Updated: Apr 30
CAN SUPPLEMENTS REALLY IMPROVE PERFORMANCE?
So far we have talked about the three macronutrients and their impact on sports performance. I’ve decided to write about that topic to clear up the general confusion that’s surrounding nutrition and all the different types of diets. A similar confusion arises when it comes to performance enhancing substances. Whether you’re an athlete or not, you must have at one point come along an advertisement promising better performance, faster results, incredible gains and so on. Most of it sounds too good to be true. Because most of it is. And yet, we get tempted and sooner or later get sucked into the propaganda. So let’s discuss some of the most commonly used ergogenic aids and their possible benefits and side effects. So at least next time you can make an informed decision before you buy a bucket of magic beans.
The term ergogenic aid refers to any substance that can improve bodily or mental performance, especially by eliminating fatigue symptoms. There are several categories of ergogenic aids:
-mechanical (free weights to develop strength, light weight racing shoes, nasal strips to improve airflow, etc.)
-pharmacological (androgenic steroid hormones, high dose nutrient supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, etc.)
-physiological (blood doping, sauna, massage, etc.)
-psychological (hypnosis, relaxation techniques, visualisation techniques, etc.)
-nutritional (carbohydrate loading, sports drinks, caffeine, etc.)
In this article I’m going to talk about nutritional ergogenic aids – substances that are thought to enhance performance and are either nutrients, metabolic by-products of nutrients, food or plant extracts, or substances commonly found in food provided in more concentrated amounts. Non-nutritional ergogenic aids are products (often of unknown origin) that are neither nutrients, nor other substances with nutritional properties. These products, (anabolic steroids being the best known example) are almost universally banned by sports organising bodies and for a good reason. They are dangerous and detrimental for the athlete’s health and therefore I will not be discussing them here (wouldn’t wanna give you some bad ideas). Avoid them at all costs.
For a comprehensive and up-to-date list of banned ergogenic aids, along with prohibited methods for achieving performance enhancement (such as blood doping), visit the following web site: www.wada-ama.org/en (and I’m not giving you this to look for ideas! I’m giving you this to know what to avoid, all right!?)
Nutritional ergogenic aids work by entering the established nutritional pathways. Taking extra carbohydrates to improve performance, makes carbohydrate, by definition a nutritional ergogenic aid. Similarly, creatine monohydrate is considered a nutritional ergogenic aid, because creatine is a normal constituent of certain foods.
THE GOLDEN RULE
Before you decide to try any type of performance enhancing supplements, keep this in mind: the majority of substances advertised to enhance performance, do not enhance performance. Those that do enhance performance, do so only because the athlete does not consume enough energy and nutrients (and so the ergogenic substance provides a chemical or nutrient missing from the athlete’s diet). If he did consume enough calories, this substance would lose its ergogenic properties. Meaning that most athletes would be better off by focusing on establishing a well-planned nutritional regime that provides enough calories and nutrients to satisfy the energy requirements of their perspective sports.
Another common reason for performance improvement is the placebo effect. You believe that it will help, so it does. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you ask me. Your performance did actually improve, whether it’s because of the magic potion you took or not, the result is the same. Except the fact that you wasted some money, when it would’ve been cheaper to change your mindset and believe in your capabilities in the first place (you might want to revisit this article to remember what I’m talking about).
LET'S CLEAR THE AIR
All right, now that we’ve covered the basics: non-nutritional ergogenic aids are a big NO if you value your health, nutritional ergogenic aids often only improve performance because they provide a nutrient that’s missing from your diet or because placebo. So let’s look at some studies and the actual benefits some of these substances can provide. Just as the amount of contradicting information about nutrition can leave anyone confused and totally lost, all the ‘too good to be true’ magic pill advertisements can make it difficult to discern what works and what doesn’t, what’s safe and what isn’t. But never fear! That’s what I’m here for. Being one of those weirdos who loves reading actual real books and scientific studies in particular, I’ll be happy to share with you some useful insights about these magic potions (and burst some bubbles on the way..).
