Sports nutrition brands are also responsible for clean sport – Triathlete

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As a professional triathlete, I’m very careful about everything I put into my body. My vigilance is partly motivated by a desire to eat healthily; knowing that quality nutrition plays a key role in my high performance goals. Likewise, however, it is out of necessity to protect my livelihood and my personal integrity. For a one-hour window each day, I am required to be available for out-of-competition doping control by our National Anti-Doping Agency. Being a clean athlete is something I take very seriously, and an unintended doping violation could change the direction of my trajectory in this sport.

Triathlon attracts highly competitive people with an unwavering will to win. Unfortunately, sometimes unchecked ambition can lead to rule-bending, or even worse, abject disregard and willful violation of the rules. Anti-doping regulations and testing bodies exist as an important safeguard against this behavior, and the penalties for a positive doping test can be extremely punitive and often career-ending.

Under these rules, athletes must ensure that they do not accidentally or deliberately ingest a prohibited substance. While the rules apply to anyone competing in sanctioned races, those who come under closer scrutiny must try harder to make sure they don’t make a mistake. That’s why I log every bottle of vitamins or supplements, electrolytes and protein powders – even every sunscreen or facial moisturizer – in a spreadsheet full of batch numbers, expiration dates and of brand names. I know when and where they were consumed, and when I finish a bottle, I keep a serving or two on hand instead of throwing it away. Should the worst case scenario occur and I should test positive for a banned substance, these details may help support legal action.

While most sports nutrition companies offer high-quality products that support performance legally and ethically, there have been instances where tainted supplements have triggered a positive drug test. Resulting from negligence or even accident, it is not an imagined possibility, nor limited to off-brand powders or elixirs that promise unrealistic benefits. Everyday things like salt tablets or vitamins are also classed as supplements and can be risky, particularly if strict controls are not in place around ingredient sourcing. The world of triathlon was rocked a few years ago when a few top athletes tested positive for a banned substance they believed came from a tainted supplement. Although I personally cannot know what happened, more than five years later the legal battles continue and the damage to their reputation is cemented.

While there is always room for improvement, no one disputes the doping control schemes in place, which are essential to keeping our sport as fair and safe as possible. As doping behavior evolves and becomes more subtle, testing agencies require increased vigilance to guard against illegal behavior. I am a strong supporter of their mission and appreciate their efforts to help keep our sport clean.

At the same time, it is difficult for athletes to take full responsibility for compliance. While a well-supported professional may be able to weather the storm of legal fees and personal damages resulting from a positive test result caused by accidental ingestion, the majority would not. Even after years of experience as an elite athlete, navigating the world of testing, tracking, and product selection can be tricky and a bit anxiety-inducing. Which nutritional products to choose? What controls are in place when manufacturing these products? What assurance do I have that this product is really “clean”?

Fortunately, a growing number of companies understand the importance of these issues and are taking their own steps to ensure the integrity of their products. When I choose a sports nutrition brand, I now look for:

1. Clean, high-quality ingredients and science-backed claims: A quality supply chain is the best way to ensure that a supplement is not contaminated with banned substances. Products such as electrolyte supplements and protein powders can have measurable benefits for athletes, but a company should never cut corners in an attempt to offer a cheaper price or higher profit margin. Clean, high-quality ingredients are always worth the extra investment. Another thing to look for would be clear scientific studies used in the formulation of a product that support the company’s marketing claims. Glittering benefits without much evidence is a sure warning sign.

2. Transparency around manufacturing: Skepticism is rightly raised when companies are vague or opaque about where and how their products are made. On the other hand, transparency regarding the origin of ingredients, where products are made, quality controls in place, manufacturing certifications (e.g. cGMP), etc. can provide higher levels of assurance. For example, one of my sponsors, Clif Bar, has invested in certifications such as USDA Organic and Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance Certified to demonstrate that the supply chain has been verified and confirmed to meet quality standards for ingredients and of environmental impact. The company is also transparent about where ingredients come from and the code of conduct implemented throughout the supply chain.

3. Investments in certifications: Third-party programs like Informed Sport or NSF’s Certified for Sport offer independent product testing for banned substances, usually before a product enters the market. This helps to ensure that there is no contamination and provides some peace of mind for athletes. These partnerships require a significant investment from a nutrition company and can increase manufacturing costs by up to 10% because the testing process is highly technical. For example, my electrolyte sponsor, SaltStick, tests every batch of its Race Ready product line for banned substances through Informed Sport before the product hits the market. SaltStick also makes these test results available to anyone who requests them. This certification and transparency provide tremendous assurance to athletes.

Although the spreadsheets tracking my nutrient intake aren’t going away anytime soon and my cupboard is still filled with nearly empty bottles, I can accept this as a small cost to be paid to be able to live my dream as a professional athlete. At the same time, I am extremely grateful to the companies that recognize their shared responsibility in championing clean sport and will continue to support these brands.

I challenge the sports nutrition industry to continue to improve its transparency and openness and to continue to invest in quality manufacturing as a long-term asset. Likewise, I challenge my fellow athletes to choose brands that stand up to share the responsibility of keeping our sport fair and safe. Together we can ensure that the magic of triathlon remains intact and we can continue to pursue our true potential.

Ben Hoffman is a multiple time Ironman champion and came second in the 2014 Ironman World Championship. He is sponsored by a number of brands mentioned in this article.


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