Can Sports Performance Supplements Give You an Edge?

It started for me right after daylight savings time -- as it does most every year. When the days get shorter, my appetite gets bigger, my willpower gets weaker and I feel like sleeping more. I needed help. This year, I gave in to the mass marketing of the dietary supplement industry which according to the Nutrition Business Journal is a $27-billion business in the U.S. When you're looking for help, you can't help but wonder if the claims on the labels of ergogenic aids (nutritional supplement
products that enhance performance) hold water. They promise to help you build muscle, burn fat, suppress appetite, improve performance, speed up muscle recovery, reduce muscle fatigue, yadda yadda yadda.

In 1994 Congress enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which reclassified dietary supplements as a separate regulatory category from food and drugs, and placed the responsibility for the safety of dietary supplements with the manufacturers, not the FDA. The DSHEA does not require supplement manufacturers to prove all the benefits claimed on the labels of their products before marketing them.

The DSHEA passed in the early years of my training career and suddenly a world of sports supplements was opened to me. I tried a lot of stuff. But my miniscule income hindered me from long-term experimentation. Plus, I really wasn't seeing noticeable results as fast as I wanted. There was one particular supplement I took for several years that I noticed the effects of immediately. It felt like rocket fuel was injected into my blood! But alas, the FDA banned the ephedra products (aka Ma-Huang) after a few people died which lead to law suits pinning Ma-Huang or ephedra as the culprit.

So here I am, giving sports supplements another go -- popping pills of hope and motivation. After taking a small independent survey of colleagues and fitness obsessed friends, then reading several published articles by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and IDEA (the health & fitness association for fitness professionals that I'm a member of), I decided to try four of the most popular sports supplements on the market.

I'm using creatine, glutamine, carnitine and fat burners to do my own clinical trial of one.

I started with creatine which has been proven repeatedly to work and generally considered safe (although no long term studies have been published yet). Creatine is synthesized from amino acids in the liver, pancreas and kidneys. Creatine is also found in meat and fish.

A position paper published by the ADA, the Dieticians of Canada and the ACSM considers creatine to be the only ergogenic aid that performs as claimed and is widely used amongst athletes for building muscle to enhance performance during repeated short bursts of high intensity activity. I was given a bunch of samples of a product called CON-CRET, a new formulation of creatine that purports not to have the typical side effects associated with the other formulations which include gastro-intestinal distress, weight gain and bloating. In about a month I began to see results by way of muscle growth. I found myself flexing in the mirror a little more and loving the muscle pump. I felt an instant burst of energy (particularly when I took it in the morning after my coffee) and noticed much less fatigue during my Spinning class sprints and other intense workouts - exactly the effects you're supposed to get from creatine.

Now that I had grown some new muscle mass, I noticed I was getting hungrier. Muscle needs to be fed.

My trainer friend Susie at Gold's Gym in Venice says taking carnitine twice a day helps her feel leaner. Carnitine is a compound used by living cells during the breakdown of fat to be used for metabolic energy.

Marketers claim carnitine can decrease muscle pain and increase weight loss, endurance, cardiovascular function and strength. According to an article published in the September 2007 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal, "healthy adults and children do not need to consume carnitine from food or supplements, because the liver and kidneys produce sufficient amounts from the amino acids lysine and methionine to meet their daily needs." And, according to the same ADA position paper mentioned above, carnitine doesn't really live up to it's claims. But it is commonly agreed upon that strength and endurance athletes need more protein (amino acids are a building block of protein) than sedentary people so many athletes supplement with carnitine to improve performance even though evidence showing that it can enhance physical performance is inconsistent. However, recent findings do show that carnitine helps improve muscle recovery from resistance training when taken in certain dosages.

I've been taking an inexpensive brand, NutraBio, I found online that says it's pharmaceutical grade for about two weeks and so far I don't notice a difference.

From this same manufacturer, I'm also taking glutamine, a nonessential amino acid that is produced by the body. According to the same ADA position paper previously cited, glutamine as a supplement "may perform as claimed, but for which there is insufficient evidence." The ergogenic benefits that glutamine supplements claim to offer are increased strength, quicker recovery, and decreased frequency
of respiratory infections which are all common pitfalls of over-training. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and needed to build muscle which is why glutamine may help increase strength and speed up recovery. Again, I've not noticed any of these benefits yet, but I am prone to respiratory infections and overtraining, so I am hopeful that this will work. If I get a sinus infection this season or feel sore 4 days after doing the Santa Monica stairs I'll toss out the bottle and give you an update!

Finally, I am even giving fat burners a shot. So far I've tried Mega-T Green Tea that I purchased at CVS and Thermofuel from NurtraBio. Both contain the African herb hoodia that's supposed to suppress appetite, green tea which contains caffeine and a host of other ingredients that are purported to balance blood sugar, enhance metabolism and stave off hunger. I barely feel a thing. The regional sales manager, Nikko Garcia-Bean, for the pro shop at Gold's Gym says a product called Atro-Phex is her biggest seller for weight management - but it isn't exactly cheap so at $50 a bottle, I passed. So perhaps this is an example of you get what you pay for. No matter how you slice it, a common ingredient in most fat burners is caffeine. Unfortunately there's little evidence that caffeine works as a weight loss aid alone. However, it is considered a performance enhancer in that it improves the ability to perform more work during exercise, delays fatigue and reduces the sense of effort associated with exercise. Several studies on caffeine have shown its benefit for increasing endurance-exercise performance in sports such as running and cycling. And it may have potential positive effects on anaerobic performance and muscle strength.

With the new year upon us and people looking for a kick start on their workout programs and weight loss plans, you too may be looking into nutritional supplements of the ergogenic persuasion. If you've taken any of the ones I've mentioned above, please post a comment. Do you think they work and are they worth the money? I'd love to know what you think!

Remember, although these supplements are generally considered safe and widely available at health food and nutrition shops, there is still some risk of side effects. It's recommended that you talk to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition before you take them.