Since carbohydrate is the limiting energy substrate in exercise (it will run out before protein and fat) it is critical to begin a bout of physical activity with enough stored carbohydrate to last through the session. This will increase both endurance and power, regardless of the type of exercise. In high-intensity exercise carbohydrate is the primary fuel for the muscles (you should know this by now if you’ve read my awesome post about the magnificence of carbs), while in low-intensity exercise where fat is the primary fuel, guess what – fat requires carbohydrate for complete oxidation! This means that in any type of exercise, regardless of the intensity, carbohydrate depletion results in a dramatical reduction in performance. And that is why athletes who wish to ensure that they store the maximal amount of carbohydrate the tissues can hold, use carbohydrate loading before competition for best performance (a process of saturating the muscles with glycogen by consuming a buttload of carbs for days before an event - best. thing. ever.).
However, not all sports are suitable for carb loading. For every gram of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) the body also stores 3 grams of water. This is likely to cause some degree of muscle stiffness, and so in sports where flexibility or keeping a low body weight is important (gymnastics for example) carb loading might cause some difficulties. So pick your priorities.
So what type of carbohydrate is best to use for this technique? Studies show that glucose polymer products (including commercial sports gels) and maltodextrins (found in most sports beverages) are easily digested and more effective for glycogen production that any other type of carbs. However, starches from pasta, bread, rice and other cereals are also effective at maximising glycogen stores. Once again, hurray for pasta!
Another important performance factor is how quickly the athlete can recover after exercise, by reestablishing muscle glycogen. This is especially important in sports where athletes compete on a daily basis. Glycogen depletion occurs in 2-3 hours of high intensity exercise and even faster in maximum intensity activity. Besides reducing performance, low muscle glycogen may also predispose athletes to higher injury risk. This makes the consumption of carbohydrate during competition or training a logical strategy to avoid depletion. Yet, many athletes miss this important ergogenic opportunity by drinking only water during the event. And finally, once the activity is finished, consuming a carbohydrate rich meal (1 gram per kg body weight) will reduce protein breakdown and aid protein synthesis.
Creatine (made from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine) joins with phosphorus to create phosphocreatine (PCr). Phosphocreatine serves as a storage depot for maintaining ATP levels (a high energy fuel used by cells) during high-intensity activities which can quickly deplete ATP. Saturating the muscles with creatine can enhance their capacity to maintain ATP and delay fatigue in high-intensity activities. Studies have shown small but significant improvement in high-intensity performance, as well as enhanced strength gains during the beginning of resistance training. As for endurance benefits, there is only limited evidence for performance improvements, and this is likely for the more anaerobic portions of endurance races, such as the sprint at the end of a 10K race. This is because during the aerobic portion of the race, energy is derived mostly from the glycogen stores, rather than PCr.
One study, however, suggests that it is possible that in some cases some of the benefits derived from creatine monohydrate supplementation may be due to the inadequate total caloric intake of the athlete (starting to see a pattern here?). In this study, that focused on observing repeated jump height, a 250 kcal supplement of carbohydrate was found more effective at sustaining maximal jump height than a standard creatine monohydrate supplement. Moreover, the carbohydrate sustained jump height without the usual weight gain commonly associated with creatine supplementation. So once again, before you invest in any supplements, whether they are proven to be effective or not, the best thing you can do is ensure you’re eating enough total calories for your performance needs.
Even though creatine is commonly found in meat products, normal cooking can easily reduce the creatine level of foods, and so most athletes consume creatine monohydrate (the supplement form of creatine) to avoid the irregularities of intake from diet alone. The regular dose ranges from 10 to 28 grams per day (depending on body weight) divided into 4 doses. This will cause a saturation of creatine in muscle tissue after just 5 days. Therefore it should be consumed for no longer than 5 days, followed by a 5 day break. One thing to keep in mind is that creatine storage causes water retention in the muscles, which leads to an increase in body weight. If you’re OK with that, you’re pretty safe in genaral.
