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As a professional triathlete, I pay close attention to everything I put into my body. My vigilance is partially motivated by a drive to eat clean; knowing that quality nutrition plays a key role in my goals of high-performance. Equally, though, it’s out of a necessity to protect my livelihood and personal integrity. During a one-hour window each day, I am required to be available for an out-of-competition doping control test by our national anti-doping agency. Being a clean athlete is something I take very seriously, and an unintentional doping violation could change the direction of my trajectory in this sport.
Triathlon attracts highly competitive people with an unyielding will to win. Unfortunately, sometimes unchecked ambition can lead to a bending of the rules, or even worse, abject disregard and purposeful breaking of those rules. Anti-doping regulations and testing bodies exist as an important safeguard against this behavior, and penalties for a positive drug test can be extremely punitive and often career-ending.
Under these rules, athletes must ensure they do not accidentally or purposefully ingest a banned substance. While the rules apply to anyone competing in sanctioned races, those under greater scrutiny must go to greater lengths to ensure they do not make a mistake. This is why I record each vitamin or supplement bottle, electrolyte and protein powders–even every sunscreen or face moisturizer–into a spreadsheet filled with lot numbers, expiration dates, and brand names. I know when and where they were consumed, and when I finish a bottle, I keep one or two servings on hand instead of throwing it out. If the worst-case scenario happened and I were to test positive for a banned substance, these details could help support a legal case.
While most sports nutrition companies offer high-quality products that support performance in a legal and ethical way, there have been cases where tainted supplements reportedly triggered a positive drug test. Stemming from carelessness or even by accident, this is not an imagined possibility, nor is it limited to off-brand powders or elixirs that promise unrealistic benefits. Everyday things like salt tabs or vitamins are also categorized as supplements and can be at risk, particularly if strict controls are not in place around ingredient sourcing. The world of triathlon was rocked a few years ago when a few high-profile athletes tested positive for a banned substance that they said came from a tainted supplement. While I cannot personally know what happened, more than five years later the legal battles are ongoing and the damage to their reputations is cemented.
While there is always room for improvement, no one disagrees with the anti-doping testing regimens in place, which are key to our sport remaining as fair and safe as possible. As doping behavior evolves and becomes more subtle, the testing agencies require increased vigilance to guard against illegal behavior. I’m a staunch supporter of their mission, and appreciate the effort they make to help keep our sport clean.
At the same time, it’s challenging for athletes to bear the full burden of compliance. While a well-supported professional may be able to weather the storm of legal fees and personal damage from a positive test result caused by accidental ingestion, the majority would not. Even after years of experience as a high-level athlete, navigating the world of testing, tracking, and product selection can be tricky, and a bit anxiety-inducing. Which nutritional products should I choose? What controls are in place as these products are manufactured? What assurance do I have that this product is actually “clean”?
Luckily, a growing number of companies understand the importance of these questions 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 a supplement is not tainted by banned substances. Products like electrolyte supplements and protein powders can have measurable benefits for athletes, but a company should never cut corners in an attempt to deliver 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. Scintillating benefits without much evidence are a definite warning sign.
2. Transparency around manufacturing: Skepticism is rightly raised when companies are vague or opaque about where and how their products are made. In contrast, transparency around where ingredients are sourced, where the products are manufactured, what quality controls are in place, manufacturing certifications (e.g. cGMP), etc. can provide greater levels of assurance. For instance, one of my sponsors, Clif Bar has invested in certifications such as USDA Organic, and Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance Certified to demonstrate the supply chain has been vetted and confirmed to meet standards around ingredient quality and environmental impact. The company is also transparent about where it sources ingredients 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 ensure there is no contamination and provides some peace of mind to athletes. These partnerships require significant investment from a nutrition company and can increase manufacturing costs by up to 10%, as the testing process is highly technical. For instance, my electrolyte sponsor, SaltStick, tests every lot of their Race Ready product line for banned substances through Informed Sport before the product enters the market. SaltStick also makes these test results available to anyone who asks. This certification and transparency offers tremendous assurance for athletes.
While the spreadsheets tracking my nutritional intake won’t go away any time soon and my cabinet will remain stocked with nearly empty bottles, I can accept this as a small cost to pay for the ability to live out my dream as a professional athlete. At the same time, I’m extraordinarily grateful to companies that acknowledge their shared responsibility in advocating for a clean sport and will continue to support these brands.
I challenge the sports nutrition industry to continue to improve their transparency and openness and to keep investing in quality manufacturing as a long-term asset. Equally, I challenge my fellow athletes to choose brands that are stepping up to share the responsibility of keeping our sport fair and safe. Together, we can make sure the magic of triathlon remains untainted, and we can continue to chase our true potential.
Ben Hoffman is a many-time Ironman champion and placed second at the 2014 Ironman World Championship. He is sponsored by a number of the brands mentioned in this piece.