Talking bullsh*t about cow’s milk

The fake news about protein shakes.

Few things are quite as guaranteed to irritate (Dan Topolski, crap rowing coaches, racing for lanes being the exception,) as the half truths, cherry picked examples and shonky logic, peddled by the British Rowing establishment, about nutritional supplements.

So for my second public post I am going to be going head to head with, and attacking the conclusions drawn from the research of a board member of the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register. You have to love the anonymity of the internet.

The latest batch of this bizarrely one sided and childishly simplistic campaign of misinformation has shown up on the National Schools Regatta Facebook page where they have reprinted a page from the British Rowing Nutrition Guide for High Performance Rowers (Page 4 and below.)


There is nothing obviously objectionable about this poster, a banana and a pint of milk would be a shoe in for any athlete looking to recover after a 3 x 6k UT2 session at r18. but then if you were after a bit of speed and convenience you might go for the recovery powder. Then you start reading the details to find the devil. The biggy is the cost of quoted for the “Recovery Powder”.

£2.99 per serving!!!!!!

Most people reading this may not really understand why this is so infuriating to anyone who has used various protein and recovery shakes in the past. But it is, and I will try to explain. Whilst it is technically possible to purchase a basic whey + maltodextrin recovery shakes for £2.99 per serving or more, you would have to work pretty hard to find it, and make some really quite stupid choices to purchase it. For example searching Amazon UK* for “recovery shakes” then filtering the results by “Price: High to Low”. The first result on the chart is admitted a very, very expensive face cream but after that the first available carbohydrate and protein mix product does come in at £119.96, for 9kg. Which would provide 128 servings coming in at a very comparable 81p per 31g of protein, and 13g of carbohydrate.

Which is exactly the same as the pint of milk and the Bananna!

There is also a lot of rather more controversial compounds in there that I would not recommend to any rower or and U23 athlete but that is by the by. The product is also offered as a bulk purchase size that relatively few people would choose, and found by selecting one of the odder filters in the Amazon search engine. However Amazon’s default “relevance” setting provides a link to a 1.6kg tub of REGO by SiS which costs in at 68p per serving for 20g of protein (not including the hard to digest Casein found in milk) 22g of carbohydrate (Maltodextrin not the somewhat laxative lactose found in milk) and 180 calories.

The most popular result for “recovery shake” on Amazon UK comes in at less money per serving than a banana and a pint of milk. This product is also made by SiS (Science in Sport) who were, until January this year the official sports nutrition supplier to British Rowing. Let that sink in, then think about the sheer, outright ignorance and/or dishonesty of the embedded picture above.

If the British Rowing Nutrition Guide for High Performance Rowers was an advert for milk, it could be reported to the advertising standards authority.

For what its worth, the British Rowing Nutrition Guide that this example is taken from published this pamphlet in 2015, when SiS were two years into their tenure as an official supplier and sponsor to British Rowing. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the SiS office that day.

Now before I go any further I will add that Wendy Martinson (OBE dontcherknow) seems to have done a pretty good job with the rest of her Nutrition Guide, providing a sensible, even handed primer on how a young power endurance athlete should shop for, cook and eat food. All of which makes the picture above stand out even more for its absurdly and selectively inaccurate take on the reality of sports supplements. As one wag on Twitter commented “the only people paying £3 per scoop [for recovery powder] are expecting it to contain Nandrolone”

So the real question is why would any scientifically minded dietitian/nutrtionist present such an apocalyptically worst case scenario for the use of sports supplements?

At this point we start to leave careful research and head toward a degree of conjecture, old BBC archived news sites, the events of 2001, and my own conspiracy theories about ageing rowers and scared nutritionists.

The first thing to remember is that the sports supplement industry is not an old one, or an honest one, realistically going back to about 1992 and the launch of EAS who were principally pushing the newly discovered Creatine as a safe and legal alternative to steroids for Bodybuilders. At roughly the same time the MET-Rx meal replacement shake (mostly condensed milk proteins) was being marketed by its eponymous producers to prevent muscle loss and wastage in the elderly and terminally ill. MET-Rx quickly caught on with body builders whose belief in the consumption of huge quantities of protein was religious, and the synergy between them and EAS led to a merger of sorts.

