The supplements fuelling the UK’s fastest runners are changing. Paul Halford jumps into the sports nutrition scene to see how natural products are helping to shave seconds off marathon times, and how the retail landscape is shifting
When the men’s world marathon record was broken earlier this autumn by Eliud Kipchoge, the focus of attention fell on a revolutionary, game-changing brand of sports drink and gel composed entirely of natural products.
Maurten, produced by the Swedish start-up of the same name, has been massively credited for a giant leap forward in marathon running. The winners of the last 14 major marathons have used it, while Kipchoge’s record, by more than a minute, of 2:01:39 in Berlin in September has been hailed as one of the greatest performances of all time.
While Maurten is unlikely to reach health food stores anytime soon, it is an example of the genre of clean-ingredient products that are, increasingly, highly sought after by those with active lifestyles. Disappearing are the shelves upon shelves of bodybuilding powders – today’s health food shops are being taken over by plant-based or other natural products which are being used in connection with sport and exercise, perhaps more than many retailers realize.
A report from Euromonitor International published this year highlighted that sports nutrition is the fastest growing category within consumer health, increasing worldwide from US$7.3 billion in 2011 to US$11.9 billion in 2016, and is expected to rise by 7.9% per annum over the five years up to 2021.
Despite this, repeated claims are heard from retailers that they don’t do much in the way of sports nutrition anymore. While it is true that many shoppers are instead going online or to specialist stores for the traditional big sellers, the sports nutrition market is evolving, and retailers need to be aware of this to avoid losing potential revenue.
Gary Trickett, managing director at Healthy Route – which has branches in Leicester and Nottingham – and chairman of the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS), is one retailer who is well clued-up on the changing scene. Admitting his company has lost £1,000-£2,000 per week in sales of protein powders over the past three to five years, he adds that Healthy Route has needed to become ‘more sophisticated’ in its approach to this sector.
“Our sales of beetroot juice over the last four or five years have gone up dramatically,” he says, before stressing the need to be informed about how what’s on the shelves relates to exercise. “We’re also utilizing things like rhodiola and ginseng. We look at overall multivitamins to keep generally healthy.” Trickett also recommends taking magnesium to help muscles relax afterwards, and l-glutamine ‘to stop the build-up of chronic post-exercise pain’.
“We can’t compete on the protein powders now, but what we can do is sell more sophisticated products to ensure that those consumers have to come back to us as they’re not going to get the high quality products that we’re selling from Boots or Asda.”
Also noticing the changing face of the market is Martin Watson of Energetic Health in Cobham, who says: “Sports nutrition as we remember it – which was weight-gainers, creatine and whey protein – is all sold online at slashed prices. And what I’m seeing in the health food trade now is more pea protein, in particular, which is being purchased in our store. And it’s more so women than men. They’ll do their protein shakes before pilates and things like that.”
Further, John Carey, director at Active Edge Nutrition, highlights the broadening base of the market, even though he says some consumers may not, for example, view their pre-parkrun beetroot juice as being ‘sports nutrition’.
“It’s not that the sports market has gone away; it’s that the sports market has gone mainstream,” says Carey, whose company’s range includes fruit and vegetable concentrates. “Everyday people are exercising more and becoming much more aware of what they need in their diet to make them feel good and perform well.”
Many of the lines health food shops are currently stocking could perhaps be marketed more effectively at sports and specific exercise types. A few examples of products which aid performance or recovery include:
One product that has been recognized for many years for its endurance-boosting capabilities is beetroot juice. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology revealed runners improved their 5km times by 1.5% on average by taking a shot before the race, thanks to its nitric oxide-stimulating powers, and it is now widely used by endurance athletes.
A more recent arrival to the food cupboards of competitive sports people, cherry juice has been credited with improving exercise recovery time, plus reducing upper respiratory tract symptoms after a marathon when the body is particularly susceptible.
This amino acid has long been a favourite among cyclists. A 2016 paper published by the Natural Health Research Institute reported a 10.3% increase in power output among trained cyclists who had undergone four weeks of supplementation with beta-alanine.
Though less well supported by the weight of evidence compared to the aforementioned, garlic has been scientifically shown to improve VO2 max – the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen it’s possible to utilize during intense physical exercise. The good news for consumers, and therefore health food shops too, is that garlic also works in odourless capsule form.
Plankton from the ocean floor is now being harvested to aid hydration and boost recovery. A 100% natural product from Totum Sport – containing 78 naturally occurring electrolytes – is being used by sports professionals including Rafael Nadal and Jermain Defoe.
The endurance-boosting power of our favourite stimulant is no secret, and it’s no longer just students who are buying caffeine pills to stay awake after late-night study sessions. Many studies have advised taking around 5mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight in order to knock chunks off your marathon or cycling trial time. The advantage of pill form is, of course, not having to carry around a litre or more of coffee in your stomach as you compete.
Active individuals are not only endeavouring to improve performance and recovery time, though. As all health food shop owners will suspect, the switch to cleaner ingredients, particularly derived from plants, is evident in this field.
Carey adds: “The biggest thing is that people are more conscious about what they are putting in their bodies and aware of additives and synthetic ingredients. A lot of people are looking for plant-based ingredients to boost their performance.”
This is echoed by Peter Antonio, registered nutritionist at University of Birmingham Sport and Fitness. “[Veganism] has already increased massively over the last ten years. The number of vegans in this country has increased tenfold,” says Antonio, who has worked in nutrition at all levels, from the general public to elite athletes.
“There are far more options these days … with many websites listing whether their supplements are suitable for vegans. Food items and products that are suitable for vegans already have exploded over the last five to ten years, and will definitely continue to do so.”
The Euromonitor report went so far as to predict that plant-based protein will ‘reshape the industry’. It states: “Over 80% of global sports nutrition value sales came from sports protein products in 2016. Within this category, demand for plant-based proteins is growing due to concerns for animal rights, cruelty-free awareness, fear of potential antibiotics pollution in dairy products, rising dairy allergies, and the growing vegan and vegetarian movement, with many industry players already launching (or planning to launch) products to suit these consumer demands.”
The sports nutrition market is truly changing. Smart retailers realize that clean ingredients can significantly aid sport and exercise – and you don’t need to have a marathon world-record holder as a customer in order to cash in.
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