Welcome to Part 3 of the Supplement Series. Last week I discussed how to evaluate whether or not to use an ergogenic aid. This week, I'm going to present 5 ergogenic aids that I see commonly used across different sports. Remember, I evaluate these based on safety (are they harmful), effectiveness (do they do what they claim), and legality (does your level of sport allow them). I won't talk much about legality today because of the range of athletes who read this blog, but know that you need to check with your staff if you are taking ANY supplements. I will repeat what I mentioned in last week's blog: if you are under the age of 18, you should not be taking any of these supplements. There is not enough evidence to support use in athletes this young or is there enough research on long-term effects on growth and development when supplements of this nature are used.
Lets get started!
While this supplement has been around for quite some time, it is still the most common supplement I see male athletes taking. The claim is that creatine improves high power performance lasting less than 30 seconds and increases lean body mass (i.e. muscle). Studies have shown that this is in fact true when taken in the correct form, the correct dosage, paired with the right macronutrients, and ingested at the right time with respect to time of resistance training (that's a lot of variables!). While no studies have addressed long-term health effects of creatine, it has been shown that supplementation lasting 1 to 4 years typically does not result in adverse health effects (though there are a few caveats to this if you have certain medical conditions). Short-term creatine supplementation (5-7 days) has been shown to increase max power/strength by 5-15%, single effort sprint performance by 1-5% and repetitive sprint performance by 5-15%. With long-term supplementation (~30 days), studies have shown increases in fat free mass and muscular strength. But, as mentioned above, this is only when the supplement is taken correctly- which is where most athletes fail. In addition, creatine is only effective with anaerobic training (weight lifting, sprints, etc.) vs. endurance training (running, cycling, etc.).
Caffeine has gotten lots of press over the last few years as a performance enhancer. However, like creatine, it is not beneficial for all athletes. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system (CNS), but provides NO actual energy in the form of calories. Caffeine taken before or during endurance exercise increases performance because of the CNS stimulation, but also because it enhances the release free fatty acids from adipose tissue during exercise. In studies that used a time-trial test, there was on average a 3-4% improvement in performance when taking caffeine vs. not. Its effect in anaerobic exercise is less clear at this point. To have the greatest ergogenic effect, it is best for athletes to abstain from caffeine intake for 7 days prior to competition. Also, the ideal dosage is based on weight; taking too much caffeine (often in the form of caffeine pills) can lead to adverse side effects such as GI distress, dehydration and headaches.
3. Whey Protein
This is one of those ergogenic aids that is a good idea in theory, but can get out of hand very quickly when used inappropriately. The claim is that whey protein increases lean body mass and strength and enhances immunity. It is said to do this because it has a high biological value and rapid digestion rate; it also elevates glutathione levels, reducing oxidative stress. Whey protein is actually 20% of milk protein (i.e. you eat it in milk products). When taken in the right dosage at the right time, whey does in fact lead to gains in lean mass, decreases in fat mass, and improvements in strength. However, claims of enhanced immunity remain speculative; the research has not exclusively shown this to be true. But be careful: more is not necessarily better. Athletes can easily take "whey" too much whey protein powder, resulting in huge intakes of protein calories, leading to gains in fat mass instead of muscle.
The claim is that arginine increases lean body mass and improves muscle strength because it promotes vasodilation by increasing nitric oxide production. This vasodilation supposedly increases blood flow, oxygen transport, and delivery of nutrients to the muscle. The research is inconclusive; there is no proof that arginine influences nitric oxide levels in muscles. In addition, a few studies reported adverse side effects, including GI distress. More research is needed before arginine's effectiveness as an ergogenic aid can be determined.
The claim is that beta-alanine increases aerobic and anaerobic performance because it is a non-essential amino acid which buffers lactic acid build-up, thereby increasing performance. Studies of long-term supplementation (at least 4 weeks) in untrained young women and men showed improved submax cycle performance and improved time to exhaustion during max cycle performance in women and an increased total work and exercise capacity in the men. However, beta-alanine has some pretty uncomfortable adverse reactions, including dose-dependent flushing and paresthesias, which can spread to most of the body. Beta-alanine seems to beneficial mainly in high-intensity exercise, strength training, and weight lifting, where more lactic acid build-up will be present. It seems safe when used short term, but there is insufficient evidence with respect to rate effectiveness.
You will have noticed that in order for these supplements to be effective, they must be taken in the right dose, with the right food, at the right time. If you are taking these or any other supplement, meet with a registered dietitian who is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD) who can evaluate if those supplements are safe, effective, and legal for your level and type of sport performance!