The combination the frankly dishonest claims for the early (and later (and current)) sports nutrition products in terms of muscle growth and improved performance, combined with the target market of the very, very druggy bodybuilding community led to fears that the supplements contained steroids. Over the next few years three things happened. First the supplement industry boomed, lots of athletes started taking “supplements,” and lots of athletes started claiming that their positive results from WADA were the results of “contaminated supplements”.

This of course was only happening to the dirty cheating Yanks, Russians and perfidious East Germans. Not to the finest and most excellent of British Olympic Talent. That being said back in the mid to late nineties we didn’t have all that much Olympic talent. But we did have Linford Christie though, who from 1990 onwards had pulled gold out of the bag at all major international championships and had set a world record in the 100m. By 2000-ish Linford was semi retired but still very much part of the of the British Athletics scene and had a stable of very good British Olympic athletes who he coached and mentored. By 2000-ish lots of very good British Olympic athletes were testing positive for Nandrolone and claiming that their “supplements had been contaminated”. And Then They Got Linford. Whose “supplements had also been contaminated”. Most of the Athletes concerned were pardoned by British athletics due to the contaminated supplements. This was a time of real fear in British Athletics, no one knew who was going to be popped next. And it was all down to the supplements.

Or maybe it was because the cheating bastards had been at the oral Nandrolone and were caught out by a new standard for the test for 19-norandrosterone developed in 1998 and slowly spread round the world’s Anti doping Agencies? Who knows? Well given that the International Amateur Athletics Federation subsequently banned nearly all of those GB athletes who had fallen prey to “contaminated supplements” we know which side of the fence they came down on.

So Far So 100m, what does this have to do with British Rowing.

British Rowing decided that they were scared too and did a little bit of reading, rowers are apparently very clever like that. Particularly a paper by a chap called H Geyer who publish a paper in 2003 that clearly got read by the bods at BR, demonstrating that 15% of 634 nutritional supplements purchased between 2000 and 2001 were contaminated with positive test generating (but not performance enhancing), levels of, among other things, Nandrolone.

Linford, come back, we love you really!

At this point British Rowing, or the ARA as it was back then basically said – No Supplements. Ever. It will cost us medals and we have a full time chef to feed our full time athletes “real” food.

So that is the justification for a very negative, very biased, frankly misinformed and deeply inaccurate hatchet job on all sports supplements that British Rowing, and more recently, Tim Foster and the British Pharmacological Society have taken it upon themselves to perform. Scare all rowers away from supplements for all time.

I don’t think that this is justified, and I think that there are several less than sterling motivations at work that I will try to explain.

First this policy is not justified because it is now clearly possible to get your hands on supplements that are not contaminated. The Informed Sport website batch tests different sports supplements for possible digestible contaminants to inform customer what is safe and what is not. A simple website check will let you know, down to the nearest batch number whether or not what your are buying is safe.

Secondly, there is a better approach out there to the British Rowing method of “keep ’em scared” as evidenced by USADA‘s Realize, Recognize, Reduce strategy, and the AIS’ ABCD Classification System which works on a rational information based approach to keeping athletes off the banned list whilst letting them access the convenience and now increasingly proven benefits of some sports supplements. Which seems a lot more sensible and a lot more honest.

So what is the motivation of those who slate supplements so viciously in the British Rowing Community? Well here I get to attacking people who probably aren’t bad people, but do need to be set back on their heels on this issue, and then attacking some people who are probably fraudulent charlatans. You probably work out which category I divide each into.

Firstly you have the “senior athletes” of the British Rowing High Performance Program. As an example lets create a hypothetical rower, lets call him Arthur Tradescent-Howes, a man in his mid to late thirties, arguably at the peak of his boat moving powers but aware that his body is starting to let him down, less able to recover, more prone to injury and illness, not  quite able to produce the truly awesome aerobic feats of his earlier years. And despite a couple of highly successful Olympic campaigns he needs that third Olympic medal to differentiate him from the more tonsorially exceptional and facially magnificent James Cracknell as a “big, strong, Englishman for hire to the media, to do big strong manly English things.”

