioning:

It is well established caffeine stimulates the central nervous system; reduces fatigue and perception of effort; enhancing central drive and/or improvement in muscle fibre recruitment, reaction time, alertness and attention span, which is of particular relevance to goalkeeping performance (Magkos & Kavouras, 2004).

Loading Regimen:

5-13 mg/kg/body mass (BM) doses were typically ingested in early studies; with results eliciting substantial performance improvements (Graham & Spriet, 1991; Pasman, Van Baak, Jeukendrup, & de Haan, 1995).

However, research has more recently indicated lower doses of 2–6 mg/kg/BM may be equally as effective; thus indicating there may be a limit to the amount of caffeine the body can utilize at a given time. Moderate doses are also useful in minimising the effects of desensitization which primarily occurs through high-dose CAF intake and chronic use (Graham & Spriet, 1995; Kovacs, Stegen, & Brouns, 1998).

Pasman et al. (1998) found no significant differences in performance when subjects ingested doses of CAF ranging from 5-13 mg/kg/BM; indicating dose prescription is irrelevant in terms of ergogenic effects. The applicability of this finding to football performance however is questioned. For example, the dose required to yield an optimal effect on visual information processing (VIP) is significantly lower than that to yield optimal endurance performance (Figure 1).

Therefore, outfield players should consume a dose which enhances endurance performance but does not impair visual information processing. Goalkeepers should maintain to ingesting lower doses due to the importance of VIP to their positional responsibilities.

The fact the effects of caffeine are dependent upon habituation, with habitual users requiring larger doses, makes the doses prescribed on the x-axis and effect-size on the y-axis, indicative (Maughan, 1997).
The effects of caffeine on visual information processing (VIP) and endurance performance:

Caution to the athlete is administered on the basis that larger caffeine doses and its effect on VIP might counterbalance the stimulatory effect of caffeine on endurance performance (Maughan, 2007).

Side Effects:

As morning commuters prove on a daily basis, caffeine has very few negative side effects. However, if you take too much in one sitting, symptoms like nervousness, shaking, and anxiety are fairly common.

Also, if you’ve never touched a cup of coffee or green tea, then it’s wise to take a very low dose and work your way up. Otherwise, a sudden rush of 250mg or more of caffeine can make you a jittery mess.


Caffeine is the most versatile and effective ergogenic aid for a reason and represents an exception to the general rule against taking stimulants for their ergogenic effects. Although caffeine’s ability to fight fat remains controversial, it’s boon to working out does not.

The conundrum researchers face today is the identification of the precise mechanisms underpinning the aforementioned performance enhancements, particularly in delineating the reasons why caffeine can help you to workout longer and harder yet the fat doesn’t always fly off!

Habitual users should be aware of desensitisation (reduced effects due to continuous use) and the dose administered should be carefully considered alongside playing position.

Whey Protein

When attempting to increase lean body mass, an essential component equal to a sound resistance training programme is protein consumption. Not only is protein intake required for skeletal muscle hypertrophy (growth), protein is also needed for to repair damaged cells and tissue and for a variety of metabolic and hormonal activities.

When discussing protein as a nutritional supplement, two main questions arise: 1) How much protein is required for an individual engaging in athletic training? 2) What are the types of protein supplements and which are the best sources of protein?

The Claims:

- Better absorbed form of protein
- Enhances immune function
- Muscle growth (increased synthesis of new proteins)
- Speeds recovery (re-building and re-modelling proteins damaged by exercise)

Mechanisms of Action:

Whey protein has two major routes of functioning 1) It’s amino acid composition and 2) It’s immunoglobulin concentration.

The amino acids in whey (the building blocks of protein) are prime for muscle building and are available in abundance making whey protein ideal for giving your body the building blocks it needs for growth and repair.

What makes whey protein particularly unique is its ability to communicate with the body –essentially telling it to boost immunity and synthesise new muscle tissue.

What the Science Says...

The scientific research in favour of whey protein supplementation is overwhelming – augmenting the vast array of health claims found on the forefront of oversized containers.


A major advantage of supplementing with whey protein is its superior absorption ability. In most circumstances, absorption rates are not a primary concern however this is where whey excels! The period following your strength training session, known as the ‘recovery window’ is primed for muscle building.

