Nutritional supplements present a doping risk to athletes as they may contain prohibited substances. 

Supplements include manufactured products likes pills, capsules, powders, gels, drinks and bars that contain nutrients, herbs, amino acids or other substances that can affect the body.  They are typically available over-the-counter and meant to “supplement” the diet.

The regulations for how supplements are manufactured are generally less strict than those for medications; and while the manufacture and sale of supplements may be tightly regulated in some countries, these regulations are often not enforced.

This means that the ingredients a supplement contains, their quality (how pure they are), how they are listed on the label, and where the supplement is purchased can create risks.   For example, a supplement may contain substances that are not included on the ingredients list; a supplement may be contaminated with a prohibited substance during the manufacturing process; or the manufacturer may use a new or different name for a prohibited substance on the ingredients list.

The benefits claimed by the supplement manufacturer and the brand can provide a clue to the level of risk.  For example, a simple multi-vitamin brought from a well-established brand can be considered to be a lower risk than, for example, a pre-workout supplement purchased from a less well-known brand on the internet. 

Some supplements may even claim that they have been endorsed or certified by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the IPC or another anti-doping organisation.   This is not true.  WADA and other anti-doping organisations do not approve, certify or endorse any supplement products.

Ultimately, this means that taking a supplement can cause an athlete to test positive.  Taking a supplement may also be harmful to your health and may actually have a negative effect on your performance.

REMEMBER:  The benefits claimed by many supplement manufacturers are completely unproven, whereas the contamination of supplements (with a prohibited substance) is a regular occurrence in anti-doping. 

Managing the Risk

So, what can athletes do to manage the risk of taking a supplement?

Assess your diet

Take a food first approach.  Do you really need the supplement, or can you make improvements to your diet to address your needs?  If you are eating well and getting the balance of nutrients and energy you need, it is likely that using supplements is unnecessary.

Ask a professional

After assessing your diet and making any changes, before you decide to use a supplement, seek advice from a professional, such as a doctor or qualified nutritionist.   Does the supplement actually do what it claims?  Is it a trustworthy brand? Be sure to tell them you are an athlete subject to the anti-doping rules.  Do not rely only on the advice of the salesperson who may simply be keen to make a sale!

Batch testing

A batch-tested supplement cannot remove all the risks associated with supplements - but it can significantly reduce them.  This is where a particular batch of supplements manufactured is screened for prohibited substances by an independent third-party organisation.  Batch tested supplements can be more expensive and may not be available to many athletes. 

REMEMBER:  The principle of strict liability always applies where you are responsible for any prohibited substance found in your system and an anti-doping rule violation can occur whether or not you intended to take a banned substance.