Sports Supplements and Athletic Performance

Are sports supplements helpful for athletes?
Are sports supplements helpful for athletes?. PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Sports supplements are a multi-million dollar business. Athletes often look for alternative nutrition to perform at their best, but not everything on the market is useful or necessary for athletes to use. Here are some tips and information about the more common over the counter supplements.

What Is a Supplement?

A supplement is something added to the diet, typically to make up for a nutritional deficiency. Ideally, it should be used in addition to well-balanced nutrition. Supplements include the following:

Supplements That Are Not Helpful

Products classified as dietary supplements are not required to meet any Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards. There are no regulations that guarantee the safety or purity of something sold as a supplement. Therefore, supplements are not:

  • Required to meet the same safety requirements as over-the-counter or prescription drugs or food ingredients
  • Held to specific manufacturing standards
  • Guaranteed to meet product potency or purity ratings
  • Required to prove the effectiveness of any health claim they make
  • Required to meet safety or efficacy testing prior to going to the market

The FDA is prohibited from removing a product from the market unless it can prove that the product will cause a medical problem.

Most health risks of supplements are discovered after the product is on the market. Supplements that are pulled from the market are usually linked to a reported serious health risk or death that is tied to the use of the product.

Ergogenic Aids and Performance Enhancing Substances

Ergogenic aids consist of substance, drugs, procedures and even devices that are intended to improve athletic performance. Some of these substances are naturally occurring, easily available and completely legal while others are manufactured, illegal, or banned by many sporting organizations.

Common Sports Supplements Used by Athletics

  • Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA): These natural amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are found in protein foods. While a good diet can provide them, some athletes take BCAA supplements. They may help increase muscle size and strength when used with a weight training program.
  • B Vitamins: Vitamins are essential for the body to function properly, but there may be a link between the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, B-12, and folate) and performance in high-level athletes.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine has been used by endurance athletes for years as a way to stay alert and improve endurance.
  • Creatine: For some athletes, creatine supplementation improves repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise, such as sprinting, weight lifting or power sports.
  • Ephedrine: Research hasn’t found any improvement in strength, endurance, reaction time, anaerobic capacity, or recovery time with ephedrine supplements.
  • Glucosamine: Glucosamine has been used to treat osteoarthritis and helps stimulate cartilage. But does it help athletic performance? 
  • Glutamine: Glutamine (L- Glutamine) is classified as a nutritional supplement and is not regulated or banned by the most sports organization. Studies have found either no effect or only a small effect in improving performance or building muscle.
  • Hydration and Sports Drinks: Adequate fluid intake for athletes is essential to comfort, performance, and safety. The longer and more intensely you exercise, the more important it is to drink the right kind of fluids. Some sports drinks may be helpful under the right circumstances, but some are no better than sugar water.
  • Protein Supplements: Protein is a necessary nutrient that everyone needs to function properly. Both athletes and sedentary individuals need to get adequate protein.
  • Ribose: This natural sugar is believed by some scientists to help muscles produce more energy. However, it hasn't been studied much and the few studies show little, if any, benefit for performance.

How to Evaluate Supplement Health Claims

It's difficult to wade through the research regarding health or performance benefits of many nutritional supplements. You should read tips that will help you make an informed decision about what actually works.

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