Bulking Up After

The NCAA’s new rule banning Division I athletic departments from distributing certain supplements has forced new educational strategies.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 11.2, March 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1102/bulkup.htm

In the past decade, nutritional supplements have gone from being a niche product designed for elite athletes to a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that targets practically everybody. With this explosion have come products that genuinely appear to benefit athletic performance, others that have been implicated in serious health problems, and a huge number that fall in between, but that little is known about. They may or may not be beneficial and, at the same time, may or may not be harmful.

Strength and conditioning coaches have been caught in the center of this massively confusing yet potentially rewarding arena. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the college level. Here, student-athletes are still prime for experimenting, they generally don’t have the experience to judge what products may be harmful, and they’re often looking for anything that can give them an edge over their opponents—and even teammates.

But, for strength and conditioning coaches at NCAA Division I institutions, there’s now a new rub: Rule, “Nutritional Supplements.” Implemented in August 2000, this rule brings Division I in line with Divisions II and III, which put into place a similar rule a year and a half earlier. In short, it prohibits institutions from providing muscle-building supplements such as creatine, amino acids, and protein powders to student-athletes (see Sidebar “What Can You Give Out?” at the end of this article). The rule change was created mainly for two reasons: the lack of long-term studies and FDA regulation of muscle-building supplements; and to level the playing field for colleges and universities that cannot afford to provide such supplements to their athletes.

The problem with the new rule, some strength coaches feel, is that it leaves student-athletes adrift on the issue. Athletes are now left to buy these products on their own, and they’re potentially at risk of being swayed to take a product that may be harmful or that may contain a substance that is banned by the NCAA.

“Some of us strength coaches were distributing supplements and were doing it the right way—by educating kids about hydration and making it a big part of their program,” says Mike Linn, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at UCLA. “Kids trusted that we knew what we were talking about. If we didn’t give them a certain supplement, they didn’t take it, because they figured there must be some reason why we didn’t give it to them in-season.”

“Almost immediately after this legislation was passed, athletes started showing up in my office with supplements they had been talked into buying,” says David Ellis, CSCS, RD, LMNT, Director of Performance Nutrition at the University of Nebraska. “They were shopping in the health food store for something that was legitimate but were convinced by a salesperson to also purchase something else.”

Educational Advantage
When the new supplements rule was first proposed, some strength coaches feared that it would totally take them out of the loop. “One of our initial concerns was that institutions didn’t want to be associated with supplements at all,” Linn says. “Because when they first proposed the rule, that was what they were getting at—a ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ approach.”

The rule, however, says nothing about giving out advice. And that, many strength coaches say, is the key. Educating student-athletes on what may be beneficial versus what may be harmful is particularly important on campuses where the staff had been providing muscle-building supplements before the rule change.

“We’ve done a great job of telling student-athletes which supplements may contain a substance banned by the NCAA and which are okay,” says Dave Van Halanger, CSCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Florida State University. “When we told them we couldn’t give them anything anymore, we also laid out which things to stay away from and told them to be careful when they go into stores. When kids are going into a store that stocks supplements unaware and a salesperson who has a little bit of knowledge tells them a product is fine, that creates a potential problem. An athlete might take something that contains a banned substance, not trying to be wrong or to hide it, but without being informed. So education has become a key issue.”

At UCLA, Linn and Head Athletic Trainer Geoff Schadt go over the NCAA’s list of banned substances twice a year, at the start of fall football camp and the beginning of spring football. “We sit them down and read off what they can and can’t take, and emphasize that they have to take responsibility on their own,” Linn says. “They’ve got to look at the label and find out what’s in the supplement. If they’re unsure, they can bring in a bottle and we can look at the label and tell them if they can or can’t take it, and what the proper amount should be.”

At Nebraska, strength coaches have used team meetings and individual interventions to caution athletes about misleading retailers and products. They provide athletes with lists of relevant Web sites and display NCAA-issued posters to get the message out.

