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Illustration: Toby Wilkinson/The West Australian

Olympic fever is upon us and for many so is the desire to go out and achieve our own sporting greatness. The multibillion-dollar sports products industry would have us believe we need special drinks, supplements and equipment to achieve our goals - but nothing pays off like hard work and persistence, according to the experts.

Gary Slater, Sports Dietitians Association spokesman, said he was an advocate for sport supplements, but only when the benefit outweighed any cost and the individual was given guidance on appropriate use of the supplements.

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Supplements could only ever make a small improvement in performance and must be taken at the right time, in the right dose, for the right reasons, and only after consideration of a person's overall diet.

New research from Oxford University published in the British Medical Journal last month revealed there was "a striking lack of evidence" to support the vast majority of sports-related products that make claims related to enhanced performance or recovery, including drinks, supplements and footwear.

The researchers tested the evidence behind 431 performance-enhancing claims in advertisements for 104 different sports products. Just 2.7 per cent of the studies the team was able to assess were judged to be of high quality and at low risk of bias, which was "worrying".

While some supplements had been shown to potentially improve performance, many had no proved benefits and may cause serious side-effects, the researchers said.

"It is virtually impossible for the public to make informed choices about the benefits and harms of advertised sports products based on the available evidence," they concluded.

Dr Slater, who works with elite rugby union players including the Wallabies, said there was a place for sports foods and supplements.

There was excellent science showing that carbohydrates ingested during exercise, and maintaining hydration during exercise, enhanced performance.

"Theoretically you could drink water with rice on the bike but that would just prove logistically very difficult - a sports drink will simultaneously meet your fluid, carbohydrate and electrolyte needs," he said.

"But you need to be making sure the product is prescribed correctly according to the individual and their exercise goals. That is, the right product, at the right time and in the right amounts.

"Getting this wrong could actually have the opposite effect and impair performance."

Dr Slater said sports drinks had been designed for consumption during exercise. Taking them after exercise or as a mid-meal snack was unlikely to contribute to an improved performance.

Energy-dense sports foods such as power bars or sports gels were a convenient way to access nutrients such as carbohydrates for people involved in endurance sports such as cycling. For the average person, though, whole foods were a better option, especially if they were hoping to lose weight.

"The majority of the sports foods - the carbohydrate and protein powders, sports bars - are very energy-dense, they provide a lot of kilojoules or calories for a small volume," Dr Slater said.

"During exercise that is exactly what you are chasing . . . if it is really a four-hour grind. But for someone who goes to a gym and does a spin class for 45 minutes, then diet can more than adequately achieve their needs during that session."

The West Australian

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