Your damaged muscles are greedy for nutrients and will endeavour to utilize all available nutrients. The availability of whey therefore maximizes the potential benefits during this recovery window.

Muscle hypertrophy (Muscle building):

Simple as this - whey provides the body with the perfect amino acid profile for muscle building and enhancing muscle strength. A plethora of studies have found that whey protein significantly increases the potential for muscle growth from strength training.

In terms of strength, It may seem like obvious that more muscle translates to more strength but this isn’t necessarily true. There’s an important distinction to be made between functional muscle and plain old muscle. The former helps you run, jump, and lift more while the latter is used for vanity. Luckily, whey protein builds the kind of muscles that makes you stronger.

Research presented at the American Physiological Association in San Diego found that when athletes were trained and given whey protein, they improved their lifting capacity more than the same group that received a placebo. Take home message, whey makes you strong.

Research study:

In a recent study, 30 moderately fit participants completed a modified Air Force fitness test, a computer-based cognition test, and a dual-energy X-ray-absorptiometry scan for body composition before and after supplementing their daily diet for 8 weeks with either 19.7 g of whey protein and 6.2 g leucine (WPL) or an isocaloric placebo (P).

Bench-press performance increased significantly from Week 1 to Week 8 in the WPL group. Push-up performance increased significantly for WPL. And total mass, fat-free mass, and lean body mass all increased significantly in the WPL group.

Whey Protein

Aids Recovery:

Whey is the best investment because of its capacity as a post-workout recovery supplement. This is a critical time after severe physical stress when the cells will act like a sponge and take almost anything.

The extreme hunger of the cells and the fast-acting properties of whey will make sure you use the best window for recovery to the fullest. 

Immune Function:
Whey protein contains a number of unique proteins called immunoglobulins. These immunoglobulin create more body-shielding immune cells by interacting with your body’s immune system.

Research published in the Journal of Nutrition found that the immunoglobulins in whey significantly improved the body’s innate immunity – helping it ward off a diverse range of impending invaders.

Co-ingestion with Creatine/Carbohydrate:

Whey + Creatine: The literature is very clear on this - whey and creatine outperforms whey or creatine alone every single time.

Whey + Carbohydrate: The combined ingestion of protein and carbohydrate seems to be preferred after exercise. It appears the protein delivers the substrate (amino-acids), and carbohydrate further increases the anabolic hormonal milieu required for net protein synthesis.


The timing of protein intake after exercise is important to the balance between protein synthesis and protein degradation. Whey protein should be consumed as quickly as possible after exercise training, ideally within two hours as this is the optimal time frame for training adaptation to occur.


‘The more protein I consume, the bigger I will get’. Rubbish. This is a major misconception of many athletes as the body can only utilise a certain amount of protein in a set period of time. In essence, an intermittent athlete such as a football player should aim to consume 1.4-1.7 g/kg/body mass of protein per day. So for a 70kg player this would be between 98 and 119 g of protein per day.

Side effects:

In healthy individuals with no indication of kidney issues, there is no evidence that a high protein intake is dangerous. For most athletes, the biggest danger of high protein intake is that it often comes at the cost of carbohydrate intake.


The data on whey is amazing. It truly is the protein of choice for any serious athlete looking to improve performance and enhance recovery. Get the amount and timing right and you will reap the rewards.

Next time (Part II): Steroids, Glutamine, and Sodium Bicarbonate.

For references and any further information please feel free to contact me:


By Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a First Class Honours Sport Science graduate from the only five star rated Sports Science Research Institute in the UK; Liverpool John Moores University. He has acquired a wide range of experience in both playing and coaching sport with a career high of representing Stoke City at youth level and coaching football at the International Youth Games.
Scott has previously been responsible for leading five sports scientists on placement with Blackburn Rovers' nutrition department. He has completed sports science work for FIFA, where he travelled across Europe performing a multitude of sports science tests, and has also worked as a physical education teaching assistant at a high school in Cheshire.
Scott is currently undertaking a Masters of Science in Sports Physiology, also at LJMU, specialising in sports nutrition where his research focuses on assessing and enhancing the nutritional knowledge of elite level footballers.

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