Ellis also advises his athletes to stay away from the health food stores and shop at a grocery-store pharmacy instead. “At the pharmacy, the products are narrowed down and the advice from the pharmacist is prudent,” he says. “I have gotten a lot of feedback about the problems that other schools are experiencing with the athletes’ shopping trips to health food stores. I can picture athletes at a health food store being served by some kids who just figured out how to run the cash register. They sell them ‘fat burners’ loaded with ephedra or ‘weight gainers’ loaded with andro-stene. But I know that if I send an athlete to see a pharmacist to pick up something, they will only get what I gave them an okay to purchase.”

“Recommendations are needed,” Van Halanger agrees. “Without offering that advice to your athletes, you’re really leaving them vulnerable. If a student-athlete comes up to me and says, ‘Can I have a protein milkshake?’ I say, ‘You can take that, but I cannot supply it to you, buy it for you, or send you to someone who will take care of you.’ But I do tell them if it’s all right to take something.”

Without such advice being drilled home to student-athletes on a regular basis, some strength coaches predict that more athletes’ health and eligibility are going to be jeopardized. “I think we’re going to see more abuses of supplements, and unfortunately, see some situations where kids are taking too much,” Linn says. “Even though we go over the NCAA banned-substances list, kids don’t always take the time to read what’s in a supplement or check to see if it’s on the NCAA list.”

A Return to Basics
Faced with the loss of control over supplements this rule has engendered, many strength coaches are improving their training tables to help student-athletes meet their fueling needs. For example, the entire Pac-10 will be adding training tables at its member institutions next school year.

At UCLA, Linn says, “As strength coaches, some of us are now having to get more involved with the nutrition end of it instead of just handing out anything and everything to the kids. One of the things we did that resulted from this rule that was a blessing was we invested a lot of money in our nutrition education program and hired a full-time nutritionist who works closely with me.”

“Sometimes I think we get a little too supplement-oriented instead of food-oriented,” Van Halanger agrees. “Supplementation is the last rung on the ladder. The number one step is hydration, then food intake.

“So what we’ve tried to do is improve the easiest thing we’re allowed to do, which is the training table,” he continues. “We put out meats and fish, proteins and complex carbohydrates, and we educate the student-athletes on what they’re eating and how it affects their bodies without the supplementation.”

Cornell University Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Tom Howley, MEd, CSCS, is taking a similar tack. “We try to teach them to eat better by giving them sound nutritional advice via posters, team presentations, and individual meetings,” he says. “A football player was in here the other day asking about a protein supplement, and I told him, ‘We need to work on a strategy to where you can get your protein through natural sources first. Don’t immediately look for the supplement. How can you adjust your everyday eating habits to get more protein in your diet?’”

A Steady Course
Even though they can’t physically hand out supplements to their student-athletes, it’s clear that strength coaches will continue to be on the front line of this issue. And it’s clear that they will need to use every educational avenue to keep their student-athletes informed. While some would rather stay out of the discussions altogether, hoping supplements will just go away, most strength coaches stress that the key is to keep talking about the topic.

“Keeping student-athletes on the ‘straight and narrow’ doesn't mean turning a blind eye,” Ellis says. “We must keep the lines of communication on supplements open. Otherwise, it will go so far underground that when it surfaces, it could be because of some very tragic event that leaves everyone involved wondering how it could have happened.”

Sidebar - What Can You Give Out?
Rule states: “An institution may provide only nonmuscle-building nutritional supplements to a student-athlete at any time for the purpose of providing additional calories and electrolytes, provided the supplements do not contain any NCAA banned substances. Permissible nonmuscle-building nutritional supplements are identified according to the following classes: carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks, energy bars, carbohydrate boosters, and vitamins and minerals.”

The NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) has developed lists of supplements that are permissible and nonpermissible for athletic departments to dispense under the new rule. The lists, below, are not exhaustive and those with questions should contact the CSMAS through the NCAA.

Vitamins and minerals
Energy bars (no more than 30 percent protein)
Calorie replacement drinks
Electrolyte replacement drinks

Amino acids
Creatine and creatine-containing compounds
Protein powders

The National Center for Drug-Free Sport also offers the Dietary Supplement Resource Exchange Center specifically for gathering and disseminating accurate and current information on dietary supplements. Visit its Web site at www.drugfreesport.com/rec.htm for more information.