Ergogenic aids are dietary supplements intended to enhance athletic performance. Athletes often look for a "magic bullet" that can give them an advantage over their opponents. However, while they tend to be highly disciplined regarding training, they are not always careful in their use of dietary supplements. The important points about supplement usage include:
Supplements are not one size fits all
Natural and safe are not synonymous terms
Supplements may be age- and gender-specific
Supplements are sports-specific, and may be position-specific
The efficacy of supplements is contingent upon the underlying hydration, diet, and training
The issue of "stacking" (using many different supplements) may create safety problems
Supplements may interact with both prescription and over-thecounter medications
Ergogenic aids are not a substitute for food, fluid, or activity. Athletes who are already at the peak of physical ability and consume an optimal diet will, for the most part, realize little if any benefit from supplement use. The most commonly used supplements are anabolic agents, ginseng, ephedra, and caffeine.
The most frequently and widely used category of ergogenic aids is those with supposed anabolic effects; that is, they mimic the benefits of steroids (in a legal manner). Creatine is the most widely used supplement taken by both recreational and professional athletes. Creatine is synthesized in the kidneys, pancreas, and liver from amino acid precursors (methionine, arginine, and glycine), and is also found in meat, fish, and poultry. The ergogenic effect of supplemental creatine is attributed to its ability to increase tissue creatine levels beyond what the body can synthesize on its own, resulting in increased work capacity during intense activity requiring maximal or near maximal effort. It can also expedite the recovery rate following exercise. These benefits are most likely seen with a regimen of 20 to 25 grams of creatine over five to seven days, divided into four- or five-gram doses (this is called the loading phase). Creatine levels will fall to presupplementation levels six weeks later. For optimal effect, each dose of creatine should be consumed with a carbohydrate and without caffeine, which can counteract the ergogenic effect. Muscle hypertrophy and fluid retention can occur during the loading phase, causing a weight gain of four to seven pounds. This increase may be advantageous for the strength athlete, but less so for an athlete who relies on speed. Short-term studies have not shown an increase in muscle strains, cramps, or pulls with creatine, but it is critical for the athlete to maintain optimal hydration. There are some concerns with product contamination, as creatine supplements could be contaminated with herbs, or even with other anabolic agents not listed on the label.
Other anabolic agents include HMB (beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate), which, in clinical studies, has resulted in an increase in muscle mass. The number of studies has been quite small, however. Boron is a tracemineral involved in cellular functions, but it does not increase testosterone levels as some claims would suggest. It can suppress appetite and impair digestion in doses higher than 50 mg per day. Yohimbe is a supplement derived from the tree bark of a South American plant that confers a stimulant effect, not an anabolic effect. Ingestion of this product can cause dizziness, nervousness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and an elevated blood pressure. It can also interact with blood-pressure medication and increase the toxicity of
psychotherapeutic medications, and it may be harmful to the kidneys. Chromium is an essential mineral involved in blood glucose control. It can be taken in a dosage of between 50 and 300 micrograms per day, but it does not have any anabolic effects.
Other supposed anabolic agents include dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androstenedione, and Tribulus terrestris (tribestan). All of these are banned by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Football League, and the American Tennis Federation. Studies have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of androstenedione as an anabolic substance or strength enhancer, but they have demonstrated potentially worrisome side effects, including a decrease in serum HDL level and an increase in serum estrone and estradiol, which increases the likelihood of gynecomastia (breast enlargement). In addition, several laboratory tests have shown that the amount of actual product in these supplements can vary dramatically, and some are contaminated with nandrolone, an anabolic steroid that can cause a positive result in a drug test.
Leslie Bonci, The Gale Group Inc., Macmillan Reference USA, New York,