Arthur is basically rowing for his pension, he is rowing to be able to send his kids to private school in Bucks, not to a half decent former grant maintained in Berks, he is rowing so he can afford a five bed detached not a four bed semi. He is rowing for the quality of the rest of his life. And he is surrounded by twentysomething elongated aerobic monsters with exam results too good to make it a good idea to join a rugby academy, who all want his seat in the 2nd GB boat for the Olympics. Worse, out there in the sixth forms of English Public Schools, in American Universities, in Cambridge College Boathouses, and the wilds of Northern English WCS programs are the known unknowns. The 18-23 year old callow youths, redefining what can be expected from hearts and lungs so young, some of whom are exceptionally gifted boat movers, one or two of whom, with the right coaching, equipment and nutrition could, on a good day push Arthur out of his seat in the only GB sweep oar boat he is qualified to row in.

And so, as Arthur sits in the Caversham dining room, browsing through the murk of the twittersphere, whilst being fed his macro and micronutient rich diet of grains, fruits, lean meats, organic dairy, and delicious chargrilled vegetables, cooked with just the right amount of omega-3 and -6 rich olive oil, prepared for him 5 times a day by a dedicated team of chefs that would be the envy of most 5 star hotels let alone rowing teams. And Arthur worries. He worries about the young guns and their ergo scores, and their sub 7 single scull times. And so he tweets, ostensibly in praise of his team of dedicated chefs – “Throughout my entire double Olympic winning rowing career I have never used supplements”. This is followed by a big picture of his protein rich, fruit laden, carb dense delicious pancakes. It may not have been at the front of Athur’s mind, decent, honest, hardworking chap that he is, but if he can get just one monstrous Durham Uni single sculler to give up on their double scoop recovery shake after his evening weights and just stick to half a loaf of Hovis, and if he cuts down on the two liters of re-hydration and maltodextrin drink every day, maybe, just maybe, said Durham Uni sculler won’t be quite well fed enough this year to rock up at final trials, and show him a clean pair of blades. It is just a maybe, but Arthur has spent most of his adult life making sure all the maybe’s are pointing in his favor and he won’t stop now. Lets face it, before he was just rowing for gold, now he is rowing for his family and future.

Besides, Arthur isn’t telling anyone what to do, he is just pointing out his own strongly held beliefs.

Then there are the sports nutritionists. They are paid a relatively large amount of money to translate the grams of protein/carbs/omega-3’s per kilo of bodyweight, per day, into actual, real food, and tell people how to cook it. This is a painfully easy thing to do if you can read the “per 100g” column on the back of all supermarket sold food, and are prepared to spend half an hour a week doing the sums and writing a shopping list. Sports Nutritionists must be very scared that the people will see through this process and make a website that does it for free. Most of all Sports Nutritionists are very scared of any product that provides clearly defined amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fats, and vitamins per serving that lets any athlete with the maths skills of a 13 year old and no external support from any governing body that can afford the services of a nutritionist, precisely ensure that they are meeting the listed requirements for an athlete’s nutrition.

Sports supplements mean that  a sports nutritionist somewhere is out of a job. Sports nutritionists it seems, will do anything to stop any athlete from taking sports supplements, including lying about the costs of sports nutrition, overplaying the dangers of sports nutrition, and preventing people from understanding how to reduce the potential dangers of sports nutrition.

Sport nutrition companies have not helped themselves in this war of lies, given that they themselves are a bunch of lying snake oil salesmen who didn’t get into bed with the druggiest sports in the world, they made the bed, and invited the sports to get in and get druggier. Yes, there have been accidentally and deliberately “contaminated” sports supplements, the claims of performance gains that have been made for most supplements are based on shockingly small, poorly controlled and sometimes invented studies. Frankly the industry deserve the skepticism and disdain it receives, but there are many products out there that are helpful to many, if not most, athletes. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater by redundancy-phobic nutritionists with very little actual information to add to most athletes lives on a day to day basis, and certainly no new information to research since the advent of beetroot juice.

The conflict between sports nutrition companies, and sports nutritionist is a terrible thing to witness for those who care about truth, objectivity and honesty, both sides have their charlatans and self promoters, and both sides are trying to take your money and promise you the earth.

In short….

Trust the AIS, because they just want everyone to go faster.

Trust that any sports supplement that produces incredible performance gains as soon as you start taking it is either working on your mind or is going to end your professional sports career.

Trust that you need to get you basic diet sorted out before you add in the supplements (Read a book)

Most of all trust SiS which are still the house brand at British Cycling. Who know how not to get their athletes testing positive.



*Due to the vagaries of Amazon UK’s search engine and stocking policy, if you do this you may not get the same result.


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