If you read my previous article about fat (If you haven't, what are you waiting for? Read it here), you know that glycerol is the lipid that wants to be a carb when he grows up. It’s the only lipid that gets metabolised like a carbohydrate and is also a very powerful humectant (has the ability to hold a large volume of water). And since the extra hydration it can provide at the end of a race generally leads to better performance, this makes glycerol an ergogenic aid.
Similar to carb loading, superhydration (increasing body water storage beyond the normal level) is a technique used by some athletes to make sure they start a competition with enough fuel and water to sustain performance until the end of the race. On the downside, maximising body water may induce a level of stiffness or sluggishness. However, most athletes consider that the benefits of having extra water at the end of a race far outweigh the feeling of stiffness at the beginning. But on the even downer side (and yes I know that’s not grammatically correct, but you get the point), the World Doping Agency has placed glycerol on the banned substance list, so keep that in mind if you are competing in a sanctioned event.
Another thing to be aware of is that glycerol supplementation has never been adequately tested for safety. As it is a common component of any diet and is easily metabolised, it is unlikely that small amounts will cause any issues. However, with higher doses, it may cause headaches and blurred vision. Moreover, it is also unclear how much stress this additional water storage places on the cardiovascular system.
So what’s the bottom line? Same as with any other substance: evaluate the pros and cons before you drip some glycerol in your pre-race drink.
EVERYONE'S FAVOURITE - PROTEIN
Protein powders and BCAA supplements are probably the most commonly used ergogenic aid among athletes (and non-athletes as well). Everybody loves protein, the Hercules of macronutrients. Most people believe it promotes muscle building, which is true. To a certain level. What most people don’t understand is that humans can only use about 1.5 grams of protein per body weight (and no more than 30 grams of protein per meal) for anabolic purposes (that’s the muscle building and recovery that protein is meant to do). Consuming more than this amount will only lead to the excess protein being catabolised as fuel or stored as fat. And we’ve talked about what a complete waste that is here. Not to mention the toxic by-products of the process that need to be excreted through urine, increasing the chance of dehydration.
And yet, many athletes often consume more than 3 grams of protein per kg body weight, strongly believing that more protein equals more muscles. Some of them believe this because the results are obvious. So, what’s going on then? I’m sure you know the answer by now. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention. Any benefit from the additional protein (over the required 1.5 grams) comes from helping the athletes meet their caloric needs! Once again, you’re better (and cheaper) off by making sure you get enough calories through a balanced diet, before you go to the supplement shop for a bucket of protein powder.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with protein powders (as long as they contain high quality clean ingredients) and some athletes who find it hard to get enough protein through regular diet because of a very high energy demand of their sport or certain vegetarian or vegan diets, can benefit a lot from protein supplementation. What you need to keep in mind is that supplements are supposed to, get this: SUPPLEMENT your regular diet and not replace it. If you can get enough protein through whole foods, extra protein will not give you a competitive edge, it can only hinder your performance if it ends up replacing other important nutrients.
The mighty coffee! Caffeine (also found in tea, coke, chocolate and a variety of other foods and beverages) is a central nervous system stimulant and a muscle relaxant (sounds like a mighty combo). It has been shown to help endurance type of performance in people who are unaccustomed to consuming caffeinated products. Damn. No benefits for me.. Since humans adapt to caffeine intake, regular consumption results in a reduced effect. So the more you consume, the more you need to consume to achieve the same effect. Keeping this in mind, the greatest performance benefit would likely occur after abstaining from caffeine for a minimum of 7 days before a competition.
So how does it work? Apparently it increases the availability of free fatty acids in the blood. This then enhances the ability of the cells to use these fatty acids as fuel for low-intensity endurance activities, sparing the valuable glycogen stores. As a central nervous system stimulant, caffeine may also stimulate the brain postponing the onset of fatigue and allowing the continuation of performance on a higher level.